Your Liberal Britain: It’s not about the words: it’s what we mean by them

Your Liberal BritainA Liberal Britain has to be three things

It has be free, is has to be tolerant, and it has to be fair.

But those are dangerous words. Not because people disagree openly with them, but precisely because hardly anybody does. They are safe happy fluffy words that everyone nods along to, but then take to mean many different things and can use to justify more or less anything.

So what do I mean by them and what do they look like?

Freedom clearly must include a lack of state interference in area where the state has no business, like reading my emails or dictating my lifestyle choices, for example if I want to choose to use cannabis, or to choose to end my life, or indeed to eat sugary food. I should add in fairness that eating sugary food is the only one of those choices that I intend to exercise whilst writing this article, but that is not the point. We must allow people choice and not insist that everyone values the same thing or pursues the same goals.

However this negative freedom, the lack of legal limits to actions that primarily affect yourself, isn’t enough. A liberal Britain must also value positive freedom, tackling Beveridge’s five giants of poverty, idleness, ignorance, disease and squalor so that everyone has equal opportunities. This requires a government role: a locally accountable education, a National health service, a rehabilitative justice system. A Liberal Britain must not fall prey to the temptation to radically strip back the state on the grounds that it increases choice. For many people it doesn’t.

Similarly tolerance clearly means accepting those of different races, sexualities and identities and those with disabilities – all things that are about who we are, not a question or ‘choice’. We need to recognise that ignorance is not only a barrier to freedom if it’s your ignorance, but also if it’s the ignorance of others.

However in a Liberal Britain it must mean more than simply ‘putting up with’ which often carries the implication of ‘as long you as you don’t go on about it, or expect actual equal treatment’. A liberal Britain should recognise the value that diversity brings, that it would be a dull and lesser country if we were all the same. We also should encourage expression of our differences, whilst ensuring that these differences don’t limit the equal opportunities I mentioned before.

Take for example a teenager coming out as transgender: she faces the simultaneous whammy of the housing benefit age going up to 25, the living wage not applying until the same age, an underfunded Gender Transition Service, and social stigma. A narrow definition of ‘tolerance’, although important in itself, is no use to her – she needs support to back it up.

We can see the same pattern with Fairness. There’s a narrow and an easy definition whereby we give everyone equal rights, and equal opportunities and assume that’s enough. It is necessary for a Liberal Britain but it is not sufficient. Even with equal rights and equal opportunities there will always be some people who are left behind or are vulnerable to exploitation. Perhaps they were not blessed with the abilities that society most values, perhaps they have suffered from bad luck, or perhaps their economic circumstances forced them to accept an unfair situation.

It is therefore a legitimate and necessary role of the state in a Liberal Britain to step in and provide assistance and protection, via welfare, workers’ rights, and a fair progressive system of taxation. We must recognise that even equality of opportunity doesn’t work for everyone, and that a huge gap between rich and poor, even if it is one based on equality of opportunity, is neither fair nor conducive to a liberal Britain.

Clearly those three things are all inter-related, you can’t have freedom without tolerance or fairness, or indeed fairness without tolerance and freedom; but even with those broader definitions they are themselves not enough.

A Liberal Britain also needs to be sustainable; to be able to last in three important ways.

Firstly globally: a Liberal Britain cannot prosper at the expense of other countries; that is neither fair nor ultimately beneficial. In a globalised world we must work with others, applying the same values of fairness, freedom and tolerance, requiring us to provide overseas aid, to engage in international organisation, and to proactively promote peace.

Secondly inter-generationally: a Liberal Britain cannot prosper at the expenses of future generations or of the planet. We must be sensitive to resource depletion, to global warming, to habit destruction, and to the importance of a natural quality of life as well as a materialistic one.

Thirdly democratically: a Liberal Britain requires a state and in many areas that state requires a significant role; which means we must ensure a proper system of checks and balances. There must be accountability, subsidiarity and public engagement, with no corruption, tyranny of the majority, or government by Daily Mail opinion poll.

So in conclusion a Liberal Britain needs to be free, fair and tolerant now, not just in the narrow sense but in a broad modern liberal way, but we must also be able to keep it. We must have the democratic system to sustain in, the international approach to sustain it, and the attitude to our planet and our future to sustain it.


This piece is part of the Your Liberal Britain series of posts here on Lib Dem Voice. Everyone can take part – why not send in your own vision for Liberal Britain? 
Your Liberal Britain is a grassroots initiative launched and run by new members of the party, inviting every Lib Dem to help explain what the party stands for. We all know we want to build a fair, free and open society – but what would it actually look like? And why should anyone care?
To take part, simply write 500 words in response to the question ‘What would a truly Liberal Britain look like, and what improvements would it bring to people’s lives?“, and send it to [email protected], mentioning ‘Liberal Britain’ in the subject line.
To get inspiration for your post, read others in the series, and take a look at all these ideas that other members have submitted to Your Liberal Britain. You can also get involved by hosting a simple discussion evening with your local party – everything you need to run one is right here.

* Adam Killeya is a Lib Dem member, activist and town councillor. He has held various positions in the party including as a parliamentary candidate and agent. He is currently Regional Chair of Devon & Cornwall Lib Dems. In the real world he is Head of Sixth Form of a Secondary School in Cornwall.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • This sets out a vision of a Liberal Britain I hope few in the party would disagree with. I certainly agree with it. I particularly like the idea that in every area we have to be pro-active and not passive.

  • Eddie Sammon 24th May '16 - 8:53pm

    A very good essay. As positive essays go you couldn’t ask for much more.

    We also need to sometimes speak about where we are doing liberalism wrong. I’m fully aware I seem to have ran off in an authoritarian direction recently being pro press regulation and sympathetic to the extremism bill, but it is not the intention and I’ll try to resist the urge to ask the state to get involved so often.

  • Equal opportunities is something that almost everyone subscribes to, but as the article states, it is not enough. It does not mean treating everyone the same. Then there are those who are not able to take advantage of the opportunities or do not know how. A phrase which I suggest we should use in our basic principles is ‘helping people to help themselves’. This conveys a partnership between individuals and their communities; a partnership between individuals and the state. Above all, it works best when people working for organisations are able to get alongside those who need help and establish a working relationship in which the dignity and responsibilities of the individual are recognised. This cannot be properly done in our over-centralised system of governance.

  • Simon Banks 25th May '16 - 3:42pm

    This is a very good summary. Two points. Libertarians are hung up on state power; but if I’m prevented from doing something, it does not matter whether it’s the state or a large corporation or intolerant neighbours who prevent me. That the state is more dangerously powerful is hardly true any more when we consider companies like News International or Monsanto; and the state can be democratically controlled.

    Second point: I like the formulation “helping people to help themselves” up to a point; but ultimately it can imply that people all want to help themselves and not anyone else. Many people care a lot about others and about their local communities; so self-help has to include community self-help.

  • And in fact, Simon Banks, the Party preamble talks about balancing the needs of community and individual, so this is a fully accepted part of our mission in life!

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