Monday, June 16, 2014

 

Liberal Mondays 8: Doctor Who – The Green Death #LibDemValues


This week’s inspiring thought in my occasional series of Liberal moments is close to my heart: it is, of course, from Doctor Who. A confrontation between the Doctor and a much more dictatorial egomaniac, it’s taken from Episode Five of The Green Death, first broadcast forty-one years ago today. From the same story that featured Jeremy Thorpe as Prime Minister, this pits a monopolistic megacorporation, totalitarianism and pollution against the Doctor’s freedom, ecology and individualism. The argument crystallises in one especially memorable exchange that says benevolent authoritarianism is not enough if it means absolute ignorance and conformity. It’s about freedom:
“Doctor, believe me, we wish you no harm…”
“Ah, don’t worry, my dear feller. I’m having a whale of a time.”
“In the end, we all want the same thing; an ordered society, with everyone happy, well-fed…”
“Global Chemicals taking all the profits…”
“What’s best for Global Chemicals is best for the world – is best for you!”
“Such as a little touch of brain-washing.”
“Freedom from fear, freedom from pain…”
“Freedom from freedom!”
This 1973 story was co-written by Robert Sloman and then-producer Barry Letts, who it appears was rather pro-Liberal. The Doctor (Jon Pertwee) had spent a few years exiled to Earth in the near future, and was still popping back on occasion to help out his friends at UNIT; The Green Death has one of the slyer little suggestions about their stories being set a few years later than broadcast, as the phone is at one point handed to a Prime Minister called “Jeremy”. Unfortunately, the striking Liberal revival in the following year’s elections didn’t quite carry him that far, and the 1975-but-set-in-1980 story which suggested Mrs Thatcher as PM was altogether more on the button. Since then, actual Liberal politicians have mostly just had backward references, such as Mr Asquith springing one of the Doctor’s companions from Holloway or Mr Lloyd George drinking the Doctor under the table. A Liberal worldsview, on the other hand, has always been part of Doctor Who’s RNA. I argued that most comprehensively in my “How Doctor Who Made Me A Liberal”, but it’s summed up with particular clarity here.

The Doctor’s been captured and is being interrogated by the managing director of Global Chemicals, himself only a cog in the company machine (and that taken to extremes). For greater efficiency, productivity and profit, the company’s BOSS has decided to take over the world. Just as its workforce are brainwashed into servitude, a signal will be transmitted from the sinister multinational’s subsidiaries all across the world to bring the entire human race under its control in a literal ‘command economy’. So far, so familiar. But as you’ll have seen from the key quotation above, this particular mind-control story has thought about its message and argues it in unambiguously Liberal terms.


All Power Is Dangerous – Especially If It’s ‘For Your Own Good’

My favourite contribution to Mark Pack’s “What do the Liberal Democrats Believe?” is on the basic conviction that unites social and economic Liberals:
“All POWER (be it government, business or other people) can both PROTECT and THREATEN LIBERTY.
“Economic and Social Liberals put different emphasis on the BEST DEFENCES and the BIGGEST BULLIES.”
The Green Death’s Liberal analysis is dead-on that same line. It chooses as its main target a monopolistic mega-corporation – but it’s just as applicable to totalitarian government that would exert the same degree of power over individuals. Indeed, part of its point is that any body that exerts total power can be exactly as dangerous and as illiberal as any other. When the Doctor carelessly resists the brainwashing, the political applicability comes as thick and fast as Global Chemicals’ poisonous pollution. First, the machine grumbles that:
“The subject is not responding to therapy.”
“Therapy” is exactly the “pretty euphemism” for what political opponents in the Eastern Bloc of the time were often subjected to – and this story would have exactly the same philosophical underpinning were the villains, say, Evil Space Communists with the same plan. No doubt many of those who praise The Green Death for being ‘left-wing’ because it’s ‘anti-big business’ would have criticised it as ‘right-wing propaganda’ had the allegory apparently pointed against big government instead, but that’s missing the point: it’s not a left-wing or right-wing critique of the ‘wrong’ sort of big power, but a Liberal critique of any sort of Big Power.

The crux of the argument above isn’t simply that ‘turning the entire human race into zombies is bad’, though. I’ll admit that even most of my political opponents would agree that’s a bit much. It’s that what Global Chemicals wants to impose is in many ways tempting. It’s simply taking to a sci-fi extreme the ‘perfectly reasonable’ exercise of power to ‘help’, and that’s an argument that this scene ruthlessly exposes and explodes:
“You’re not trying to tell me this is all for my own good?”
Which, of course, is exactly the point. Pay attention to the characters and their motivations, and no-one here is simply perfect or simply evil: the Doctor’s attitudes aren’t always appealing, with his own insufferable prejudices showing through, and the villains are at times endearing and well-meaning. From their point of view, it is all ‘for people’s own good’. Which is one of the political phrases that always sets alarm bells ringing for me, along with “we all want the same thing”. Who could object to an end to pain and hunger? To universal happiness? Well, what if my idea of happiness is different to yours? Liberals don’t say ‘We know best’, because everyone’s best is different.

This goes right back to my first Liberal Monday choice, when I observed how over the course of a century the most-quoted Liberal creed had thankfully moved from utilitarianism to Mill-and-Taylor-flavoured social Liberalism. I said there that utilitarianism and utopia had a superficial attraction, but gave me the creeps. Here’s the difference in a nutshell: today’s Liberals prize freedom from conformity for every individual to live their own life; Global Chemicals offers a perfect utilitarian future of absolute happiness, absolute equality and absolute mindlessness, forever. Even Liberals need to guard against the price some would too eagerly pay ‘for your own good’.

I was only a year old forty-one years ago, but as a boy the novelisation of this story was one of my favourites, and one of the books I credit with making me a green Liberal. And yet this most cuttingly Liberal of all scenes, as blatantly applicable to big states as big business, wasn’t even in the book. I didn’t see it until repeats nearly twenty years later, when it instantly struck an unforgettable chord with me. So why wasn’t it in the book? Well, the story was novelised by Malcolm Hulke, one of Target’s most talented writers, the one most likely to chop out scenes from the script and add his own that fleshed out the characters – so that’s probably it – but also the range’s card-carrying Communist Party member, so it’s just possible that like me he saw the Doctor objecting to an utopian regime promising freedom from material want at the price of “Freedom from freedom” for exactly what it was…

Or you may simply remember this as The One With The Maggots.


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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

 

Putting #WhyIAmIN Into What the Lib Dems Stand For 2014.07 #LibDemValues


Tomorrow, Liberal Democrat Leader Nick Clegg puts the positive case for being in the European Union, in the first of two debates with UKIP Leader Nigel Farage putting the negative case for Little-Englanderism (the other two ‘Leaders’ can’t decide, so they’ve bottled it). That makes two headlines for What the Lib Dems Stand For: “Stronger Economy, Fairer Society” and “IN Europe, IN Work”. So how do those two fit together? Here’s my go at something slightly more than a slogan, but still punchy. If you like it, please borrow it to stick on a leaflet or add to a speech. If you don’t, please send me something better!


Last year I wrote a series of articles on What the Lib Dems Stand For, looking for something to fit in a box on a leaflet or in a minute’s speech – something to enthuse and inspire Lib Dem believers, something to attract and persuade potential supporters, something that’s more than a slogan or a soundbite but short enough to get in one go.

I opened it up into a meme, and many other Lib Dems took part as well – you can find the links to where I’ve published theirs, too, below. That’s still open: if you can do better, whether saying ‘Change this little bit because…’ or suggesting your own from scratch, I want to hear from you, too (my email link’s on the sidebar. I’d like to hear if you make use of mine, too).

Especially now we’re sharing power, it’s important to assert our values. I wanted to answer: What makes us different, and makes us stay? How is that reflected in our priorities in Coalition Government? How does that pick out the central message of the Preamble to our Constitution? How does that expand on the party’s ‘core message’ slogan of “Stronger Economy, Fairer Society”? And how can we best express it in language that feels natural to us and anyone listening to us? All the while making a positive case for us, not just ‘…But the others are worse’? I’ve tried to do all that together. Does it work for you?


Adding ‘IN’

Last year I tried to combine everything at once, with the added challenge to make it short and to make it make sense, rather than just being a storm of buzzword-salad. It works pretty well for me telling the story of how the three big freedoms of our Preamble fit together with fairness, but even then I knew it had to leave some things out, and the biggest one I couldn’t seem to fit in was internationalism. And what’s our big theme for this year’s European Elections? Who could have guessed?

My main change today is… Adding more words. Compared to last year’s, below, it’s up 16, taking it further from my target of 150 to fit in a medium-sized box on a leaflet or just one minute in a speech. What do you think of “being in Europe to be in work, to fight crime and tackle climate change”? Does it work? Does it fit? Is it too specific compared to the more values-based rest of the text? I based it on our three main campaigning messages about Europe, because I couldn’t find a way of getting the ‘drawbridge down’ sort of values behind them to work in just a few words. Can you?

And yes, now it makes the “Freedom from ignorance” bit look a bit short, but I’m not adding even more. Though if you don’t like semi-colons and want to break it up a bit more to make it easier to read, the pedant in me doesn’t like it, but you can use full stops instead to make the “Freedom from poverty” and “Freedom from conformity” bullets punchier.


The ‘What the Liberal Democrats Stand For Challenge’ So Far

This aims to be something short and simple that Lib Dems members can look at and think, ‘Yes, that’s some of why we bother’, and that other people can look at and think, ‘Oh, that’s what the Lib Dems are for, and I like it’. Feel free to borrow it for a box on your Focus leaflets, to be part of your speeches, for your members’ newsletters, your Pizza’N’Politics evenings – wherever it’ll do some good. And here’s what I’ve done with it so far, including many other Lib Dems’ own versions…

Happy 25th Birthday, Liberal Democrats – and What the Lib Dems Stand For 2013.1

Why we should sum up What the Lib Dems Stand For, and how it’s developed over the years.

What the Lib Dems Stand For 2013.2 – a Challenge and a Meme #LibDemValues

Setting out my ‘What the Lib Dems Stand For’ based on the Preamble, practice and core messaging, and challenging other Lib Dems to come up with their own.

The Liberal Democrat What Do We Stand For Challenge 2013.3 – Eight Answers (so far) #LibDemValues

After receiving the first set of responses, rounding up eight different Liberal Democrats’ versions of what we stand for – so far…

The Liberal Democrat What Do We Stand For Challenge 2013.4 – What It’s All About #LibDemValues

Inviting people to use my short declaration of ‘What the Lib Dems Stand For’ and explaining what each bit of it means.

What the Lib Dems Stand For 2013.5 – Why I Am A Liberal Democrat #LibDemValues

This one’s very different – longer and more personal: how did I get here? Why did I become a Lib Dem in the first place? And why do I stay?

The Liberal Democrat What Do We Stand For Challenge 2013.6 – Another Eight Answers #LibDemValues

Another eight different Liberal Democrats’ versions of what we stand for in the second set of responses people sent in.


Last year’s slightly shorter version:
The Liberal Democrats stand for freedom for every individual – freedom from poverty, ignorance and conformity.

To make that freedom real needs both fairness and economic responsibility: an economy that works, that encourages enterprise, and where everyone pays their fair share.

So freedom from poverty requires responsible spending, not debt, built on fairer taxes where lower earners pay less tax and the wealthiest pay more, and building green jobs for the future.

Freedom from ignorance needs better education and training, so people have the opportunity to realise their potential.

And freedom from conformity, supported by freedom from poverty and ignorance, means everyone should have the liberty to live their lives as they choose – without harming others; with equality before the law; with a better say, because no government always knows best.

That’s why Liberal Democrats are working for a stronger, greener economy in a fairer society, enabling every person to get on in life.

Once again, there will be more.


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Thursday, September 19, 2013

 

Speeches I Didn’t Make: The Manifesto and Freedom #LibDemValues


Yesterday morning, I didn’t make a speech. That’s not unusual: I didn’t make a speech on any of the previous hundred or so mornings, either. But yesterday morning I had a rallying call ready, and wasn’t called (as I’d almost told myself). Liberal Democrat Conferences are democratic – ordinary members or Leaders can speak, and each has one vote – and yesterday’s debate more than usually so, giving us the chance to debate a “Manifesto Themes” Paper long before the General Election. So now you can see my contribution, both written and delivered on YouTube live from a broom cupboard!

A Stronger Economy in a Fairer Society – Enabling Every Person to Get on in Life is a title regular readers will recognise: the Liberal Democrats’ main message. I’ve been doing quite a bit of work to broaden it into a slightly longer statement that reflects more of our values, and that was what I was going to talk about yesterday morning (before Nick Clegg’s cheeringly similar “No, nope, nah” refrain in the afternoon). Thanks to Caron Lindsay for wielding the camera-phone and offering use of the tiny office – it was an odd experience delivering a speech designed for a big hall and big audience in a tiny space and to two lovely people, and it made me feel rather hammy. It’s also much easier when there’s a lectern to rest the speech on and hide behind, as I talk with my hands and shuffle my feet! This version lasts rather longer than the statutory four minutes: I didn’t have a time limit in the broom cupboard, and wander about a bit in the middle, but when practicing it earlier I worked out which bits to gabble through and could sprint to the end in 3.45…





Freedom Is Our Signature Tune
A stronger economy, a fairer society, a million jobs… It’s a good tune, but it sounds a lot like what everyone else is playing. We need that competent, managerial message, but we need passion, too. To make our signature tune sing it needs something more – and freedom is a tune only we can play.

It’s great to see my favourite bit of the Preamble in here. It’s a start. But it’s politically streetwise to pump up freedom higher in the mix. Freedom says we’ve got principles – it inspires our activists and attracts those converts that no-one else can reach.

And it’s streetwise because if we don’t stand up for freedom in the campaign, it will be much harder to make it cast-iron in Coalition, or to make voters understand why we’ll give up other priorities for it.

Make no mistake – it will be much harder next time. When Labour were the most authoritarian government in modern British history, the Tories discovered a taste for freedom. Back in power, they’ve rediscovered how much they love to boss people about. And still, the Labour bully-boys’ first reaction on every liberty is to attack the Coalition from the far right.

Yet if you combine freedom and economic responsibility, austerity can be a friend to some freedoms. Because appalling illiberal authoritarian schemes aren’t just appalling illiberal authoritarian schemes – they’re always expensive appalling illiberal authoritarian schemes. So make the Lib Dems the party of economic responsibility by attacking the other two for wasting a ton of money on their bullying pet projects when there’s so little money to spare.

ID cards waste a ton of money, so don’t.
Snoopers’ Charters waste a ton of money, so don’t.
“Go Home” vans, and porn filters, and every massive intrusive database waste a ton of money, so don’t.

Of course there are positive Liberal commitments I’d like to see in the Manifesto too.

I want to say a personal thank you to every moral Liberal Democrat at Westminster – on our twentieth anniversary next year, Richard and I will be getting married. Thanks to you voting for equal marriage. But the Manifesto should have more than a picture celebrating the partially equal marriage we have now – a commitment to fully equal marriage, so that trans people can be as happy as we are.

I want to see in this Manifesto a Greater Repeal Bill, to expand on the Freedom Act the Tories watered down.
I want to see us repealing all the victimless crimes that waste people’s lives and waste court money and waste police time.

But most of all I want to see a ringing rallying call.
Your mission, David, should you decide to accept it, is to set out a clear, concise vision that combines our big slogan message, our priorities for government and our Liberal principles.
It sounds like mission impossible, but it can be done. And as readers of my blog will know, here’s one I prepared earlier.

Sing Along

The Liberal Democrats stand for freedom for every individual – freedom from poverty, ignorance and conformity.

To make that freedom real needs both fairness and economic responsibility: an economy that works, that encourages enterprise, and where everyone pays their fair share.

So freedom from poverty requires responsible spending, not debt, built on fairer taxes where lower earners pay less tax and the wealthiest pay more, and building green jobs for the future.

Freedom from ignorance needs better education and training, so people have the opportunity to realise their potential.

And freedom from conformity, supported by freedom from poverty and ignorance, means everyone should have the liberty to live their lives as they choose – without harming others; with equality before the law; with a better say, because no government always knows best.

That’s why Liberal Democrats are working for a greener, stronger economy in a fairer society, enabling every person to get on in life.

I wanted to make a positive contribution, so gambled on putting in a card to speak mostly in favour of parts of the motion on the Manifesto Themes. Had I played the Conference ‘game’ and put in to speak against on something the vast majority supported, I’d have been much more likely to have been called: in retrospect, it would have been tempting to speak against the first amendment. Sadly, no-one did, and it was passed overwhelmingly, despite being a shoddy piece of drafting and an ugly piece of wording. It’s bad enough that it was a piece of self-indulgent fappery from Liberal Left, adding rambling statements of the obvious as if only they’d thought of them, and deleting one paragraph merely to reword it slightly differently and less flowingly. What really got my goat about it was that in their eagerness to indulge themselves they dropped things from the original wording. How do you support children by taking out any mention of parents or early years education? And, shamefully, where the original lines talked about “removing barriers faced by communities such as ethnic minorities”, an open-ended and Liberal commitment that gives in example groups who face particular barriers but with its “such as” implies that we want to break down barriers all around, Liberal Left’s clumsy redraft was exclusive, not inclusive, only wanting barriers removed for its chosen groups. Barriers of sexism? Homophobia? Transphobia? Anyone else but Liberal Left’s chosen few? Then their amendment excludes you.

Shameful.

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Tuesday, September 17, 2013

 

The Liberal Democrat What Do We Stand For Challenge 2013.6 – Another Eight Answers #LibDemValues


Half-way through Liberal Democrat Conference in Glasgow, I’m turning from the hotly argued policy votes to essential principles and eight Lib Dems’ own individual, diverse, but unifying rallying cries on What the Lib Dems Stand For. Some are shorter, some longer, some I’ll link to for more, but all are recognisably Liberal Democrat. Here’s what Sam Phripp, Prateek Buch, Andrew Tennant, Dave Page, Maelo Manning, Nick Barlow, Andrew Brown, Chris Richards – and me – have to say: which inspires you? Try some in your local party, or on the doorstep, or your leaflets and speeches… And share yours, too!

I last published a round-up of responses to my What the Lib Dems Stand For Challenge immediately before our last Conference in March. Most of the responses below were published not long after that, so a particular thank you to all contributors who got in fairly quickly, and apologies for taking so long to compiling them all. Once again, don’t wait to be asked – if you think you can do better, or more personally, or simply more to your own taste, please send me your own idea or publish it yourself (and ideally let me know, so I don’t miss it). I originally challenged other Lib Dems to come up with roughly 150 words – though that was just for ease of use, so whatever length they fancy, really – summing up what the Lib Dems stand for, after first coming up with my own for people to borrow or blame, a synthesis of the Preamble, the party’s achievements in government and the party leadership’s latest messaging. You’ll find mine below, again, and once again, feel free to borrow it wholesale for your own leaflets, speeches or pizza and politics nights, or to say where I’ve gone right or wrong (or say that about the others, but I’m more comfortable inviting potshots at me than at guests). So here are the next eight, a good mix from across the party, some from people I know well and others I don’t, some more to my own taste than others, but every one a rallying cry from the Lib Dem tradition…


Sam Phripp – “A Voice For the Voiceless”

So Sam said… is the most recent “Why I’m a Liberal Democrat” piece I’ve read – Sam prepared it to form part of his selection speech as Lib Dem Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for North East Somerset, but I read it, liked it, so introduced myself to him at Conference the other day and asked if I could reprint some of it. You can read the whole thing on Sam’s blog, but here’s a crucial part:
“The reason I’m a Liberal Democrat, is because I believe Liberal Democrats are a voice for the voiceless - and I know it because I’ve been there.

“When I was young, successive Conservative governments vilified single parent families to the point that mothers including my own were given enough money to feed their children but not themselves.

“When I was growing up and realising that I wasn’t like other boys, Labour legalised Civil Partnership but still didn’t believe that I should be able to marry – actually, properly, marry – the person I love…

“The only people who come to bat, every single time, for people like that, people like me, people who are marginalised are the Liberal Democrats…

“If we don’t do it, nobody else will do it for us. That’s why I’m a Liberal Democrat, and that’s why I’d like to be an MP, because people deserve a voice and people need to have someone on their side.”

Prateek Buch – “The Freedom and Means To Live Fulfilling Lives Free From Poverty, Ignorance and Conformity”

As part of a series of articles on “Putting social liberal values into action”, Prateek gives his own short statement of values as an opening contribution:
“We believe the political economy should empower all citizens with the capability to secure for themselves the freedom and means to live fulfilling lives free from poverty, ignorance and conformity – and that where it falls short, we should promote social justice and tackle barriers of inequality in wealth, voice and power.”

Andrew Tennant – “An Individual’s Right To Self-determination and Control Over Their Own Life”

Andrew Tennant‏ tweeted a shorter version still:
“Believing in an individual’s right to self-determination and control over their own lives, as well as how governed.”

Dave Page – “Increasing People’s Freedom To Enjoy Their Own Potential”

The ever-so-lovely Dave expands on a previous post to hone his appeal both to Lib Dems and to other people of a liberal cast of mind (and potentially Liberal cast of vote). While I’d urge you to read what he has to say in full, here’s his key message:
“The Liberal Democrats stand for increasing people’s freedom to enjoy their own potential, helping everybody to get on in life. We believe in meaningful representative democracy to balance people’s conflicting priorities, and in ensuring protection for the individual from the State and other powerful organisations.

“We believe that nobody should be constrained by lack of opportunity, particularly by the circumstances of their birth. We believe that Government should set the rules by which society operates, so people are rewarded for hard work and innovation, but not for exploitation or pollution. We believe that people should be respected as individuals regardless of their gender, colour, wealth, sexuality, or any other quality – not as homogeneous groups defined by those qualities.

“We believe in accountable, democratic institutions giving people more of a say in their immediate lives and local communities, as well as more of a say in the issues too big for one person, or one country. We believe in solutions which get to the root of the problem rather than just addressing the symptoms.”
Dave’s title for his piece, “This Is What the Lib Dems is About”, always puts this fab track into my head. ‘Moo moo! Moo moo! S-L-F!’ as Dave would no doubt sing. “All aboard, all aboard, woah-oh!”


Maelo Manning – “Fairness, Equality and Community”

I’ve pulled out of the “LibDem Child” blog some of her positive case for the party:
“I believe the party stands for: ‘fairness, equality and community’… For Fairness, I am extremely thrilled at the decisions taken like raising the tax threshold and a commitment to green issues… For Equality – Everybody is given a fair start and supported in the necessary way for them to be able to participate in society. For example, schools in poorer areas are given extra support and guidance to help the pupils have a fair start in life, and the equal marriage bill… For Community – demonstrated at local levels by our superb councillors who are in tune with the needs of their local communities; and party campaigners.”

Nick Barlow – “Maximise the Happiness and Potential of Every Individual”

I recommend reading Nick’s full exploration of the party’s key areas and overall themes, but here’s the coherent message he hones them into at the end:
“We believe in a society that works to maximise the happiness and potential of every individual, one that works to give everyone the opportunity to live their life as they want, providing they do not harm others. We seek to create an open, liberal and democratic world, where power is spread around, people have a real say in decisions that affect them and fair and impartial justice is available to all. A liberal society should protect the environment, promote education, create opportunity, reward enterprise and encourage innovation. Everyone should be free to participate in society and we seek to both tear down the barriers that restrict them and help people to overcome circumstances that limit them. In a liberal society everyone should be free to live their lives, free of restraint by poverty, ignorance or conformity.”

Andrew Brown – “Promoting the Freedom of the Individual Within A Society In Which All Can Achieve Their Potential”

Andrew on The Widow’s World offers his own Lib Dem statement of belief:
“Liberal Democrats exist to promote the freedom of the individual within a society in which all can achieve their potential.

“Liberal Democrats have a fundamental belief in the equality of all regardless of income, wealth, status, gender or gender identity, disability, personal capacity or sexual preferences – and that this should be enshrined and supported in law.

“Liberal Democrats believe the role of the State is to facilitate the ability of individuals to reach and exceed their potential and to provide an underpinning of support for those who fail to do so. They believe that spending to meet these aims is of benefit to all and that the burden of taxation should be progressive but not punitive.

“Liberal Democrats are pragmatic, concerned with outcomes not methodology and resisting traditional dogmas of left and right in favour of evidence-based policy which demonstrably support our aims.

“Liberal Democrats support these aims in the UK, in Europe and internationally.”

Chris Richards – “It’s About Freedom”

Chris Richards takes an interestingly different approach, not starting from scratch, from the Preamble to the Lib Dem Constitution or the other inspirations others have taken but looking to a favourite Lib Dem publication, the ‘Values Paper’ It’s About Freedom. I recommend it, too, with co-authors including such impressive names as a long-pre-Leadership Nick Clegg and, er, Alex Wilcock (best to ignore a couple of recent defectors in there, though).

Chris chooses the opening of the paper’s conclusion to champion what the party stands for and I print that first, but I recommend also reading his whole piece, where he chooses many of his favourite passages and highlights some of those he thinks are particularly relevant today. I’ve picked out a small selection of those, too:
“It’s about freedom. That one word is the call for all Liberal Democrats. Liberal Democrats believe that maximising personal freedom is fundamental to a liberal society. We believe that freedom means the opportunity to make the most of our lives, while recognising that our actions must not prevent others from sharing those opportunities and that we may need to take active steps to extend freedom to all.”

“The freedom of the individual is, however, limited or non-existent if he or she is prevented by economic deprivation, lack of education, disadvantage or discrimination from exercising choices about how to live or from participating in the democratic process… Institutions are required which keep markets free and prevent monopoly. Other mechanisms are needed to ensure that individuals have access to the things which markets are unable to provide.”

“We reject the use of the state or the law to enforce beliefs… Liberal Democrats do not have a blueprint of how life should be lived, but we do have a set of principles with which to approach problems and decisions.”

“Our first political duty – particularly if we are ourselves in power – is to ensure that mechanisms to protect freedom are in good order, and power is as widely shared as possible.”

Alex Wilcock – “Society Should Be For Everyone, and Every Individual Should Be Free”

I started this whole thing with my own short rallying call, carefully crafted for consensus from the Preamble, our priorities in government, the party’s key message and a bit of me. Very on message, in volume and over time, and so that’ll be up again in just a minute. But last week, I decided to do what several other people have done and write a longer, much more personal story, of how my life experience led me to being a Lib Dem and how the golden thread of Liberalism runs through my life. So I’ve now done what I’ve done to other people’s personal pieces, and filleted it to pull out some of the key ideas:
“My first political memories are of shouting at bullies… With all the division in society, a political party should be for everyone, not hating half the people all the time – or even hating other countries – and that with what I was experiencing personally, everyone should have the freedom to live their own life, too. And that naturally led me to the Liberal Democrats, who were not just appealingly internationalist but, to their core, the only party saying that society should be for everyone, and that every individual should be free…

“Liberalism means that if you start with every individual, you can’t put any person on the scrapheap or hate them for who they are. The founding principles of Liberalism over the centuries – of individual freedom, equality before the law and controlling arbitrary power – are living, breathing, vital ideas that I’d discovered for myself in the desire to choose my own life, my belief that everyone should be treated the same, even as a little boy knowing that you had to stand up to bullies… Part of not favouring any one ‘side’ is realising that anyone can be a bully, or can be bullied – or, in philosophical terms, any sort of power can threaten liberty, but any sort of power can protect it, too. Whether it’s the state, or big business or big unions, or just other people, any of them can boss you around and anyone can help stop you being bossed around. So you can’t do away with any of them – and you can’t say any of them are right all the time, or be in their pockets. Which means aiming to create The Perfect Society will always be a disaster, but working at making a better society means there’s always more real life to be listened to and more work to be done…

“That’s why for me saying what we stand for is more important than any single policy. It’s important because unless we keep sight of why we bother, there’s nothing to inspire us. And it’s important to remember that we’re for everyone, that everyone should be free to live their own lives, and so we’re here to bring everyone together, as far as we can, and to stop people being pushed around, as far as we can… We’re still the only party that says society should be for everyone, and that every individual should be free.”


The Liberal Democrat What Do We Stand For Challenge (so far)

A very big thank you from me to all those who’ve taken part so far – both in today’s contributions, and back in March. I hope you encourage and inspire many others not just to read but to think and come up with their own versions of What the Lib Dems Stand For in turn. If that’s you this time, dear reader, please do! And then I might publish a third collection.

Once again, feel free to borrow my own message – below – and use it yourself. It’s my contribution to open-source Liberalism – getting across what we stand for in something more meaningful than a soundbite but still short enough to be no more than a minute’s speech or a box on a Focus leaflet. If you do make use of it, I’d prefer it if you let me know, but that’s not compulsory (I imagine the other contributors above feel much the same, but it’s probably polite to ask them first). So, synthesising the Preamble to the Constitution, the party’s priorities in government and Nick Clegg’s repeated mantra, here’s my on-message message again:
“The Liberal Democrats stand for freedom for every individual – freedom from poverty, ignorance and conformity.

“To make that freedom real needs both fairness and economic responsibility: an economy that works, that encourages enterprise, and where everyone pays their fair share.

“So freedom from poverty requires responsible spending, not debt, built on fairer taxes where lower earners pay less tax and the wealthiest pay more, and building green jobs for the future.

“Freedom from ignorance needs better education and training, so people have the opportunity to realise their potential.

“And freedom from conformity, supported by freedom from poverty and ignorance, means everyone should have the liberty to live their lives as they choose – without harming others; with equality before the law; with a better say, because no government always knows best.

“That’s why Liberal Democrats are working for a greener, stronger economy in a fairer society, enabling every person to get on in life.”

Happy 25th Birthday, Liberal Democrats – and What the Lib Dems Stand For 2013.1

Why we should sum up What the Lib Dems Stand For, and how it’s developed over the years.

What the Lib Dems Stand For 2013.2 – a Challenge and a Meme #LibDemValues

Setting out my ‘What the Lib Dems Stand For’ based on the Preamble, practice and core messaging, and challenging other Lib Dems to come up with their own.

The Liberal Democrat What Do We Stand For Challenge 2013.3 – Eight Answers (so far) #LibDemValues

After receiving the first set of responses, rounding up eight different Liberal Democrats’ versions of what we stand for.

The Liberal Democrat What Do We Stand For Challenge 2013.4 – What It’s All About #LibDemValues

Inviting people to use my short declaration of ‘What the Lib Dems Stand For’ and explaining what each bit of it means.

What the Lib Dems Stand For 2013.5 – Why I Am A Liberal Democrat #LibDemValues

The long version of my personal philosophical story, as quoted in brief above.



Two last points that suit this sort of round-up. Simon Titley of Liberator has been one of the party’s more outspoken critics of “a stronger economy in a fairer society”, though not conspicuously proposing any alternative. However, on the cover of last month’s issue, Liberator offered “one simple amendment” to make it “Fairer Economy, Stronger Society”. I don’t have a problem with the first part of that, but the second sends shivers down my spine. Together, they sound more like the authoritarian left to me than any kind of Liberalism; on its own, the second half could be any communal bully from the state to a village to unbreakable ‘tradition’, reactionary, conservative and the enemy of the individual. Maybe “Stronger Society” just has a different ring to those of us a strong society has almost always wanted to push around than to those society’s always privileged, but I’d want no part of that oppressively authoritarian, illiberal combination.

I do, though, recommend Lib Dem Blogger of the Year 2013 David Boyle – congratulations, David – in his look back at Jo Grimond’s most famous speech on its fiftieth anniversary, and well done to Simon Titley, this time, for reminding David of the hero of the Liberator crew back when they were exciting Young Liberals. I’d had it in my diary to cover too, but as I’ve been knackered, and ill, and it’s Conference, and as most importantly David’s written a much better article than I would have anyway – look out for the less famous (merely infamous) words of a Labour councillor – I’m very glad that rather than writing it up for one of my own ‘Liberal Mondays’ I can simply point you to David’s excellent “The Sound of Gunfire revisited”.


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Tuesday, September 10, 2013

 

What the Lib Dems Stand For 2013.5 – Why I Am A Liberal Democrat #LibDemValues


Another Liberal Democrat Conference starts this weekend, and once again I’m looking at What the Lib Dems Stand For. Before this Spring’s Conference, I published a series of articles challenging us to combine our principles, our priorities in government, and our Leadership’s message to tell other people we’re about and inspire ourselves to be enthusiastic about it. Tomorrow I’ll be publishing some more ideas of what we stand for written by other Lib Dems. Today, it’s something more personal: how did I get here? Why did I become a Lib Dem in the first place? And why do I stay?

If you scroll down below, you’ll find my short rallying cry designed for anyone to use – please borrow mine and use it yourself. Or, ideally if you’re quick, you can send me your own version. But as I’ve prepared to print the next round-up of other contributors’ ideas, I’ve noticed how much more personal many of theirs are, and I’ve been reminded what I said the last time I published that sort of compilation: that one day I’d have to challenge myself to be less on-message and consensual, and say what my Liberalism is by instinct, speaking straight from my head, my heart and my life.

There are lots of passions that make me tick, and lots of experiences that have formed my life and my Liberalism. Sometimes I’d think more of the quirkier elements (not least, Doctor Who), sometimes more of my family or friends. Today’s personal testament looks for the explicitly Liberal line through my life.

My Political Story – Why I Am A Liberal Democrat

My first political memories are of shouting at bullies. I didn’t think of this as political until a long time later, but that’s what it was [1]. With the fearlessness of the very young, I saw much bigger boys being mean and thought it wasn’t fair, and told them so. I didn’t do it often, but it stuck in my head because it seemed to be the right thing to do, standing up for the underdog. Luckily, a small boy shouting at them seemed to shame them rather than get my head kicked in.

I was less brave when I got into my teens and was bullied myself. It’s a quirk of my personality that finding the drive to stand up for someone else has always been far easier than defending myself alone: under personal attack, I tend to crumble into depression and want to hide. What forced me to be braver and brought back that burning desire to stop unfairness was realising I was gay. It was the 1980s, and I didn’t know anyone that was gay – or so I thought at the time. All I knew is that everything about society told me I was wrong and seemed to hate me for something that was simply me. Pretty soon I decided there was nothing wrong with me at all, and that it was the world that had to change, so I came out early and uncompromisingly. I wanted it to get better, for everyone I knew to know at least one gay person, for me never to hide – and I never have for nearly a quarter of a century, from workplace to election, from embrace to rejection. I might have got involved in politics anyway, but that decision made it essential.

At the same time, politics in the 1980s just seemed nasty. Labour had wrecked the economy; the Tories were building back bits of it so it was all right for some, but left a lot of other people on the scrapheap of massive unemployment. And it wasn’t just that both sides seemed like they were only interested in ‘their’ people – they always seemed to me that they just hated the other side, too, and class hate sickened me as much as racism or what I didn’t know yet was called homophobia. It probably helped that I had an American Catholic Mum and a Scottish Baptist Dad, so I’d always understood that people with different beliefs, different ‘tribes’, even different countries, not only could get on but really had to.

Those two feelings came together in a firm belief that with all the division in society, a political party should be for everyone, not hating half the people all the time – or even hating other countries – and that with what I was experiencing personally, everyone should have the freedom to live their own life, too. And that naturally led me to the Liberal Democrats, who were not just appealingly internationalist but, to their core, the only party saying that society should be for everyone, and that every individual should be free [2].

I didn’t have a political background, I didn’t have money, I didn’t have anyone pushing me to get involved. I just felt that I wanted to change the world, and that if everyone just sat around and waited for someone else to do it, it would never get done. So I joined the Lib Dems, and I did everything I could from delivering leaflets to eventually standing for Parliament. And even though when I first threw myself into campaigning for the Lib Dems we were on 4% in the opinion polls, I knew this was the only party that was offering real change, however long it took – why join another party to campaign for things to stay the same? And I kept campaigning for things to change within the Lib Dems, too. It was often an uphill struggle to get heard, and I made plenty of mistakes, but determination and ideas won me influence. Where I often felt I was having the most impact was when I was elected over many years to the party’s Policy Committee. In part, that was writing individual policies that formed part of several election Manifestos, and knowing in particular that I’d contributed to pushing equal treatment, respect and opportunity for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people a bit further every time. But, for me, it wasn’t just the issues that really grabbed me, but the ideas.

I learned how to put my gut instincts into philosophy, and realised I’d been a Liberal all along. That Liberalism meant that if you start with every individual, you can’t put any person on the scrapheap or hate them for who they are. That the founding principles of Liberalism over the centuries of individual freedom, equality before the law and controlling arbitrary power were living, breathing, vital ideas that I’d discovered for myself in the desire to choose my own life, my belief that everyone should be treated the same, even as a little boy knowing that you had to stand up to bullies. It was Conrad Russell (a Liberal Democrat I got to know through the Policy Committee who became a friend and even a mentor) who said the point of Liberalism was to stand up for everyone against bullies, and that just lit up a lightbulb over my head. Suddenly, I could see that Liberal line through my life. It’s not just that a party owned by one group of special interests can never be fair – that it inevitably discriminates against the rest and divides society. It’s that part of not favouring any one ‘side’ is realising that anyone can be a bully, or can be bullied – or, in philosophical terms, any sort of power can threaten liberty, but any sort of power can protect it, too. Whether it’s the state, or big business or big unions, or just other people, any of them can boss you around and anyone can help stop you being bossed around. So you can’t do away with any of them – and you can’t say any of them are right all the time, or be in their pockets. Which means aiming to create The Perfect Society will always be a disaster, but working at making a better society means there’s always more real life to be listened to and more work to be done.

That’s why for me saying what we stand for is more important than any single policy. It’s important because unless we keep sight of why we bother, there’s nothing to inspire us. And it’s important to remember that we’re for everyone, that everyone should be free to live their own lives, and so we’re here to bring everyone together, as far as we can, and to stop people being pushed around, as far as we can.

So when, sometimes, being in government is frustrating or disappointing, and it is, because there’s not enough money to do what we want to do or because the Tories we’re in government with have different priorities, I can see that Liberal line of what we’re getting right, and why we’re doing it. No Lib Dem joins just to get into power. We do it to make a difference. It took perseverance for me inside the Lib Dems, but it took the whole party a whole lot more hard work and struggle to go from 4% in the polls to more than double our number of MPs and win a place in government – not the easy way, and not to do the easy things. No wonder Liberal Democrats take a long term approach on the importance of education to unlock people’s potential, and the environment to lock in fairness for the future – we had to work at it for a long time, so we’ve never gone for quick fixes. I’m deeply proud that this government’s the one that legislated for mostly equal marriage at last, but it’s the bigger ideas that matter still more. Worse than the 1980s, Labour had wrecked the economy again. But despite the damage being deeper and longer than it was when I was growing up, while unemployment is still too high it’s much, much lower than in the 1980s, now that Liberal Democrats are in government and not just the Tories. From apprenticeships to green jobs to tackling the banks, it’s not just rebuilding the economy as ‘all right for some’, but putting it back together differently. You need economic responsibility to make things work – but without fairness, too, society falls apart.

I think the government would be better if it was all Lib Dem and we could do more of what we wanted to do. Well, I would say that. But it’s also good to prove that people with different beliefs, different ‘tribes’, can make it work together as well. I look at the difference we’ve made, not just since the government was elected but compared to the 1980s when I grew up, and I’m proud of how we’ve changed things for the better: unemployment that much lower than the Tories ever cared about before the Lib Dems entered government, taxes for ordinary people that much lower with the Lib Dems while the wealthiest pay more than they did under Labour, green growth and protecting education so that the economy and opportunities will last into the future. I’m proud – but I’m not satisfied. I still want to change the world. But I can see how Liberal Democrats are doing just that, more slowly than I’d like and with a few wrong turns, but we’re still the only party that says society should be for everyone, and that every individual should be free.

The way the party sums that up now is that the Liberal Democrats are building a stronger economy in a fairer society, enabling every person to get on in life. Freedom. Fairness. Being for everyone. I find myself nodding, because the Liberal Democrats are still saying what made me join all those years ago, only now they’re putting a bit – a fair bit – of it into practice.

[1] I had a long conversation about my politics with my Grandma when I was in my twenties. She nodded, and said she could see I’d be political when – and this is one I’d not remembered – I was aged four and strutting about naked on a beach and told a big boy off for kicking down another boy’s sandcastle. I said she was probably right (though I bottled out of adding, ‘And obviously that’s why I’m a naturist now, too’).

[2] If you’ve ever wondered where my blog title “Love and Liberty” comes from, it’s my original two gut instincts distilled into three words. You can read the annotated version of most of my 1999 booklet “Love and Liberty” online too, where my concept of Liberalism is re-expanded into many, many more words.


The Liberal Democrat What Do We Stand For Challenge (so far)

If you’re quick, you can send me your own idea by tomorrow. Or just feel free to borrow mine and use it yourself (I’d prefer it if you let me know, but it’s not compulsory. Think of it as open-source Liberalism). The idea’s an ongoing investigation, collaboration and rallying cry about what the Liberal Democrats stand for, to challenge myself, first, then other Lib Dems to get across what we stand for in something more meaningful than a soundbite but still short enough to be no more than a minute’s speech or a box on a Focus leaflet. And to make things harder, I aimed for broad consensus by synthesising the Preamble to the Lib Dem Constitution, the party’s priorities in government and the party leadership’s latest messaging. Did it work? Here’s my go at that:
The Liberal Democrats stand for freedom for every individual – freedom from poverty, ignorance and conformity.

To make that freedom real needs both fairness and economic responsibility: an economy that works, that encourages enterprise, and where everyone pays their fair share.

So freedom from poverty requires responsible spending, not debt, built on fairer taxes where lower earners pay less tax and the wealthiest pay more, and building green jobs for the future.

Freedom from ignorance needs better education and training, so people have the opportunity to realise their potential.

And freedom from conformity, supported by freedom from poverty and ignorance, means everyone should have the liberty to live their lives as they choose – without harming others; with equality before the law; with a better say, because no government always knows best.

That’s why Liberal Democrats are working for a stronger, greener economy in a fairer society, enabling every person to get on in life.

Happy 25th Birthday, Liberal Democrats – and What the Lib Dems Stand For 2013.1

Why we should sum up What the Lib Dems Stand For, and how it’s developed over the years.

What the Lib Dems Stand For 2013.2 – a Challenge and a Meme #LibDemValues

Setting out my ‘What the Lib Dems Stand For’ based on the Preamble, practice and core messaging, and challenging other Lib Dems to come up with their own.

The Liberal Democrat What Do We Stand For Challenge 2013.3 – Eight Answers (so far) #LibDemValues

After receiving the first set of responses, rounding up eight different Liberal Democrats’ versions of what we stand for – so far…

The Liberal Democrat What Do We Stand For Challenge 2013.4 – What It’s All About #LibDemValues

Inviting people to use my short declaration of ‘What the Lib Dems Stand For’ and explaining what each bit of it means.

Then there’s today’s, and with a bit of luck there’ll be more tomorrow.



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Wednesday, August 21, 2013

 

Lessons From Coalition – The Two Biggest Problems: Betrayal and Betrayal


This article comes in two versions: in depth here, and the supercompressed version published as part of Lib Dem Voice’s Lessons From Coalition series.

All governments depend on events – some, like the LiberaTory Coalition, coming in when events were especially bleak. No lesson can predict all political outcomes. But whatever the economic and political weather, some lessons are plain.

The two biggest problems for any future coalition will be the breakdown of trust between the voters and the coalition parties, and the breakdown of trust between the coalition parties themselves. The Liberal Democrats have learned that all too well.

We know what the flashpoint issues for each during the current Coalition that still say ‘bitterness’ and ‘betrayal’ to many, too: tuition fees and Lords reform. On both, ugly reality got in the way of how coalitions ought to work. The challenge is to learn from them in order to foresee and avoid similar events – if we don’t find solutions to both problems, any future coalition will suffer the same poison.


If It Won’t Work, Walk; But If It Will Work, Walk In

We should aim to achieve things in government – that’s what a political party’s there for.

The theory of forming a Coalition is sound. If we don’t win a majority and no-one else does either, the Liberal Democrats must negotiate with other parties – ideally playing them off against each other to get more of what we want, if the votes tumble evenly enough to give us that chance. It’s the worst option apart from all the others. We should always oppose a ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement, which means nearly all the blame for none of the power to do anything. That leaves two options: a coalition, yes or no. For a political party rather than a debating society, the choice is straightforward. We should drive as hard a bargain as we can. If it’s impossible to reach agreement on enough of our priorities, we must be prepared to say no. But the corollary of that is that we must be prepared to say yes, too, if we can form a stable government with another party that delivers enough of our aims. When I spoke in favour of endorsing the LiberaTory Coalition, I was under no illusions, and neither was anyone else in the hall:
“Maybe it is the worst possible time to take power. But I don’t want us to wait until I’m wheeled into Conference aged 78, in another 40 years, to say, ‘Well, the economy’s crashed again and at last we’ve got another hung Parliament. Maybe we should try it this time’.”
From the platform, Vince Cable made a similarly practical point:
“It’s going to be bloody awful. But it’ll be less awful because we’re there.”
It’s never going to be easy, but it’s in the national interest – and it’s simply what a political party is for.

The Lib Dem Voice regular polling question ‘Would you rather form a coalition with Labour or Conservative?’ is based on a completely mistaken assumption. I’d rather we form a government on our own. If the voters don’t give us that, I’m still a Liberal Democrat, and I don’t follow the media narrative that I must be ‘really’ Tory or Labour, push comes to shove. I dislike both of them. My answer is not that I want to be a bit Labour or a bit Tory, but that I’d go with the one that’s prepared to be the most Lib Dem. Whichever way round they go, we should partner the party that compromises and not the one that’s arrogant enough to just demand we join them. That’s the principle; the simple common sense reason is that to prefer one side in advance is essentially an endorsement, one that sends voters streaming away to whichever side we’ve given the nod to before the election and loses all bargaining leverage afterwards.

2010 is the only case study we have. I’ll never like the Tories either, but the tiny band who pretend we should have formed a coalition with Labour (and Uncle Tom SNP and all, and still not got a majority) after the last election were out of touch with reality then and have rewritten history since. Both the number of seats that the voters gave to each party and the Labour Party’s own ‘negotiations’ made a coalition with Labour impossible – but I also remember what the Labour Party did with thirteen years of absolute power and saw them as no better than the Conservatives. I didn’t forget the war-mongering, evidence-sexing, amnesia-promising, freedom-crushing, LGBT-hypocrisising, rich-brownnosing, poor-taxing, crony-bribe-swallowing shameless Labour Government overnight in favour of a starry-eyed childish fantasy image of the ‘nice’ Labour Party that bears no resemblance to their continuing record. And I remember what they offered as the price of coalition: bugger all.

Next time will be different in ways we can’t know. The Tories may well prove ungovernable; Labour may realise that they can’t demand absolute power when more than seven out of ten voters oppose them. But there’s a simple lesson from 2010 about how to negotiate. Labour did not offer a Coalition. It demanded a mass defection. Despite the Lib Dems getting our second-biggest vote since 1928 and Labour their second-worst vote since 1918, Labour’s sense of entitlement pretended that they had the right to keep everything they wanted and Lib Dem voters should get nothing. Despite Labour winning eight and a half million votes to the Lib Dems’ seven million, they expected all Lib Dems to suddenly join the Labour Government to vote for everything we’d previously opposed, because our voters being 83% as numerous as theirs didn’t count. Well, that was a ‘privilege’ it was easy to turn down. There is no point whatsoever in joining a government only to do exactly what the other party would do anyway – otherwise, we’d all have taken the easy road and just joined one of the others years ago. One lesson for Labour from the LiberaTory Coalition is that the Lib Dems are not their battered spouse. As Andrew Hickey said most pithily, we are not Labour’s back-up plan.

The Tories had a larger vote still – ten and a half million – but they weren’t so tribal as to insist only their votes counted… Not when they didn’t have a majority, anyway. Of the four main priorities on the front cover of the Lib Dem 2010 Manifesto, the Tories agreed to three and a half of them (though the ‘half’ has since crumbled further), and Labour none of them. The main advantage of talking to Labour turned out to be that even the Tories couldn’t believe how arrogant Labour would be and assumed that they, too, must be bargaining in good faith, giving a boost to the Lib Dem-Conservative negotiations. I vividly remember self-important Tory grandee Sir Malcolm Rifkind complaining all over the TV that the Lib Dems were “harlots” for talking to Labour as well, a Tory predictably failing to comprehend so-called Tory principle of free-market competition to get the best deal.

So the theoretical lesson is that, short of a Lib Dem majority, the best outcome for the Lib Dems at the next election would be genuinely holding the balance of power (as we didn’t quite last time), with both other parties so hungry for power that they offer big compromises – like the Tories in 2010, only more so. That would give us the most power to bargain, and to choose the partner that would enable the greatest share of our Manifesto. The worst would be for the voters again to give us only one realistic choice, and for both others to behave like Labour in 2010 and offer nothing. Then I hope we’d have the guts to walk away.

Unfortunately, reaching even a good deal on paper is where the problems really start.


Compromise or Betrayal?

Voters don’t trust parties to do what they promise. Most of all, they don’t trust us.

The Coalition Agreement was a decent programme for government. The Liberal Democrats didn’t win the election. Fortunately, neither did anyone else. That gave us a chance at last to put some of our Manifesto into action after nearly a century of none of it. The LiberaTory Coalition promised government by principles of freedom, fairness and responsibility, all sounds Liberal ideals. We’d constantly made clear what our priorities were before the election, and three and a half of those four main priorities written on the front of the Liberal Democrat Manifesto were being delivered. Even in Coalition Government, even after Labour blowing the economy to bits and leaving an incredible debt to repay, and even having to compromise with the Tories over what they want to do, the Liberal Democrats have still put our own distinctive stamp on good things from government, not just lessening the bad. Raising the income tax threshold and cutting taxes for 23 million ordinary working people. The Pupil Premium to help out poorer schoolkids. Not just a stronger but a fairer economy, tackling the banks, record numbers of apprenticeships, green jobs and the new Green Investment Bank open for business. And tiny baby steps that soon tripped up on more open politics. Win-win-win-OK, lose a bit on the last one, surely?

Well, we all know what happened next. Somehow the narrative is almost entirely that to get nothing, zip, zero, nada done and help no-one at all would have been principled, while getting stuck in and delivering quite a lot of what we wanted to do is a betrayal. No-one’s interested in looking at policies as a whole: that’s too much effort. No-one complains when we moderate what the Tories want to do (despite the best efforts of baying Tory MPs who actually see what’s going on). But for the Lib Dems to make compromises in some areas to achieve wins in others is an unforgiveable sell-out. The irony, of course, being that this is the corrosive attack by Tory and Labour Parties who have identical policies on tuition fees, the Lib Dem effect on which was to make them far fairer to poorer students (and poorer graduates).

Without a way to challenge the idea that any compromise is betrayal, it’s hard to see how any future coalition can work, either.

In retrospect, David Cameron’s cleverest move in the Coalition negotiations was to have the nous to put his foot down and say the new government would have to keep his expensive but explicit promises, like protecting handouts to millionaire pensioners, even when they weren’t key commitments of the Tory Party itself. And Nick Clegg’s was to be willing to bargain away expensive personal promises because they weren’t at the top of the Lib Dem Manifesto. We all know by now how devastating the effect of Nick breaking his tuition fee promise has been, however improved the real as opposed to the political outcome.

The problem even for negotiations is that voters regard Labour and Tory as opposites and Lib Dems as somewhere in the middle – according to taste, a moderating or a blandifying influence. This is something Nick Clegg has done his best to amplify. It’s not enough on its own. It gives only weakly negative reasons to vote for us, when even Nick in the early days of the LiberaTory Coalition knew that it wasn’t enough to hold each other back, but to achieve big positive things, too. And it’s actively dangerous to future negotiations. It does nothing to explain our poor bargaining hand on the many, many issues where the other parties are identical and we oppose both: most famously, raising tuition fees, but also wasting billions on Trident and, increasingly for the Tories as they move back towards Labour’s far right position, attacking civil liberties.

The best case that can be made with this message is that the Liberal Democrats are in Coalition with the relatively moderate side of the Tory Party and pulling them to greater moderation in the process. While shrieking ‘Traitor!’ for the Lib Dems being an independent party and not their possession, Labour see no contradiction in voting again and again and again with the far right of the Tory Party to make politics more rabidly authoritarian. Which wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t that no-one else sees the contradiction in that, either, because it simply doesn’t fit the narrative that Labour’s illiberal gut instincts are just as extreme as the Tories’.


Agreements Are the Start, Not the End

Parties don’t trust each other to keep to their agreements. Most of all, we don’t trust either of the other two.

If Labour were the more unbearable immediately after the election, a large proportion of the Tories have been making up for lost time in the Coalition itself as their own sense of entitlement grows. And not just the far right MPs who are irreconcilable to any compromise with the Coalition, with their own Leader, or with reality, but – more subtly though in many ways more damagingly – many of the Tory Ministers who in theory are loyal to the Coalition. So what would be the point of making another Coalition Agreement with Mr Cameron if we know from experience that his Leadership is too weak to deliver on his fine words?

Both the letter and the spirit of the Coalition Agreement have slowly withered. A lesson from the LiberaTory Coalition is that agreement on policy at the start is not enough. For two inevitable reasons, any unequal coalition government will get more like the larger party as it goes along: the initial agreement will run out of steam as (and if) it gets delivered; the larger party having the mass of ministers will be able to respond day-to-day to events to its own tune. And those inevitables aren’t all. Large swathes of written promises and more of the principles on which the Coalition was proclaimed have simply not been delivered.

The LiberaTory Coalition has tested if the Lib Dems really meant our Opposition rhetoric about co-operation; through gritted teeth and pain, it turns out we do. It’s also tested if the Tories really meant their Opposition rhetoric – and their signed-up Coalition Agreement’s explicit promises – about the environment, freedom and decentralisation. It turns out they don’t. George Osborne consistently undermining a greener government, Theresa May’s indistinguishable-from-the-Labour-Party authoritarianism and Eric Pickles micro-managing every local council to his own bizarre prejudices only the biggest examples of Tory Ministers simply chucking the LiberaTory Coalition’s founding principles in the bin.

More openly, there’s been a repeated pattern of Lib Dem MPs faithfully voting through some horrible compromise closer to what the Tories wanted, then Tory MPs voting against the more Lib Dem-agreed proposals or Tory Ministers simply dropping them. Part of this is because the Lib Dems agreed to the Coalition en masse, while only the Tory high command ever gave their word. Part of it is simply that it’s in the Lib Dems’ long-term interest to show that Coalition can work, and in the Tories’ long-term interest (if not in David Cameron’s, who can’t afford to lead a failed government) to show that Coalitions fail. Polling may show that more voters believe the Tories haven’t kept to the deal, but I suspect they also don’t care. The “Betrayal” label still belongs to the Lib Dems.

This doesn’t mean that Labour have been blameless in Opposition. More headless. Labour’s years of shrieking fury against the Lib Dems for having the temerity to be a separate party, where they flung shamelessly homophobic abuse at the Coalition and voted against everything they claimed to support simply out of mouth-foaming hatred and a desire to see the Coalition fail, have made them – as under George W Bush – soulmates of the US Republican Party in its obsession with wrecking anything to do with President Obama, even if that means wrecking America.

It all throws into sharp relief the problem with Coalition Agreements. What happens if the other party simply breaks the agreement? Like tuition fees for the voters’ sense of betrayal, one totemic issue was the breaking point. David Cameron agreed to Lords reform, but a large pack of his MPs are feral animals who will vote against him, let alone against us. The Labour Party has pretended to support Lords reform for a hundred years, but on the one single occasion that an elected Lords was on the verge of being delivered in that time, not just a feral faction of them but the entire Labour Party collectively voted to defeat its own principles because, like spoilt teenage bullies, they couldn’t bear anyone else to get the credit. As on so many issues that they claimed to support in principle, in practice they treated Lords reform as a political football, with them as Lucy van Pelt. I don’t know which is worse, but I do know that that day made it seem impossible for the Lib Dems to trust either party in 2015.


Is There Any Hope For A Future Coalition?

The Lib Dems can’t just sit back and hope that press, public or other parties will all suddenly decide to treat us fairly.

That isn’t to say that others may not change their minds in a more helpful direction. To be fair to our opponents / dubiously potential partners, there are straws in the wind that each other party may be stepping back from the abyss, if not quite becoming creatures of reason and principle. To Ed Miliband’s credit, in recent months he’s finally been grown up and passed up opportunities to cut off his nose to spite his face (on, for example, Europe and mostly-equal marriage). It’s too early to say if this means the end of Labour’s all-consuming hatred, but it’s a start. And to David Cameron’s credit, he appears to be realising that he’d have to get his party to commit themselves in another hung Parliament as the Lib Dems did, rather than leave himself exposed when he leads and they choose later not to follow. But faced with two such major problems looming for any future coalition, we need to find our own solutions too.

The Lib Dem Leadership’s ‘we are the middle’ answer appears to be to abandon the big ambitions of either Lib Dem policies in general or even of the early days of the LiberaTory Coalition. It’s at best a sort of judo, to let the other two parties stand for something and then try to turn standing for anything against them by saying ‘Well, we don’t know what we want to do, but we’ll stop them getting that.’ To me, a Manifesto that doesn’t promise anything much that distinguishes us from the other two may guard against betrayal, but it doesn’t give people much of a reason to vote for us in the first place. It also seems to be tacitly accepting in advance that neither of the others can be trusted to vote for any of our own programme, and that all we can hope for is for them to get their own, just not as much as they’d like of it.

I don’t have all the answers, but here are three proposals for a start:

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Monday, May 20, 2013

 

Liberal Mondays 3: John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor #LibDemValues


Today’s Liberal Monday celebrates the 207th birthday of Liberal philosopher and politician John Stuart Mill. With Harriet Taylor, he wrote arguably Liberalism’s most influential text of all: On Liberty, the book that created the Harm Principle, from which I’ve picked two key quotations. For many Liberal Democrats, this crystallises the party’s essential belief, and I’ve already touched on it in both previous Liberal Mondays in freedom from conformity and from other restraints… But, though you can see On Liberty’s influence right through to today’s Equal Marriage bill, it still challenges Lib Dems – has it really influenced our policies enough?
“The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it.”

“The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.”
This principle is so widely known and debated that this time I won’t analyse it at length. However, even if not every Liberal reads On Liberty once a year (as former Leader Jo Grimond suggested), and if you only read those two points from it, in campaigning Lib Dem style I’d suggest three things to remember – and one thing to think about.


Three Things To Remember

One Thing To Think About

But for all that the Liberal Democrats think of ourselves as inspired by On Liberty – it’s even the book handed down to each Party President on their election – how much do we practise what it preaches?

I sometimes feel a strange kinship with Evelyn Waugh’s lament that:
“The Conservative Party have never put the clock back a single second.”
How many laws have the Liberal Democrats put back? And how many have we acquiesced in or cheer-led? After Labour’s smothering record more than 4,000 new laws when in power, we proposed a Great Repeal Bill, or Freedom Bill; we formed a Coalition with the Conservatives in part on a promise of enacting that Bill, with principles of freedom and personal responsibility. And yet when it came down to it, it was watered down in government to a Small Repeal Bill, or a Freedom That Won’t Frighten the Daily Mail Bill – putting authoritarianism back only a few seconds, and then it starts ticking forward again. That’s the trouble with legislation by shopping list rather than principle: it’s too easy to say you’ll take just the more difficult things out of the cart, and find you’ve got very little left in it.

I’m not even talking about the more egregious government-by-securocrat proposals that rang enough danger signals for Liberal Democrats to block – or ostentatiously fail to – such as the Snooper’s Charter or Secret Courts. It’s more the insidious danger of legislation and regulation in favour of nice things, because nice people could only ever want nice things, and so no right-thinking person could ever want nasty things, whether the wrong type of food or the wrong type of fun… And yet, if it’s so self-evident that everyone must agree, how come government needs to enforce it? Because people should be able to make their own choices, even if they’re not for their own good. Freedom means taking responsibility. And sometimes that means even insisting people have the freedom to do things that the Daily Mail does like and the Guardian doesn’t – let alone things that both scream against. Because making crimes of personal actions that other people or press puritans merely disagree means creating criminals to punish where there aren’t actually any victims. And to a Liberal, shouldn’t a “Victimless crime” be no crime at all?

So here’s something to think about, if the Liberal Democrats really are a party influenced by John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor. Of course we should look at the little things – removing some enforced conformities, resisting the temptation to ban things we don’t think are very nice but which are actually none of our business. Applying our Harm Principle consistently would be a revelation. But we shouldn’t get stuck in only reacting to every individual problem or proposal that comes our way. If we’re really a party of On Liberty-based Liberalism, how about thinking about where we’d actually start? How would we put that principle into practice? What if we get into government again – is it enough just to blunt the edges of government-as-it-always-is-by-authoritarian-inertia? Isn’t it time to start planning for something better? Even if it means challenging the whole legal system (and a potential coalition partner) to go back to first principles?

When are we going to stand up for freedom and personal responsibility by showing some responsibility ourselves – and freeing ourselves from the conformity of politicians who always take the safe route and order everyone else to do the same?

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Monday, April 29, 2013

 

Liberal Mondays 2: Conrad Russell – The Liberal Cause #LibDemValues


For my second Liberal Mondays selection I’m looking to my old friend and mentor, Conrad Russell, who was through the 1990s the Liberal Democrats’ intellectual guru. I miss him terribly. He had a huge impact on my life and Liberalism, and no doubt I’ll come back to him again: this time I present a selection of quotes from the first booklet of his I ever read, The Liberal Cause. I bought it at my first Lib Dem Conference because I wanted as many Liberal texts as my tiny teenage budget would allow, and this one was marked down to 10p.


Conrad and Me and Name-Dropping

You can skip this bit if you like, but to introduce The Liberal Cause, I didn’t know Conrad when I first read this, nor I think even know of him. In many – but not enough – years later, we got to know each other very well through being on the Liberal Democrat Federal Policy Committee together, with such adventures to follow as drawing him into involvement with the Liberal Democrat Youth and Students (I was, he wasn’t), working at by-elections or in doomed Leadership elections together, and of course always plotting to get a more Liberal line through the FPC. I loved him dearly, and of all the many influences on my philosophy, no other person had such a striking impact in directly shaping my Liberalism as Liberalism. Re-reading it last week, I can see that The Liberal Cause is far from his best work, but elements of it have still stayed with me ever since.

I’ve been suffering crippling headaches for weeks and not been reading or writing much, but thought I’d better attempt another Liberal Monday, with elections on. Conrad was the obvious choice, so I went back to the start with him where I was concerned, and decided to spare myself a bit of both staring at a glaring screen and knackering my hands typing by having another go with the infuriating voice command software that I lose patience with every time I attempt dictation. This time I didn’t even try to train it to understand me, but just went back and corrected the mistakes after reading it all out, which was at least marginally faster than typing the whole thing. Most of the misunderstandings were simply gibberish, but presenting the Whigs as “the whinge party” was mildly amusing, as was making “What has endured in party tradition…” into “What has endured in hottie tradition…” Though the one which most struck me was “Liberals, as has all male and beverage…” See if you can spot what this apparent reference to the Liberator Collective was meant to be when I said it aloud.

I kept on reading aloud to the one-paragraph biography of Conrad at the end, which is how the software came happily to inform me “He is descended from William Hartnell”. In so many ways, so true. That one may give away a bit of which words are stored in my custom dictionary. It’s actually a reference to “William Lord Russell, who was accounted worthy of three ‘w’s in John Locke’s list of the first Whigs,” which will become clear shortly. It also reminded me of one of Conrad’s more endearing stories from one of his more endearing habits: he was an inveterate name-dropper. Unlike most people’s, these were entirely natural lines about his family, just as he might mention something I’d said, or whoever we’d just been arguing with in the Policy Committee, in which he prefaced so many of his observations with a reference along the lines of ‘When this issue was first debated in 1647…’ Here are three that have always stuck in my head from variously private conversation on anti-discrimination laws (referring to Lord John Russell), a speech explaining his attitude to authority (William, Lord Russell) and, most fabulously, a mighty speech to Lib Dem Conference in which he illustrated a point with the best name-drop I’ve ever heard to a Conference hall (Bertrand Russell):
“My great-grandfather succeeded on his third attempt on passing religious toleration through Parliament, though he had to become Prime Minister to do it.” (It sounded a great inconvenience)

“My father took me to see his portrait. On seeing this grand long-haired man staring down at me, I asked my father if he had been a good man. ‘Oh yes,’ he said. ‘A very good man. The King cut his head off.’”

“The point at which my father finally parted company with Lenin…”

Unservile State Papers 35 – The Liberal Cause: The Three-Century-Long Tradition of the Liberal Democrats

I’m presenting a series of extracts from The Liberal Cause, though at just 16 albeit close-typed A5 pages one day I might see who has the copyright and put the whole thing online if they agree. The booklet was produced under the aegis of the Unservile State Group, a sponsor of Liberal philosophy from the 1950s until, as far as I can tell, the early 1990s; this was published in 1990, and was probably among their last. Conrad had recently become the last Liberal and first Liberal Democrat peer introduced to the House of Lords (due to the different stages of assuming a peerage) as the Earl Russell, and was just embarking on his marvellous late flowering as an incisive Lords spokesperson and intellectual powerhouse of Liberalism. His finest work in that regard is his 1999 An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Liberalism, which I would always recommend; The Liberal Cause is a very much shorter and lesser work, but it’s still worth looking out if you happen across a copy.

The point of The Liberal Cause is self-evident from its full title: the Liberals had just merged with the Social Democrats to form what after much internal strife became called the Liberal Democrats, and unlike now, everyone was rather wary of calling the new party either “Liberal” or “Social Democratic” for fear of unpicking the merger and having to go through the whole damn thing all over again. And a lot of Liberals were, less unlike now, very unhappy. Whether it was Conrad’s idea or that of the Unservile State Group, this booklet looked across three centuries to find continuities in our political tradition, see how political issues of the day measured up to our philosophy – primarily, Conrad looks at privatisation from the tail-end of its heyday, and green politics from the early end of its wide acceptance – and implicitly say, ‘The party’s changed its name and taken great evolutionary leaps many times before, so don’t worry about this one’. It’s not as well-structured as some of his work, and less politically punchy, with Conrad still learning late in life how to evolve himself from a great historian into a great politician.
“The Liberal Democrats are the heirs of a continuous institutional tradition over three hundred years old. Liberals and their Social Democrat allies have inherited the machinery, the membership and the goodwill of the Liberal Party as clearly as the Liberal Party inherited the membership, the machinery and the goodwill of the Whigs. The Whig party from which we descend can trace a continuous institutional history back to 1679, and the ‘First Whigs’ were the party for whom John Locke acted as an auxiliary Whip, listing members with ‘v’ for ‘vile’ or ‘w’ for ‘worthy’, graduating to ‘vv’ and ‘ww’ and, in extreme cases, to ‘vvv’ and ‘www’.”
Conrad and I never sat at dinner after an FPC meeting annotating members of the Committee and guests by Locke’s listings. Well, hardly ever.

Having established the Liberal Democrats’ three-century organisational continuity (and, implicitly, his own love of gossip) in the first paragraph, the first page continues by explaining how the party naturally evolved a passion against discrimination despite its biggest initial rally-point being a call to discriminate against a Catholic King. The Whigs’ initial anti-Catholicism is long past but since then, says Conrad:
“What was enduring in party tradition was the chosen means: the commitment to controlling the power of an overweening executive, and the choice of the rule of law as the means by which it should be done. The championship of liberty, and the identification of liberty with the rule of law, would entitle Liberal Democrats today to at least two of John Locke’s ‘w’s.

“During the Eighteenth Century the Whigs increasingly became identified as the party opposed to the monopoly of the Church of England in public life, and that identification also has marked the Liberal tradition in ways that have become indelible. That never meant that Whigs were opposed to the Church of England: it is to the eternal credit of England, the Church of England and the Whigs that a high proportion of their membership always consisted of devout members of the Anglican Church. What distinguished the Whigs was their belief that the Church of England did not enjoy a monopoly of truth, and that those outside it enjoyed an equal claim to citizenship. The Whigs enjoyed an unusual ability to concede equal status to the Church of England and the Church of Scotland. The party rapidly became committed to a degree of religious pluralism unusual by the standards of the day; and from that commitment grew an increasing readiness to divide the spheres of church and state and a steadily deepening commitment to freedom of thought.

“From the battles over the Occasional Conformity Act at the beginning of the Eighteenth Century down to the Race Relations Act in the middle of the Twentieth, the party has felt a steadily deepening dislike of discrimination. As one would expect from the party of Locke and Mill, it has made the intellectual leap from opposing discrimination because it happened not to favour the chosen interest group, whether it was at Nonconformists, blacks or women, to opposing the discrimination because it was discrimination. The four-year-old who denounced the owners of a swimming pool because they did not accept Jews, and who asked, several minutes later, ‘By the way, what is a Jew?’, was showing a Liberal sense of priorities.”
Conrad goes on to assess the Whigs’, Liberals’ and Liberal Democrats’ instinctive understanding of the United Kingdom as a supra-national institution, and how that has meant a commitment both to devolution and to the EEC and the UN, rather than the Tories’ stubborn one-level nation-statism – and how that links to an instinct to check arbitrary power. He carries on to discuss different parties’ class-based economic ideas – critiquing a pre-Blairite Labour Party that still called itself socialist, a strange historical note after two decades of Labour sucking up to the super-rich more than the Tories do – and offer a word of warning about different spheres of freedom: quoting John Stuart Mill, he argues that free trade and freedom itself may well often go together, but they are not the same thing, nor contingent on each other.
“Liberals may, when they think the occasion suitable, defend state intervention in economic questions without any threat to their liberal principles. Economic acts are not, within Mill’s definition, self-regarding. In tackling these questions, we benefit from notions of liberty somewhat enlarged over those of the Nineteenth Century. Liberty does not simply consist in the absence of external impediment: it involves the existence of opportunity, and the freedom to take it. Freedom is not only freedom from outside interference: it is also freedom to attempt to do things we wish to do. It is this second freedom which may be promoted and not hindered by the action of the State.”
I’d say – and I believe Conrad tended to, as well, when writing later and at more length – that the State can be a danger or a boost to both sorts, if more often a threat to the first and a protector of the second, but I think he was simplifying so as to be able to more easily make one a point against the Tories and the other against Labour. You’ll be able to spot my summary of this argument about the relationship between liberty and different sources of power in one of the lines I contributed to Mark Pack’s recent “What the Liberal Democrats Believe” Infographic.
“Liberals, as heirs of Mill and Beveridge, are aware of two sorts of liberty. One is the absence of external restraint, the individual liberty of which freedom of thought and freedom of speech are quintessential expressions. That liberty is hindered by state action, and its defence must often take the form of restraining the power of the state. Yet we are also aware that, as Mill put it, ‘liberty consists in doing what one desires’; and here state action, by creating opportunity, may create a liberty where, before, it effectively did not exist. Education, for example, is a field in which any viable policy must draw equally on both ideals.

“Neither of these ideals of liberty is peculiar to Liberals: what is peculiar to us is our equal attachment to them both. On the whole Conservatives are attached to the first, and Labour to the second. It is only Conservatives who are capable of assuming axiomatically that rolling back the frontiers of the state makes any positive contribution to liberty ipso facto. The rest of us may want to wait and see what opportunities, and what freedoms, are lost by the absence of the State as their guarantor or even their creator. …A Thatcherite rhetoric of creating choice contradicts itself if it simultaneously destroys opportunity.”
Before most British politicians, Conrad takes as a key example here the way ‘freedom of choice’ alone can destroy itself in traffic jams, and the need for the State to intervene for long-term environmental goals.
“Yet as Conservatives tend to ignore the second kind of liberty, Labour tends to ignore the first. They do not see diversity as good in itself, and they therefore do not see the risk that state intervention, by creating uniformity, may destroy opportunity as well as creating it.”


“Just as we cannot regard ‘rolling back the frontiers of the state’ as a good in itself, so we cannot regard extending the frontiers of the state as that. In the area where Labour and Conservatives fight we are, of our very nature, an empirical party. Hearing, for example, a Socialist arguing for the public ownership of banking and insurance, we do not regard it as good because it pushes back the frontiers of capital: that is a battle in which we are neutral. We want to know what concrete harm it will prevent and what concrete good it will do. Out of a natural suspicion of monopoly, Liberals would be inclined to investigate the argument that this might be an area in which competition is a positive good.

“We are also the heirs of a Gladstonian tradition of frugality with public money. This is not a fetish, and we are well aware of the concept of false economy. Yet, just as we reject the Conservative myth of the inexhaustible private purse, so do we reject the Labour myth of the inexhaustible public purse. Public money, before it can be raised through taxation and spent, has to be earned.”
The third sentence in this next passage is one of those that struck a very deep chord with me – and not just on economic distinctions, though those were the most ‘live’ ones when Conrad wrote The Liberal Cause. It turns up right near the top in my latest longer version of “What the Liberal Democrats Stand For”.
“It is of our essence, then, in economic and industrial matters to be an empirical party. We are not in favour of capital and not in favour of labour, nor are we against either. Liberals think it dangerous to have a government which is committed to being ‘against’ any substantial body of its citizens, and would apply that conviction equally to Conservative views on trade unions and to Labour views on the City. We are not in favour of public ownership, as such, or against it. We want to know which view fits the facts of the case…

“The empirical approach is hard work. Liberal Democrats can never come to a privatisation issue knowing what is the ‘left’ or the ‘right’ thing to think: we have to do our homework before making up our minds. Granted that, it is startling how consistently we make them up on any particular issue. More often than one might think it is clear which way an empirical approach points on a particular issue. It is no objection to our approach to say it is hard work: that is what the real world is like. It is a big objection to the approach of the other two parties to say it is not hard work: they tend to know the answers before they know the questions.”


“Thus far the Liberal Democrats have absorbed new ideas from the new problems of the Twentieth Century, while building them on top of principles inherited from previous ages. Where we have absolutely rejected the ideas of the early Twentieth Century is the basing of political allegiance on class. That is a negation of everything the Liberals and Social Democrats have stood for. It is a negation of the autonomy of the human mind, a negation of the independence of belief which is what our creed is all about. It is a reductionism to define a human being in terms of one only among the many attributes which make him up.”
Conrad closes this booklet with an uncompromising defence of the Rule of Law which would have him scorning Theresa May and applauding Nick Clegg this week over her ludicrous proposal to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights for just long enough to break it:
“Ideals of liberty have always been closely identified with law, and it is not for us to dismiss the law simply because it does not at the moment happen to favour us. Where the law does not, we may, if it seems just had to do so, campaign to change it. We do not choose to ignore it or to flout it. …Law is an instrument for the preservation of liberty: no doubt, an imperfect instrument, but it is the best we have. Without it, there can only be ‘such a war, as of every man against every man’.”
Richard suggested to me last night that Tory-supporting burglars might put the defence that they entirely supported the English Law and always stayed within it, but had merely decided to abrogate from it for five minutes while they smashed that window. That’s what happens when you decide the Rule of Law is only there when it’s convenient – someone else will always find a point where it’s similarly inconvenient to them and your only protection.

Intriguingly, it wasn’t the Tories back then that Conrad distrusted because he thought they played fast and loose with the Rule of Law, but Labour – and subsequent history showed that the point at which Labour most flagrantly ignored the Rule of Law was, of course, the point when they were most indistinguishable from Conservatives. I can’t help but notice how since they stopped being socialists around the time Conrad wrote this booklet that the only thing dividing Labour from the right wing of the Tory Party is their increasingly shrill shouting of party labels (‘Vote Labour because the Tories are evil!’ ‘One Ed good, Two Eds bad!’ and so on).

Conrad had in previous decades spent some time considering his allegiance between the Liberals and Labour; the last few lines of The Liberal Cause presciently reject Labour because their willingness to throw liberty out of the window means they can’t be regarded as “the appropriate vehicle for opposition to the Conservative Party,” though even Conrad didn’t realise the extent to which, having necessarily jettisoned all their socialist baggage, Labour would see becoming Tories as the only alternative. For all that the LiberaTory Coalition has Liberal Democrats working alongside Conservatives, and that you might be tempted to score some Lib Dem MPs ‘vvv’ rather than ‘www’, it’s still easier to spot philosophical differences between the bulk of the Conservative Party and Lib Dems than between the Tories and Labour, for exactly the reason that Labour has spent twenty years throwing liberty out of the window and still to this day knee-jerkingly marches to the far right of the Coalition on freedom. By the end of the 1990s, the Labour Party had jettisoned so much of what it believed in and borrowed so much of the Liberal Democrat alternative to the Conservatives that the Lib Dems and Labour were at the closest they’d ever been. By then, Conrad was one of the Lib Dems most deeply sceptical of the Labour Party, and his terrific book at the other bookend of that decade ended not by reasserting opposition to Toryism but predicting the need to oppose Labour.

The Liberal Cause isn’t merely to choose an ‘enemy’ out of the other two, nor merely to gain power – it’s to promote liberty. And while either of the other two parties might at some point be an ally for freedom, like any other type of power, they need watching as a potential threat. If you look to liberty over the centuries, it’s not just the cause but because of Liberals.


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