Friday, May 20, 2005

A Vision For Liberalism

The Liberal Democrat election campaign this year was admirably effective at communicating our policies, and went a long way to answering the common complaint on the street that people do not know what policies the party stands for.

However, it does not go all the way to making the Liberal Democrats a party of government. We may be pleased with our new seats, and we are comfortable with ourselves, and we are delighted at the public's response to many of our policies. But we should in no way be content with the current state of the Liberal Democrat party. We are the standard bearers of a tradition that genuinely offers an appealing and brilliant way forward for Britain. It is a tradition long-ignored, and one we ourselves need to rediscover, and to develop into a coherent vision that we can present to the electorate. When we do that, a Liberal Democrat government will become not a matter of chance, but a matter of time.

The kernel of truth this party holds is perhaps one clouded to our own eyes. I believe that is because we still have work to do on presenting the country with a coherent vision and a coherent philosophy, even though one beats within our party: in the blood of enthusiastic attendees at conference; in the sweat of activists delivering Focus leaflets; in the tears of those who either won or wept at their local Liberal Democrat results on May 5th. That coherent philosophy is one of Liberalism, which frustrates the media because it doesn't fight onto the left-right economic determinist scale, and is a philosophy in perfect harmony with the fundamental spirit, traditions and instincts of the British people. We need to rediscover and articulate Liberalism as a cogent vision, and to explain why we are Liberal Democrats rather than Tories or Blairites or Socialists.

At the heart of Liberalism, we believe in freedom: in a health scepticism of the state and the idea that bureacracy and middle management is ever the solution to Britain's problems. Yet, unlike the Tories, we do not have a total faith in the free market. For Liberals, the free market is a glorious steam engine of progress and wealth creation, yet one that needs to set in the right direction, rather than allowed to spin out of control; we could never be uncaring of the human cost, recognising that economic growth must go hand-in-hand with fairness. How do we reconcile those desires to give people the freedom to succeed, but also freedom from the vagaries and cruelties that the free market creates at its extremes?

"Liberalism stands for Liberty, but liberty is not to be won merely by standing aside: poverty fetters; ignorance hampers; disease incapacitates; privilege oppresses; war terrorises. To attack these is to be the champion of freedom." Those words belonged to a Liberal leader nearly eight years ago, although they make my point more succinctly than I could ever hope. Freedom is our guiding principle, but not a freedom to exploit fellow Britons, but a freedom to succeed as individuals on a fair playing field. It is, philosophically, a quest to find the balance between negative liberties, where we free individuals from oppressive elements of the state, and positive liberties, where we feel a moral mandate to help people free of the artificial barriers to opportunity. There's a tough balance between those two elements, but it is one on which the British people have always been based, and one which the Liberal Democrats need to remind people they are based.

We need to begin communicating a coherent vision for this message of liberty. The fact that this is an intelligent and sophisticated approach to government may allow our critics to please themselves by accusing us of "sitting on the fence" and "not taking a firm line". In fact, the Liberal Democrats sit at the centre of British politics precisely because we embody a hatred of statist authority; a love of community; a belief in the inherent promise of individual genius; tolerance for different faiths, cultures and tastes; and a keen British sense of fair play.

Our Liberalism presents us often with conflicting challenges. For example, on taxation policy we must balance our belief in the importance of leaving people with a decent share of what they've earned for themselves, and our belief that the nation has a moral obligation to provide opportunities to those cheated by circumstances beyond their control. We are therefore passionate champions of those achievements of Liberals of the past: the National Health Service, pensions provision, and state education. As Liberals, we are passionate about these- as passionate as any Socialist -for destroying those artificial chains of poverty and inopportunity that cheat so many British people from a chance to shine and maximise their talents.

Yet, we are honest about this dilemma, and willing to engage in a discussion with the public based on the way of balancing this two instincts. I think we have been strongest recently on civil liberties issues, where we see the balance of security and freedom in the same way as the British people. What we need to articulate is a broader philosophy of risk-acknowledged life. Rather than attempting to create a risk-free culture, in which politicians immediately promise to ensure disasters cannot recur, we should be willing to consider whether some securities come at too high a price. When we surrender immeasurable quality of life to reduce by 0.001% our chance of falling pray to a terrorist attack, we must seriously question our priorities. This attitude is reflected in an illiberal culture of litigation, where the common sense of bad luck is eclipsed by an idea that there must be blame behind evcery misfortune. Now, that doesn't mean negligence, but we should seriously ask whether children should be deprived of school trips just because there are no circumstances in which an outing can be completely risk free.

We also need to make awareness greater of Liberal Democrat values and the centrality of value politics to our approach. We are essentially pragmatic, abandoning doctrinaire socialism and conservatism, but pragmatic in our pursuit of goals defined wholly by political moral values. 'Nothing that is morally wrong can be politically right,' declared our intellectual grandfather, Gladstone, and this has resonated through our policies for some time. Yet we can still need to highlight even more that our tough and determined approach to delivering policy is balanced by an unprecedented moral direction and commitment to personal values.

The Social Democrats who joined with the Liberal Party were liberals who had grown up in an age where the Liberal Party was exhausted and in decline. They founded a new home for British liberalism, uniting the party of nineteenth century negative liberalism with the best parts of the party that established positive liberalism. Within the Conservative Party, there are still decent small-L liberals who have seen their party purged of its decent elements by an increasingly extremist, bigotted, nasty party. For them, their principles reverberate in the Liberal Democrats' principles. While our appeal to both Labour and Conservative voters is often derided as being "all things to all men", it actually reflects the inadequacies of socialism and conservatism in representing the lines on which British politics actually divides in the 21st century.

If the Liberal Democrats can articulate the distinctiveness of their philosophy, so different to the authoritarianism of Tony Blair and Michael Howard, pruning the state to make it better deliver for the poorest and most vulnerable in society, and seeking to set loose the power of free markets, yet guarding against abuses of them, then the future of politics truly does belong to us. The idea that the Liberal Democrats are a harmless but well-intentioned group of wooly liberals must be thrown off. The only wool we possess is steel wool.