Alex challenged me back in March(!) to write what I felt the Lib Dems stood for, it took a while primarily because on such a subject finding the right words to express what you feel is often difficult. Thankfully, it has been done before in a Lib Dem Policy Paper (Number 50*) ‘It’s About Freedom’ which set out our core values. Reading it I found myself nodding and nodding some more.
Alex asked for two versions, a short version and then a bit of explanation. I’m going to cheat and simply use the first paragraph of the conclusion. What do the Lib Dems stand for?
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.
For the explanation I can really do no more justice than simply present to you what was written, I’ve highlighted a few bits which I think it would be wise for us, particularly now in Government, not to forget:
“The core of the Liberal Democrat intellectual inheritance is Liberalism. We start from the autonomy and worth of the individual. Any interference with the freedom of the individual to live as he or she chooses requires to be justified, if it can be, by reference to a system of values drawn from that primary recognition of individual freedom.
Individuals and groups have the capacity, by their actions, to take away the liberty of others. Therefore there has to be a system of law and institutions which protect individual freedom. Anarchy cannot protect freedom. Democracy is the best known means of achieving that protection through collective institutions, but if it produces simply the tyranny of the majority it is not Liberal Democracy.
Constitutional protection of minority rights, and barriers to the oppressive use of majority power are essential elements of Liberal Democracy, which is the antithesis of the socialist concept of democratic centralism. Experience of the way in which politically threatening power accumulates leads Liberal Democrats to argue that democratic processes should operate as locally as possible. In many cases the lowest possible level for a decision is the level of the individual, and we seek to keep decision-making at that level if possible. Where that is not possible, if a decision can be taken at the level of a small local community, it should be taken there, rather than at national or supra-national level.
Equally, because some decisions have to be taken at the national, European or global level in order to be effective – for example in safeguarding peace, assuring human rights or protecting the environment – there need to be democratic institutions capable of taking decisions at that level.
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. It is part of a liberal society that institutions, whether state, voluntary, co-operative or private should have the capacity to meet these needs while being themselves governed by rules which prevent them from becoming oppressive.
Principles of freedom of access are central to the economic as well as the political sphere; free markets are a part of liberalism because they represent the extension of the concept of freedom into trade. They are also, in many proven respects, effective, but freedom in the market place is neither automatically self-sustained nor sufficient to provide for all those things which a liberal society should have: 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.
Freedoms of present and future generations will be destroyed if we destroy or seriously damage key elements of our environment: sustainability is a freedom issue. Without sustainability we deny choice to future generations. Without respect for the environment we damage freedom today with problems such as flooding, or threats to health and livelihoods from pollution or food crises.
Human rights are universal: the autonomy of the nation state does not take precedence over the human rights of its citizens and Liberal Democrats therefore accept that there are circumstances in which the international community can be justified in intervening, for example, to prevent genocide or to prevent the overthrow of democratic government by violent means.
Liberalism is not confined to a system for prevention of the abuse of power or the destruction of individual freedom, and those who believe in it seek not only the establishment and maintenance of that system but also a better society, in which a high quality of life is available and people recognise their responsibilities towards one another – a good society. It is a characteristic of Liberal Democrats, often drawing on their religious or humanitarian beliefs, to be visionary in their view of what society could be like and what humanity could achieve.
A concern about the danger of accumulated power does not require a narrow, pessimistic or minimalist view of society. Generosity of spirit and enthusiasm to achieve a better society are qualities to be expected of Liberal Democrats. Where Liberal Democrats must exercise care, however, is in ensuring that the means thought necessary to create a better society do not become means of enforcing one view of life and how it should be lived; we reject the use of the state or the law to enforce beliefs. Nor is being a philosophical liberal a requirement of living in a liberal polity, desirable though we might think it to be.
Creating a society which is liberal is part of the contest of ideas within society: liberal democracy is a system which allows people to live together in freedom and peace whether or not they share the same ideas. 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.
Social and economic inequalities are a key issue in debates on political principles. Liberal Democrats are strong campaigners for social justice, but it is important to recognise that we place the principle of freedom above the principle of equality. Equality can be of importance to us in so far as it promotes freedom. We do not believe that it can be pursued as an end in itself, and believe that when equality is pursued as a political goal, it is invariably a failure, and the result is to limit liberty and reduce the potential for diversity.
When equality is pursued as a goal, it also tends to lead to the belief that the central state has the power to achieve it and must be trusted to do so, whatever the cost in liberty. Many of the most repressive regimes of the twentieth century amassed state power claiming that it was necessary to promote equality. What Liberal Democrats focus on is the extent to which poverty and lack of opportunity restrict freedom. These things can justify the use of public expenditure, redistributive taxation, social insurance and active community provision.
The objective of such measures is to make people free, not to constrain them into economic equality, which is unachievable in practice. Indeed, if it were achievable it would require a static economy in which no one could become unequally prosperous by successful enterprise. The concept is a delusion.
Finally, rights and freedoms conflict with each other. The right to free speech can conflict with the right of minorities or even majorities not to be the subject of campaigns to stir up hatred. Religious freedom can be in conflict with a desire to protect young people from oppressive pressures to conform to particular life styles, whether by extreme cults or by traditions such as arranged marriages if they become forced marriages. Taxation restricts the rights of those who believe that they should not be paying towards things to which they are deeply morally opposed, such as military expenditure or abortion.
Liberalism as a philosophy provides no automatic answer to these conflicts of rights: indeed, its belief in democratic and constitutional procedures recognises their existence and provides mechanisms for their resolution. What it insists upon is the recognition that such issues have to be examined in terms of rights, and resolved by balancing rights, not by merely asserting preferences or prejudices.
If, metaphorically, you scratch the surface of a Liberal Democrat, you should find a commitment to freedom, a zeal to ensure that no-one is deprived of freedom, a desire to create a society in which people can enjoy freedom, and a recognition that 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. It is even more important to be sure of these things than it is to be impressed by some aspect of current party policy, however valuable it may be.”
*With particular thanks to Lloyd Harris who made reference to this policy paper in a recent comment on Lib Dem Voice. The Working Group which put together the Policy Paper included, among others, none other than then MEP Nick Clegg.
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