What does it mean to be a Liberal Democrat today? Essay four

To be a Liberal Democrat is to believe in freedom.

Freedom grounded in real life, starting with people as they are. Not ‘The People’. Not ‘Our People’. Freedom based on the unique worth and potential of every individual person, and the understanding that the person who knows best how to live their life is themselves.

Liberal Democrats feel in our guts that everyone should be free to live their own life, that pushing people about and telling them what to do or who to be is wrong. We feel in our guts that everyone should have a fair chance, that prejudice and lack of opportunity are wrong. We feel in our guts the need for a better future, that piling up today’s problems for our kids to deal with tomorrow is wrong. But politics isn’t just about gut feelings and protesting when things aren’t right. We must look at how things really are to work out how to change them, and change our own methods if experience shows us better ways to achieve our ideals. So Liberal Democrats are principle-led, but evidence-based.

Liberal Democrats believe freedom needs both positive help to make it real for everyone, and action to break down barriers to freedom such as poverty, ignorance and conformity. Education is the single most crucial way to combine both. A great education ensures everyone has the opportunity to realise their potential, whatever their background, whatever their choices. Every child getting the best education is central to them growing up with the freedom to live their own lives. If you’re for every person, and you want every person to have the ability to ask the important questions and make their own informed decisions in realising their own dreams, education is where it starts. If you want an economy growing and succeeding with innovation and creativity and where the most talented get ahead, instead of just the most wealthy, education, training and apprenticeships are where it starts.

A fairer society and a greener, stronger economy are interdependent. A Liberal Democrat government would encourage fairness and economic responsibility: an economy that works, that encourages enterprise, and where everyone pays their fair share; sustainable, both environmentally and financially; thriving within an outward-looking, optimistic society that’s open-minded, open-hearted and open to co-operating with other countries to tackle climate change, promote peace and increase prosperity for our whole planet’s future.

Flowing from the starting point that we should be for everyone and that everyone should be free, Liberal Democrats understand that individual people choose to come together in any number of complementary ways – families, jobs, mutual interests, neighbourhoods, nations, the whole human family – and that decisions can be made at any of those levels without excluding the others. That’s why we’ve always been both the most localist and the most internationalist party. Any political party defining itself by just one single identity or community and telling each individual that your birth or your faith or your cash or your class or your country is the only thing that counts doesn’t just diminish people’s lives and hopes, doesn’t just make society smaller, meaner and more divided, but is the mark of a party that’s so stupidly stuck in its own prejudices that it has no idea how real people’s real lives work.

Conrad Russell vividly described ‘standing up to bullies’ as what Liberalism is for. That’s why a Liberal’s gut instinct is to side with the underdog – whoever the bully is and whoever the underdog is at any one time. Any sort of power can threaten liberty, but any sort of power can defend 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 Liberals wouldn’t label any of them ‘the enemy’ or do away with any of them – just as we won’t say any of them are right all the time. A government that bosses you around or that only protects one special interest or only picks on another is just a bigger bully, but when it acts fairly it can also help restrain bullies, from thieves and murderers to officious communities and bad employers.

So if the starting point is people, what’s the end point? Get real! If you start with people you never say ‘that’s it!’ Whether it’s a grandiose utopia that you’ll never finish building or a thousand mean little targets to tick, imaginary end points have two things in common. Believing the ‘ends’ justify the means, they throw real people under the bus, seeing individuals only as statistics or as problems. And they never work. A Liberal society isn’t a perfect society, because there aren’t any perfect people, and certainly aren’t perfect politicians – but an open, untidy society that develops constantly in response to the individuals who form it has the advantage of being about real life. Liberals don’t say ‘We know best’, because everyone’s best is different.

To be a Liberal Democrat is to be wary of grand plans and little prejudices. To say of human nature, ‘It’s complicated’. Anyone might be kind or selfish, creative or lazy, successful or failing. Other parties see that as a reason to control people, because they believe people who disagree with them can’t be trusted with freedom, and they think ‘their people’ will want to do what they tell them anyway. To fear pluralism, diversity, flexibility and individuality. Liberal Democrats have two answers to that (or the instinctive two-word answer ending in ‘off’). Our fear is more that if a government makes a mistake in its giant one-life-fits-all authoritarianism, it’s going to be a doozy. And our hope, based on realism, is that the more different ideas run free, the more brilliant, practical ones will succeed.

To be a Liberal Democrat is to embrace the contradictions – because people are contradictory. Because only one idea has room for how messy, contradictory and wonderful real life and real people are. Freedom.