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

As members of the Liberal Democrats, we often hear the claim that we already live in a liberal country. Liberalism is mainstream, we’re told, across our communities and our political parties. In fact, the argument goes, we live in one of the most liberal societies in the world.

After all, every major party supported gay marriage, the gender gap is narrowing, and even the old class system is slowly, slowly, so painfully slowly on the wane.

The state’s attempts to impinge on privacy are rebutted time and time again – or have been up until now – we keep spending on international development even when we’re hurting at home, and each Parliament is more diverse than the last.

We have much to be proud of, and rightly so.

But in a truly Liberal Britain, there would be as many women sitting round the directors’ table as men. The best pupils from our state schools and from our private schools would have the same chances at Oxbridge and beyond. Our police would look just like the people they work so hard to serve – as would our soldiers, and as would our politicians.

In a Liberal Britain, migration wouldn’t be a source of fear, it would be a source of pride. Immigrants would be celebrated for strengthening our economy, enriching our society and invigorating our culture. British values would amount to more than a ‘No Vacancies’ sign on the door, they would be globalist, welcoming, caring, just.

Companies that pay their fair share would be celebrated, child poverty would not just be measured but eradicated, and the terminally ill could choose dignity over suffering, in their own time, in their own way.

A Liberal Britain would not only take its fair share of refugees, but make the case that our neighbours should do the same. A Liberal Britain would lead internationally, championing multi-lateral nuclear disarmament, Security Council reform, the rule of law, and the supremacy of human rights. But a Liberal Britain would never use arms to spread its values, only to defend those who can’t defend themselves.

Above all, Liberal Britain wouldn’t scaremonger, wouldn’t pit Us against Them, and wouldn’t seek to profit from division and discord. A Liberal Britain would give everyone a fair chance, be unafraid to put trust in the goodness of ordinary people, and be unafraid to call to account those who abuse that trust.

We’re not there. We’re not even close.

As Lib Dems, we believe that Britain’s not Liberal enough. This is what we’re about. This is why we’re here. It’s time we made sure people knew it.

But at election time this year, we didn’t manage to do so.

There were many reasons that the general election turned out as it did. On May 8th Nick Clegg told us that fear was to blame, and he was right. But hope played just as important a part.

It was hope that took votes from the Lib Dems: Ed Miliband’s hope that shackling business would help the poor; the Greens’ hope that uncoupling ourselves from our addiction to economic growth would deliver social justice; the SNP’s hope that a fiscally empowered Scotland could abandon austerity.

Each of these visions is as misleading as it is inspirational.

The general election amounted to a choice between a pair of firm Tory hands on the reins and the whip alike, and myriad loose notions of where we ought to be heading – but never how to get there.

That gap represents a gulf in British politics, and one that has only widened since the election. There is no serious, inspirational, practical-minded party of principle in Britain’s opposition. There is no party that makes voters feel listened to, trusts its instincts, and speaks honestly, bravely and above all responsibly about how to deliver equality, liberty and prosperity to Britain.

This is natural territory for the Lib Dems.

It was the Lib Dems in government that softened austerity, and by so doing eased the brakes on the economy. It was the Lib Dems that defended civil liberties, championed employees’ rights, protected immigrant children from routine detention, and spared the UK’s three million lowest earning workers from paying income tax. It’s a record to be proud of, and the reason why I decided to become a member.

But no matter how strong those achievements, we are out of government because – just like today’s insurgent parties – we offered hopes that we couldn’t deliver.

The election result may seem bitterly unfair. But when seen through the lens of the anger, the disillusionment, the sense of betrayal – perhaps in one sense we deserved it. After all, we lost the most important thing we had: the trust of our supporters.

It is only by facing up to this hard truth that we can seize the opportunity in front of us. Until we do so, to be a liberal today is to be lost, directionless, unrepresented.

The Liberal Democrats haven’t provided the leadership that liberals across the country need. We haven’t carved out a ground that is ours, developed a distinctive vision, or convinced liberals that we’re the party for them.

Liberals see the country that gave birth to liberalism rejecting refugees and asylum seekers because ‘the country’s full’. They see the supposedly ‘liberal’ wing of the Conservative Party champion the old over the young and the well-heeled over the well-trodden.

Now’s the time to show Britain’s despairing liberals that we’re the party for them. Now’s the time to provide that leadership.

But we’ll only do it by painting a clear picture of the society we want to build. If we want to lead amongst liberals, we need to tell them – confidently and clearly – exactly what a 21st century Liberal Britain should look like, and how far we’ve strayed from that vision.

It’s time we meant sure than being a liberal meant being a Liberal Democrat.