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

[What does it mean to be a Liberal Democrat today?] Or tomorrow, for this must be about lasting values.

Above all, to be a Liberal Democrat is to serve liberty. Some are satisfied liberty is won if the state does not interfere in their lives, no matter how much over-mighty corporations or bullying conformity may direct them. For some liberty is an absence of rules, so everyone is free to sail around the world, though many are sunk in poverty and illness. For some liberty is enjoyed by nations or corporate bodies collectively. For us a nation may be independent, but if its people are individually unfree, there is no freedom.

To us freedom is individual freedom. It does not matter who or what prevents you realising your potential: whatever it is, it makes you unfree. Ultimately, it’s pointless to categorise freedoms – economic freedom, social freedom, intellectual freedom. It all comes down to what you can do and what you’re prevented from doing for any reason. The measure is personal liberation.

But we are social animals, not units in a game called the Market. We achieve self-realisation through and with others – through love and community. Free communities, to membership of which no one is forced, are essential to Liberal Democracy. Their strength is everyone’s strength. Without them, democracy withers: people lack experience of democratic politics in small groups that can be applied more widely and when oppression threatens, lack links and loyalties that can stand against it.

We believe in community. Until the 19th century, outside conurbations, strong communities based on geography and faith were assumed to exist. But greater social and physical mobility, a greater role for the state and commercial pressures have changed that. Community politics attempts to reinvigorate and empower communities to control their own destinies. If it fails, the individual is less free because many battles cannot be won acting alone and political controversies, however local, cannot be settled by isolated individual choice in the way we purchase cars. Though individual choice is liberating, the attitude that public affairs (things that necessarily involve the common good and different priorities) can be evaluated purely in terms of personal gain, undermines community and thence democracy.

But increasingly, communities are not only based on locality. There have always been other kinds of community – for example, a community of friars, or of stonemasons, or the Jewish community of England.

While Liberal Democrats must strive to liberate and empower local communities, to bring power closer to the people and to revive free cooperation in common causes, we must recognise that many communities now are not local and these too are important to self-realisation. These too can be encouraged by a range of measures from favourable laws for voluntary organisations to stemming unwarranted government and corporate interference in the internet. Thus fast broadband, for example, is a Liberal cause not only because of its economic consequences but because it facilitates people meeting and cooperating online.

It has become fashionable to treat ‘politics’ as a dirty word. But Liberal Democrats celebrate it as the process by which communities and states resolve issues that affect many people but require a single solution – the vacant land or the tax revenue will be used for this or for that. We do not want to reduce politics, we want to make it more democratic and closer to the people. A society without politics is a society enslaved.

In state socialism, the individual is called a citizen but is treated like a passive recipient of services, except that (s)he is expected to pay taxes and vote. The state knows best and does good to the service user. Oddly, that is also much the approach of traditional, hierarchical, moderate conservatism.

In ‘neo-liberal’ new conservatism, the individual is seen almost entirely as a consumer. (S)he makes purchasing decisions where possible; and where this is not possible, (s)he is still treated as a customer, as the fashionable terms ‘customer-centred’ and ‘customer orientation’ show. Where benefits necessarily are shared – a playing field, for example – calculations can tell us how much benefit the individual gets in return for money or effort.

Neither of these are Liberal Democrat approaches. To us the individual interacting in society is above all a citizen. (S)he makes requests and has rights, but (s)he also has responsibilities. Citizens vote, complain, suggest, question and cooperate to the common good.

We speak of ‘liberty, equality and community’, but the preamble to the constitution of the old Liberal Party said Liberals ‘in all things, put freedom first’. Community can sometimes be a life-limiting force, but strong communities are essential to liberty and self-realisation. And equality? How does it support or limit liberty?

Clearly some programmes aimed at achieving more economic equality undermine liberty: if the government plans and disposes most things, it will be making decisions for people and communities that they could make for themselves. High levels of taxation do reduce the room individuals have to choose their own paths, though so does the collapse of necessary public services, and progressive taxation should impact most on those who already have plenty of choices. That all people are equally valuable, though, is fundamental; and there is no place in Liberal Democracy for deference, snobbery or contempt for ‘losers’. Liberals throughout their history have striven to spread and equalise power as far as possible and this stress on equality of power distinguishes us from conventional socialists; but just as an economically more equal society cannot be achieved without more equality of power, equality of power will always be undermined if there are huge differentials of wealth.

We talk about equality of opportunity, but if people start from vastly different positions in terms of wealth, family connections and the rest, there can be no equality of opportunity. Equally, communities will be weak and divided.

Believing in cooperation, equality and diversity worldwide, we must be internationalists and environmentalists. Without these values, the future of humanity is grim. With them, there is hope.