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

Some things do not change. Liberalism is always, everywhere, about freedom. Historically this was freedom from – from political or religious authority; from the king, the church, or foreign power. In the West many such freedoms have been won, or re-won. But, though freer, are we free from want and sickness, custom and convention, from the pressure of the norm, from worry, fear and hate, from ignorance and prejudice? There are many battles still to be fought.

The test for a liberal is always freedom for an individual, not a sect or class, nor group nor gender, but freedom for the person, however they term themselves. We judge our freedoms by ever-changing benchmarks; as each summit is reached we see distant horizons, further freedoms beckon. Gaining political freedom, we seek social, sexual, economic freedoms now. We are ambitious for ourselves. We treasure personal liberties. Being free, growing in freedom, is a process, not an achievement; a journey, not an ending.

But even as we reach for new freedoms, our old ones are constantly under threat. Truly, ‘the price of freedom is eternal vigilance’. Are we free, politically, if government can view our every digital secret? Are we free when subject to the agendas of the media, or the power of corporations? Are we free to breathe clean air when companies disguise emissions data? Are we free when governments are economical with the truth, or conceal, or mislead, or lie? Are we free when facts are withheld, or figures massaged or protest kettled? Are we free against the onslaught of advertisers? Are we free from the dictates of fashion and beauty? Are we free in a fog of created needs? And, at the end, are you free to die as you wish – or do you have to go to a foreign land to do so? Our freedoms are still fragile, incomplete; they will always call upon liberalism. The dragons are never slain.

But liberalism is ever optimistic; it is driven by hope. We wish for freedom for and freedom to. And liberals always will, always should, shoulder responsibility. With freedom comes the knowledge that freedoms clash. So we learn to respect the freedom of others; we make a virtue of tolerance. We recognise responsibility: responsibility for ourselves, for each other, for animals, the natural world, our shared and finite planet. Responsibility has a so much wider reach than that of rights. Responsibility is self-critical, generous, tolerant, far-sighted. Responsibility grows.

Because freedom is not about just claiming rights. It is recognising that freedoms for others may demand restraint in us. And self-denial frees us from our selfish selves. A social life is not just me; but us, together. In a world of finite resources, freedom has to be more than self-indulgence; it has to be self-knowing, so that we are aware of consequence, anxious of effect, sensitive to difference. Being selfless brings its own rewards. Shouldering responsibilities is, like liberalism itself, a process. Some we have, or learn, from our earliest years. Some we acquire, with knowledge and controversy, age and experience. As we grow into a sense of our place in the world, so we can embrace a mutual aid. We trade in freedoms for common advantage. We compromise the I for Us, and feel the richer for it. Ask any parent.

But haven’t we achieved all necessary freedoms? For which, some questions! Would you trust government with your data? Are businesses always honourable? Are women free from glass ceilings? Are minorities free from discrimination? Are hate and bigotry, ignorance and prejudice banished from history? Are people celebrated and loved whether fat or thin, old or ugly, weak or disabled, frail – in body or mind?

And so we reach a cherished child of liberalism – education – the hope that knowledge, ideas, argument, debate, can widen our outlook, increase understanding, deepen our tolerance. Nothing can be more effective against bias or belief. A broad, thought-provoking education prompts each of us to reflect at length, to take account, to value difference, to choose with care. It tears down ignorance, tears up prejudice and hate. It fosters friendship, kindles kindness. The playground breaks down barriers more effectively than any adult endorsement, any official policy.

So where are we liberals today? We are still right to resist the over-mighty state, whether of the authoritarian right or socialist left. In a complex modern economy the tentacles of government reach everywhere. Regulation touches every aspect of our lives: how we live, how we school our young, how we endure sickness, how we travel, how we play, how we eat and drink, and how we die. Liberals distrust government, even when they aspire to it. They wish to devolve and disperse and diffuse power; they favour variety, diversity, over uniformity. Liberals are driven by the urge to be free – from authority, however exercised, from power, wherever imposed, from convention, whenever felt. For the liberal the journey is always towards freedom, so that individuals can enjoy, for each their brief allotted span, the fullest, most fulfilling life.

For oppression is not just political – it can be economic. How are we free if the rich are always freer – from want, from injustice, from punishment? If wealth was only ever obtained by graft, the industry, invention of the individual, it would be difficult to rail against. But it is also inherited, enhanced, protected, preserved by all the invisible networks of birth and power. This cannot sit easily on a liberal conscience. We feel an imperative to break down privilege, redistribute wealth, provide good housing, hospitals and schools for all. We wish to defend our freedoms but reduce our social, economic and regional imbalances. Why? Because if we are not fair, how can we be free?

Stephen Worrall – High Peak

I joined the Liberal Democrats in 2011, having voted for them in 2009 and 2010 in Local, National and European elections. To me liberty and freedom of the individual are of the absolute, utmost importance and to this day the Liberal Democrats are the only party that truly and honestly believe in those ideals. They believe that everyone should be free to live their lives as they see fit providing they are not harming others. People should be free from harassment, free from intimidation and free from excessive government interference in their lives. Only the Liberal Democrats truly believe that we are all equal and that is why you should join.

Martin Kyrle – Eastleigh

Martin Kyrle joined the Liberals fresh out of university, primarily because the party supported proportional representation without which, in his opinion, no country is a true democracy no matter how many elections it has. As he explains, he saw no point in belonging to something unless one also took some interest in what it did, and little by little he got drawn into becoming a Liberal activist. Over half a century later he still is.


The Liberals in Hampshire – a Part(l)y History Part 1: Southampton 1958-65 and The Liberals in Hampshire – a Part(l)y History Part 2: Eastleigh 1965-72 by Martin Kyrle are priced at £5 and £6. Orders should be emailed to martinkyrle@fsmail.net.

Dave Raval – Leicester East

I was a bit of a late starter in politics. I deliberately didn’t get involved at university and I thought I ought to go out and learn a bit about life first, so I got my degree, got a job and lived abroad.

Then a few years later, at a General Election back in the UK, I bought the manifestos of the three major parties, plus the Greens, and read them from cover to cover. The Lib Dems stood out for me as the most well thought-through, most honest and most sensible manifesto of them all, and I signed up. Things that swung it for me included equality, the environment and economic credibility.

I never expected to stand for Parliament. I thought I’d leave that to ‘politicians’. But the more I saw of the Lib Dems, the more I realised that they were just normal people who believed in something and wanted to make a difference. So I got involved in local politics, then national politics, and now I’m a Parliamentary Candidate.

At the end of the day, you can spend your life talking (or moaning) about things, but nothing changes unless people actually try do something different, and stand up for what they believe in. So that’s what motivates me.

Janice Spalding – Basingstoke

I had voted Liberal since I had been able to vote as I watched a party political broadcast where the party was not rooted into one ideology or another, choosing whatever fits best. On joining the party ten years ago I have learned it is the only party that allows its members to propose party policy and really debate it at conference. So it genuinely is a People’s party funded by its’ members.

If I hear that we abandoned our principles to form a coalition with the conservatives – I say remember what a mess the economy was in, and that we knew a stable Government would be good for business and that’s why we did it – not for the good of the party, for the good of the country. And I can honestly say no other party would do that, and if you look at the smaller parties they are all saying now that wouldn’t form a coalition as they fear they would get hit by losing councillors in the forthcoming years. They would agree each policy one by one. So there would be no plan – and they say in business fail to plan, plan to fail.

Robert Swift – Gedling

I came from the SDP and therefore became a LibDem when the party was formed in 1988.

It always seemed so obvious to me that the choice of two opposite parties based an outdated class conflict, urban/rural north/south split was no way to run a country. Politics should be firmly rooted in the centre, in common sense and consensus.

I have been through the lows and the highs, building things up from when we were the Social and Liberal Democrats, with 6.2% of the vote in the 1989 Euro Elections, right up until 2010 when we finally entered government under the leadership of Nick Clegg. What people should understand is that the LibDems are hardy folk who are used to fighting for every vote. We don’t have safe seats and unlike Labour and Conservative we don’t believe in simply sitting back and waiting for the other one to mess things up so we get our turn. LibDem councillors and MPs work far harder than the other parties for this reason. There is no sense of entitlement here and if we take a knock this election or any election then we will listen and learn and build it back up again!

Warren Brown – Liberal Youth

I recently joined the Liberal Democrats in March 2015. My first experience with the Liberal Democrats was at a party event organised via college in Birmingham in 2010. One key term dominated, which was Social Justice.  What I found fascinating was the positive community led scheme that was happening and a strong commitment, that no matter what race, sex, religion, sexuality or nationality the Liberal Democrats make sure there is equality of opportunity. For me Liberal Democrats have continued to protect these essential values in coalition. As a young person in 2010, I was not able to the vote in the general election,  one day, I hope the voting age is reduced to 16. Seeing the great progress the Lib Dems have had in preventing the Conservatives from swaying too far to the right when essential cuts had to be made, I think it’s more crucial than ever for the Liberal Democrats to have a voice and stick up for a fairer society in government.