Thursday 19 April 2012

What is a Liberal - to me?

When I last posted I described how the term "Liberal" has come to mean different things in different places, its roots, and how it evolved in Britain. I ended by describing the party I joined at the end of 1966 as I saw it then.

So if I told someone I was a Liberal and they didn't understand, roughly what would I say?

The constitution of the Liberal Party (before merger with the Social Democratic Party) said Liberals "put freedom first". All other political creeds have at best a conditional adherence to freedom. Nationalism, for example, can be advanced along with freedom or at its expense. Many early social democrats in the Labour movement supported free expression and democracy in Britain because they were the established culture and convenient channels for creating a fairer, more rational and better planned society: elsewhere, as in the Soviet Union, they saw these things as disposable if the end result was their kind of society. But "freedom" means almost as varied things to different people as "Liberal" does.

At its most basic it indicates an absence of control. That can't be absolute, or society would disintegrate, but if I am prevented by law from drinking alcohol, criticising the founder of the state or painting my house in vivid, clashing colours, those are limitations of my freedom. Some limitations are justified to protect the interests of other people or life forms, such as limitations on late night noise or on killing rare animals. But it isn't only the law that stops me doing things. If I'm blind and paraplegic, for example, a mere absence of help will profoundly limit what I can do. In a profoundly poor, disadvantaged community, I may not need a legal ban to tell me I won't be a judge or conduct an orchestra or sail in the Olympics. This leads to a concept of freedom as maximising people's potential. The term "potential" is loaded with hidden value-judgements (what if my potential is to be a brilliant serial killer?), However, I support the idea that maximising people's opportunities is an aspect of freedom and Liberalism. Where I disagree with the "economic Liberals" who have gained leading positions in the British Liberal Party in recent years is that I see opportunities closed off by poverty, by hatred and discrimination and by the actions of big business more than by the legal restrictions imposed by a democratic state.

For Liberals, freedom is freedom of the individual. The freedom of a nation or people from a wider state - of Scotland from Britain, Corsica from France or the Tamils of Sri Lanka from Sri Lanka - should be valued if it contributes to individual freedom, but not otherwise. But stress on individual freedom can lead to an atomistic view of society, again seen among "economic liberals" and Thatcherites, viewing society as separate individuals pursuing individual goals and impeded by government. In fact, we achieve freedom and awareness collectively through relationships. Political freedom is protected by a web of free organisations, universities, trade unions, political parties, residents' associations, pressure groups and charities, churches and other religious groups. When we join and get involved in something like this we are not buying something in the market - we're sharing in common action for something we judge to be valuable.

Promoting such activity is for me essential to Liberalism. We are more free if we can influence our human environment (laws, institutions, roads, buildings, education, social care) and do so by such free association. A passive society getting on with its economic activity and voting every few years for a centralised government might satisfy a social democrat (no intention to refer to the SDP here) because it might be relatively fair and benign economically, but it should not satisfy a Liberal. Hence Liberal support for all kinds of devolution of power aimed at bringing power nearer to people.

The more unequal society is, the more freedom is restricted because masses of people have little choice and little influence on what is done in their name. An academic Liberal when I was a student argued that Liberals and (democratic) Socialists both valued freedom and equality, but the Liberals put freedom first when the two conflicted. I'd add, or amend, that Liberals and Socialists both want equality, but Socialists are more interested in equality of wealth and Liberals in equality of power. Centralised command socialism tries to achieve a degree of equality of wealth and creates profound inequalities of power. Liberals pursue political reforms and local activism to redistribute power, but in an extremely economically unequal society, the rich will always use the power much more effectively than the poor.

There is one last aspect of modern Liberalism very important to me. When I joined the party, raising environmental issues (as I did) made you seem a bit odd in any political party. The business-first economic Liberal parties of some European states are not greatly interested in green issues, but the Liberal Democrats in Britain have pursued them harder than the other mainstream parties (unless you're Welsh, as Plaid Cymru (Welsh nationalists) seems to me to have much better environmental credentials than the SNP (Scottish nationalists). It isn't very obvious to me how this dovetails with the rest of Liberalism, but I suggest seeing the rest of creation as having value and rights independent of human interests (a "deep green" position) is a logical extension of Liberal internationalism and opposition to narrow hatreds and fears such as in racism.

Now someone might point out the Liberal Democrats of Britain are currently in a Conservative-led coalition which is doing some not very Liberal things by the criteria I've suggested. True - and it's doing some Liberal things (stopping I.D. cards, abolishing the default retirement age, tax reductions targeted at the lowest-paid). But the experience of power and of coalition have led to soul and mind searching by Liberals, revisiting questions like "What is a Liberal?". I think that's healthy - and I'll never accept the answer is just "Someone wanting a weak state and an absence of government restriction on civil liberties plus more freedom for business and for individuals to buy what they want in the market".

I'm a Social Liberal. I want a Liberal society.

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