Sunday, December 15, 2019

GUEST POST Why am I a Liberal Democrat?

Simon Beard explains, with help from Edmund Burke, John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Clarkson.

It seems to me that Liberals have a peculiar obsession with self-justification. Keynes first posed the question "Am I A Liberal?" (he was) in 1925, and many have asked it, or something like it, since.

Indeed, Bertrand Russel felt called to provide two justifications "why I am not a communist" and "why I am not a Christian", while even Margaret Thatcher's favourite Liberal Fredrick Hayek wanted to explain to his readers "why I am not a conservative".

This is hardly surprising. Liberals are, after all, in favour of the individual, while Liberalism is a social movement. We are not natural joiners we Liberals, and so many of us feel the desire to consider ourselves apart.

Yet still, we recognise that what we believe in is worth believing, and what we fight for is worth defending. I think this may be part of the reason why so many 'ordinary people' claim not to know what the Lib Dems 'really believe’. It is not that we do not believe in things; but we feel slightly awkward about it and would really rather discuss something else.

So why am I a Liberal?

First and foremost, I think I am a Burkean. Edmund Burke is often held up as the grandfather of British Conservatism, but that is a load of piffle. Burke was a radical of his day who fought against empire and privilege. He simply did not accept the justification being offered for the French revolution, and that meant he was disowned by other radicals of his day.

Burke's philosophy is not easy to encapsulate in a few words, but let me try. Burke believed in government by agreement and consent; he was a proponent of the social contract. However, in contrast with the doctrine of the time, he saw this agreement as not primarily between the rich and the poor, that would be manifestly unfair. Instead, he proposed a contract between the generations.

Each of us, in turn, takes the place of a dependent child, an independent adult and a supportive elder, and Burke thought that we should view society in this light. He also believed that what the social contract was fundamentally about was building and maintaining institutions that allowed people to get along. However, ultimately, these were only means to the end of a fully flourishing society. As he wrote:
To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country and to mankind.
When the state takes it upon itself to disregard these institutions and reorganise society around one big idea (as the French revolutionaries tried to do) Burke believed that the social contract was violated and society would fall apart. Now, of course, we might make the same point about our stewardship of the environment, and I think Burke would have agreed.

Finally, Burke believed that when we engage in politics, we do so person to person, not thought to thought or idea to idea. Thus, we should choose MPs who we trust to act wisely, not those who would merely represent some pattern or ideal that we share.

Burke was not quite a Liberal in the modern sense of the term, but he certainly was never a Conservative. He was a passionate social humanist, and one of the most profound thinkers our country has produced.

To Burke, I owe my distrust of those (like Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn) who seek to remake our country according to their own designs and who view the institutions we have built up as mere obstacles to be overcome.

Secondly, I am a utilitarian. In my heart and soul what I most believe is that any policy, any choice, must be justified on the grounds that it will benefit the people affected by it, by making their lives fuller and better and contributing to their wellbeing.

However, I am a utilitarian of the school of John Stewart Mill, who saw so clearly that happiness could not be bought or sold or counted or controlled, but had to be cultivated. Our joy, he wrote, will 'come like the air that we breath', but only when we are liberated, supported and empowered, with good health, education, work, a nourishing environment, social connections and a flourishing culture.

I was part of the Federal Policy Committee on Wellbeing and Quality of Life, and one of the things I wanted to say in our report was that government has a huge role to play in supporting people's wellbeing, but that so often people's experiences of the state where that it made them unhappy, by forcing them into a social straitjacket or failing to deliver on its promises.

To the utilitarians, and especially to Mill, I owe my belief in an empowering and enabling state whose job it is to provide people with education, healthcare and financial support, but also to allow them to be who they most want to be. A state that cultivates everyone's garden, but allows their flowers to bloom as they will.

The Liberal Democrats are consistently the party who plan to give most direct support to the poorest in society - while the Conservatives choose to ignore them and Labour focus on implementing their grand schemes - that is as it should be.

Thirdly, I am a Georgist and a Social Liberal. Power, as well as wealth, is distributed incredibly unequally throughout our society, and in so far as we need reform, it should be primarily aimed at removing the blockages built up over centuries to preserve this status quo.

The philosophy and economics of this get terribly complicated; even I struggle with the level of cultishness that can surround them (and that's before we get to the School of Economic Science, an actual cult).

However, two key points are 1) that we pay far too little attention to the distribution of the ownership of land (nature) and its implications on how our society is structured and 2) that corporations are given the same, if not more, protection in how they act than ordinary people and are allowed to get away with massive corruption, even though are without emotions, social connections, family ties and love for humanity and the world around them.

This is not merely about redistribution; it is about calling out the inconsistencies and hypocrisies that lie at the heart of government policy, making it serve the interest of a tiny fraction of the population. Every classical Liberal, from Smith to Mill, envisioned a market of free individuals trading fairly, while every new Liberal, from Green to Beveridge, understood that the distortions of land and corporate power meant this had never been realised.

Yet, somehow people still feel able to describe the deregulation of markets as if it made them freer, rather than more totally controlled by a few special interests.

To the New Liberals, I owe my support for the voices of the small, for small business against big business, for renters against landlords, and for communities against developers. I also owe them my commitment to introducing Land Value Taxation and stronger restrictions on corporations.

These things matter even more than redistributing money, yet they are routinely overlooked by other parties. I think this is also why I am so glad the UK still manages to maintain a third party of national significance and wish we would introduce an electoral system that did not reduce everything to a binary choice, because there is always another perspective on any argument and it needs to be heard.

Fourthly, I am a supporter of human rights. In that old Liberal phrase, I believe that everyone is created equal and endowed with inalienable rights, and I mean everyone and I mean inalienable. Asylum seekers, single mothers, convicted criminals, disabled people, even straight, white, older men, all have the same fundamental rights.

Among these are the right to exist, publicly and as themselves, to pursue their own lifestyle and to play as full a part as possible in society. We must give prisoners the vote; we must give asylum seekers a decent level of support; we must allow gang members to express themselves culturally; we must ensure that everyone can walk the streets safely at night and that people can have a reasonable expectation of being able to get away with making mistakes.

Why? Because we are all human, we are all persons, we fundamentally have more in common than what divides us. And at heart, as those who first codified human rights after the second world war realised, these rights are ultimately protections against the power of others, and in particular the power of the state.

Rights should always stand outside the law and hem it on all sides. From these thinkers, I take an instinctive horror of anyone who sets up groups in opposition to each other, or who adopt dehumanising language for anyone – be they terrorists or billionaires.

Finally, I am an internationalist. Of course, that means I believe in nations, in groups of people who share a culture, a social ideal and a way of life. The hard-straight lines of the state must always be made to bend around the people it claims to serve.

However, it also means I believe that the boundaries of nations and peoples are flexible and fluid and that we realise the best in ourselves when we are open, tolerant and diverse and when we work with others to form a closer international union.

I understand that for many, we need to stay in the EU for economic reasons, for its social and environmental protections, or for peace and security; and I value all these things. However, ultimately, I am with Jeremy Clarkson, of all people, who said:
Whether I'm sitting in a railway concourse in Brussels or pottering down the canals of southwestern France or hurtling along a motorway in Croatia, I feel way more at home than I do when I'm trying to get something to eat in Dallas or Sacramento. I love Europe, and to me that's important.
I love Europe too (though I also love America), and I love what it stands for. I love my village, and my county, and my nation, and my country but I also love that 28 countries have joined together and are trying to form something bigger than themselves. I cannot give up on loving that, and nobody has any right to tell me to do so. Our party cannot give up on loving it either, and that is why I love it too.

This recent election really got me down; not just because of the result (though that was terrible) but because of the way everything seemed to get lost in the question of who could win or who could stop Brexit.

Please Liberal Democrats, do not forget who you are and why you are like that. Do not give up on your history and values and fall into the lie that this was simply a numbers exercise in tactical voting.

We are Liberals, and we have every right and reason to be so. Jeremy Corbyn is not, nor is Nicola Sturgeon. That does not make them bad people, but when it comes to fundamental questions of politics, philosophy and economics, I think it makes them wrong and I feel perfectly justified in saying that!

Simon Beard has a PhD in philosophy and works at the University of Cambridge's Centre for the Study of Existential Risk. He has twice stood as the Lib Dem candidate for Dartford and tweets @simon_beard.

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