“The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.”
The Liberal Democrat philosophy: our historical roots
In his autobiography, the late Paddy Ashdown looked back on his first year as Leader of the newly merged party - the Social & Liberal Democrats - after wrangles over the short name (‘Democrats’? or ‘Liberal Democrats’?):
“I had, in my rush to create the new party, failed to understand that a political party is about more than plans and priorities and a chromium-plated organisation. It also has a heart and a history and a soul – especially a very old party like the Liberals … I had nearly wrecked the party by becoming too attached to my own vision and ignoring the fact that political parties are, at root, human organisations and not machines.”
“A heart and a history and a soul.” For the Liberal Democrats – the descendants of what is arguably the oldest political party in the world – our history is a central part of our make-up and our identity, of how we see ourselves. Policies or positions, or coalition partners, are, after all, ephemeral. History endures; and that, together with our heart and our soul – or, to put it another way, our values and attitudes and style – the way we think and the way we do politics – this is what really defines us as Liberals.
And you can trace those Liberal values throughout our history. From the very earliest days in the seventeenth century through to today, five key beliefs define Liberal politics.
First, liberty: the belief in the freedom of everyone to do what they want as long as they do not infringe the right of others to do the same.
All political philosophies rest on a view of human nature. The basis of the Liberal view is an optimistic one. Liberals believe in the essential goodness and improvability of humankind – that, given the opportunity, most people most of the time will choose to do good rather than harm. This can be contrasted quite sharply with the opposing – mainly Conservative – approach, a pessimistic view of human nature that tends to be fearful of the future and what it might bring. Tories have tended to do well electorally when they have been able to appeal to people’s fears. The 2015, 2017 and 2019 elections are classic examples.
As Gladstone put it, in the words at the entrance to the National Liberal Club in London:
“The principle of Liberalism is trust in the people, qualified only by prudence.
The principle of Toryism is mistrust of the people, qualified only by fear.”
Given that basic, optimistic view of human nature, it follows for Liberals that as rational beings, individuals are entirely capable of judging their own self-interest. Indeed, they are the only ones able to so judge; no one else, whether politicians, priests or officials, can or should do it for them. Each individual should have the freedom to pursue his or her own ends, to realise his or her own talents and build his or her own life.
The issue for politics then becomes the struggle to create systems, and institutions, and laws, through which individuals can be most free. And one can see these principles in action in Liberal politics throughout history. In the seventeenth century the Whigs fought to curb the power of the monarchy, for equality before the law, and for the rights of conscience, religion and thought. In the eighteenth century the Whig leader Charles James Fox made the case for reform instead of repression, in the face of the threat from revolutionary France.
The Liberal belief in the right of dissent and the protection of civil liberties echoes down the centuries to our own day.
In the nineteenth century, Lord John Russell and Earl Grey began a long series of political reforms, extending the franchise, dismantling the barriers to participation in the civil service, the universities and the military. In the twentieth century, Asquith broke the power of the House of Lords, writing another chapter in the history of parliamentary reform that is still far from complete.
You may be familiar with the famous quote from John Stuart Mill, a great Victorian Liberal thinker:
“The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”
Today that quotation is often used to justify the principle of freedom of interference from state power. Yet ninety per cent of Mill’s ‘On Liberty’, the essay from which those words are taken, was concerned with freedom from society and social pressures to conform: the rights of dissent, of non-conformity, of eccentricity – the right to be your own person. And that principle is still reflected in the preamble to our party’s constitution, with its commitment that no one shall be “enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity”.
The principle of liberty, of freedom, can of course be extended to freedom of commerce and of trade, and that approach became the hallmark of Gladstone’s governments of the Victorian era. The Liberal Party came increasingly to represent the interest of the rising middle classes (among other groups), making their own futures through their own enterprise and effort, not through inheritance and privilege.
The principle of liberty is not, of course, limited to one country, and underpins what we would argue is the second core Liberal belief: in internationalism. Just as people should be free, so too should nations, and just as national laws should extend freedom for individuals, so international systems and institutions should be created which extend freedom for nations, and which treat all nations alike. Free trade should be pursued, not just, or even mainly, for its economic benefits, but for its ability to bind nations together, building common interests in shared prosperity and making conflict less likely.
So it was an international issue that brought the Victorian British Liberal Party together. The foundation of the party is generally regarded as dating from the meeting, in 1859, of three parliamentary factions – Whigs, Radicals and Peelites – where they agreed to cooperate to bring down a minority Tory government over the question of support for the Italian revolt against Austrian imperial oppression.
So it was that Gladstone, again, not only supported peoples and nations struggling to be free but tried to create what he called a ‘concert of nations’, an international system that respected the rights of all states, however small. That belief translated, in the twentieth century, into consistent Liberal and Liberal Democrat support for the League of Nations, the United Nations and the European Community and Union. The most consistent difference between Conservative and Liberal Democrat Ministers that could be seen during the coalition government was over attitudes to the EU.
The third core Liberal belief lies in the recognition that true freedom cannot be achieved simply by removing constraints. Poverty, unemployment, a lack of education, ill-health and disability represent serious enough constraints on freedom to justify state action to combat them. This realisation underlay the New Liberalism of the twentieth century, where Asquith and Lloyd George fought to build a fairer society, where government acted to create the conditions in which individuals could realise their full potential.
Even after the party fell from power in the 1920s, Liberals continued to influence the governance of Britain in this respect. Keynes and Beveridge – both Liberals – provided the intellectual underpinnings for an economic policy aiming at full employment, and a welfare state providing for those in need.
To refer to the preamble to our constitution again, the party retains its commitment not just to liberty but to equality. It’s worth stressing, though, that Liberalism, unlike, for example, socialism, is not a philosophy based on economics; and, unlike Labourism, it is not a philosophy based on the defence of a sectional economic interest. For Liberals, concerned centrally about the control and dispersal of power in society, the principal point about economics is that it affects the distribution of power, and can therefore enlarge, or diminish, the life-chances of individuals.
The fourth core Liberal belief is more recent: a belief in environmentalism, in the need for economic and social systems to be designed to respect the constraints of the natural environment.
Obviously this was much less of an issue in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when British Liberalism was at the height of its political power – though Mill did write about it – but, thanks to climate change, this is rapidly becoming a key defining issue of current times. Liberals were the first of the major parties to campaign for the protection of the natural environment and the first to call for national progress to be judged in other ways than by a simple measurement of economic activity.
Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, thanks largely to Paddy Ashdown, Simon Hughes and Matthew Taylor among others, the Liberal Democrats became widely recognised as the strongest of the three major parties on environmental issues. In opinion polls asking which party had the best policy on a particular issue, environment was the only policy issue on which the party ever regularly came first. Even after entry into government, polling during the coalition still showed us as first on environment, and third on everything else.
The fifth Liberal core belief is again reflected in the party’s constitution, in the commitment:
“to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community”.
Again this stems from a recognition of the limits to individualism. In reality, individuals almost never live alone; they live their lives in communities, whether of family, neighbourhood, region, workplace or interest. You can trace a belief in the value of community right back to the earliest Liberal thinkers, but it came into its own in the context of the increasingly centralised mass industrial society that developed in the UK throughout the twentieth century.
Most famously, it achieved recognition in the widespread use of community politics strategies to win local and, eventually, parliamentary, seats from the 1960s onwards and in the adoption of the strategy of community politics at the Liberal Assembly in 1970. As the 1970 resolution said:
“our role as political activists is to help organise people in communities to take and use power”.
And in today’s context, a stress on community and decentralisation of power also makes sense simply in terms of efficiency. Centralised government is often remote and insensitive to the real needs and situations of local communities. Amongst developed democracies, Britain is one of the most politically centralised – and, at the same time, hardly the best governed.
One final point is that politics is about style and approach as much as about beliefs and attitudes; it is about how we do politics. It’s why political parties feel very different from one another even when they support the same policies. This was a point picked out frequently by contributors to a 1996 book, ‘Why I Am a Liberal Democrat’ – based, in its turn, on a book called ‘Why I Am a Liberal’, published in 1885.
- On the side of the individual: against the state, big business, organised labour – the big battalions of today’s society
- Pluralist: aware it has no monopoly of wisdom, not afraid to work with others, and seeking co-operation rather than confrontation
- Independent: free of vested interests, and especially of any class bias (a very strong link to the Liberals of 1885)
- Participatory: in its internal organisation, particularly in policy-making
- Honest: not afraid to put forward unpopular policies
- Thoughtful: not dogmatic
- Anarchic: disrespectful of authority, and difficult to discipline
Any regular attendee at party conference will recognise much of that!
The Liberals’ start from an optimistic view of human nature, and those five core beliefs – liberty, internationalism, economics as a way to extend freedom, environmentalism and community – coupled with our unique approach to politics, make us quite distinctive from other political parties.
To finish, a quote the refrain from ‘The Liberal March’, a campaign song written for the 1892 election:
“Peace, reform and liberation’
Be our triune aspiration,
Till we win them for the nation,
And our land be free.”
Based on an article by Duncan Brack, Vice Chair of the Liberal Democrats’ Federal Policy Committee and Editor of the Journal of Liberal History (www.liberalhistory.org.uk).