Nearer the abyss

The past ten years have seen Britain becoming increasingly illiberal, with the pressures on its democracy triggering ever more draconian centralised measures. It may well be no coincidence that the same period has seen the weakest public focus for liberalism for over forty years. Liberalism is the only political philosophy which provides a basis from which to analyse what is happening to western society and to develop alternative strategies, and yet its current political influence is visibly enfeebled.

Despite the immense pressures on small parties. the Liberal party has survived this decade and has consistently borne witness to the outrages perpetrated on the public by those in office, often assented to by those in the Lib Dems who should know better. However, even though its presence and its clarity has been essential, it would be perverse to claim that it has had any significant influence on the national scene. Seen from the outside, the self-congratulation of the Lib Dems at partially recovering from their self-inflicted wounds has been pathetically touching to perceive. Like a little poodle, delighted at learning tricks from a new master, the Lib Dems have run around happily, wagging their tails but lacking any force or bite, and not even possessing a loud bark. The long march of the Liberals' electoral growth from the late 1950s - uneven, to be sure, but a clear longterm trend - was abruptly ended by the fatal embrace of the Alliance and the merger and the Lib Dems have not even got their vote back to the Liberal level of twenty-five years ago.

I have no doubt that had the events of the early 1980s not been engineered by the then leadership, liberalism today would be immeasurably stronger than it is. Whether or not the SDP could have been "strangled at birth", as Cyril Smith advised, is another question but the lack of confidence in both liberalism and the Liberal party evinced by David Steel was embarrassing and shameful. The loss is not "ours" in the narrow party sense, but the country's in the failure to challenge the repressive and populist short-term measures which are being used to buy a little more time and to hide from the necessary policies.

For the fuller argument for liberalism, and for a more comprehensive analysis of the current political situation, Liberator readers will have to read my Focus on Freedom - third edition now in preparation - but a number of key examples will have to suffice here.

The most crucial political arena is always the organic structure best suited for democracy. It is on this question more than any other that the Lib Dems have failed. In the plethora of different electoral systems now being adopted for existing and new assemblies and authorities, the only one which will use the system which alone can develop a political structure capable of coping with the stresses and strains of the new millennium is Northern Ireland, where it has existed for over seventy years. Preferential voting - the Single Transferable Vote (STV) - is not just one proportional system amongst many, better than the others only in degree, but is different in essence to all others. Despite all their vaunted strength, and their lauded links with the Labour government on constitutional matters, the Lib Dems have palpably failed even to understand the arguments, let alone to fight for them.

The nature and role of the political party is at the core of our present democratic decline and our failure to grapple with the current, and highly complex, political agenda. Leaving an elderly and muscle bound party system intact ensures that the present superficial short-termism will continue. There can be no rigorous and radical debate whilst the parties have to maintain their increasingly obsolete structures, but the changes in electoral systems accepted by the Lib Dems not only permit the survival of these party dinosaurs but will actually entrench their central control over their members and representatives still further.

We ought not to take the survival of western democracy for granted. Increasingly repressive measures are already creeping up on us and will continue to do so. I do not believe that, in its present form, democracy in Western Europe and North America can cope with economic decline. It has traditionally used economic growth to buy its way out of public pressure, and this possibility is now virtually ended - hence the Thatcherite obsession with selling off the assets, and George Soros' shrewd warnings about the dangers of unbridled capitalism. The age old Liberal awareness that human society requires human values, and that the rat race is for rats, is vividly relevant today, but its influence is depressingly enfeebled.

Our polity has to be transformed so that it can draw the citizenry into more active involvement in the huge challenges that face us, without destabilising even further the linkages and structures on which our society depends. This requires a very different kind of political party, more openly based on a broad view of society, more capable of thorough analysis, and more flexible in its ability to develop policy programmes which have the chance of being effective, rather than just sloganising to hide the genuine and difficult choices we have to make. None of this is possible if we have to labour under inadequate electoral systems which actually close the options rather than opening them, and which further entrench rigid centralised parties rather than drawing the electorate into responsibility for choices within parties as well as between parties.

From this lack of awareness of the central problem it is but a small step to the Lib Dems' lack of liberalism on key individual issues. The centralised rigidity of our educational system, the abject failure of the NHS to tell the truth about the impossibility, and often the inadvisability, of delivering clinical answers "on demand", the cowardice over penal and drug policies which pander to populist prejudice, the minimal effort to confront ecological imperatives, the often enthusiastic acceptance of CCTV cameras in public places, the espousal of hypothecation in fiscal policy, the failure to promote aid to second and third world countries that are clearly in need of urgent assistance, and the support of belligerent and ultimately ineffectual foreign policies, often in obedient support of the USA, are all part of the chargesheet against the Lib Dems.

I fear that ten years of submersion in their hybrid party has caused individual Liberals' nerve ends to atrophy and thus their liberal instincts rarely show. How can we re-unite Liberals and liberalism? Even if there are opportunities for Lib Dem electoral success, and it is far from assured, it will be cold comfort if it is so hampered and constrained as to ensure only more of the same. There is little chance for political success without a change of direction. Will Lib Dem leadership candidates tackle these issues? Frankly I doubt it but I would love to be pleasantly surprised!

February 1999