What a lack of confidence can do

I didn't for a moment think in 1958 when I joined the Liberal Party and began, almost immediately, to begin to speak and write on Liberalism, that half a century later I would still be trying not just to coax an unevangelised electorate to support Liberal values but more perversely to persuade Liberal colleagues to have confidence in their beliefs. We have a more illiberal society today than at any time over those fifty years and it is Liberals who must bear the blame. They have manifestly failed to believe in their values and, as a consequence, have lacked the confidence to proselytise and to proclaim the most relevant and attractive political philosophy ever. Certainly I have failed over the years to convince the party but I have never lacked confidence in Liberal values. Frankly, it is not difficult to win the argument for Liberalism: the arguments are there, and they just need promoting with intellectual rigour and with an awareness of how to apply them in the wider community.

This analysis is not universally a counsel of despair. There are individual examples of effective Liberalism in practice. To take just one such. The Eastleigh by-election in February 2013 was held in the most unprepossessing circumstances imaginable; the sitting MP, Chris Huhne, had pleaded guilty to a criminal offence, the Chris Rennard scandal was making headlines and the party languished at 12% in the polls. Yet remarkably Mike Thornton held the seat for the Liberal Democrats. Much analytical attention was focussed on the solid local government representation of the party in Eastleigh but no-one asked on what these local successes were based. The basic fact is that there has been fifty years of political Liberal activity in Eastleigh and thereabouts, not least led by Martin Kyrle and his late wife Margaret, so that the identification locally with Liberalism and its values underpinned the local government successes and transcended the adverse circumstances of February 2013.

Although expressed in terms that lack a certain delicacy, I have always agreed with John Pardoe's statement that, "Hatred of the Conservatives is the beginning of political wisdom." The cynicism and opportunism of the Conservative party has always been a spur to my political activity, and my battles against Labour in Leeds over the past forty years have been underpinned by the evidence of that party being simply a mirror image of the Tories.

Even so, the Conservative party of the fifties, sixties and seventies, under MacMillan, Douglas-Home and Heath, however inherently reactionary it was, was nothing like as illiberal as the party is today - a party which now holds similar views on immigration to those promoted by Enoch Powell in 1968 and for which he was summarily sacked by Edward Heath. Praising those with an eye for the main chance and extolling "devil take the hindmost" began under the cold steel of Margaret Thatcher but it has reached its apogée under David Cameron. The sheer lack of compassion and the harsh language used are something new. Just when one thinks they cannot go further, they produce a new outrage - the latest today being the inhibiting of books being sent to prisoners, which is a pointlessly vicious hit on a vulnerable target for a populist gain.

I am not arguing against coalition with the Conservatives. That was politically and arithmetically inescapable and was always going to be painfully difficult, particularly when the ephemerally reformist David Cameron of 2010 turned into the cynical right-wing prisoner of 2013 onward. The judgement of the Liberal Democrat participation in the coalition has to be whether or not the party's ministers have negotiated successfully enough. Nothing more. Incidentally, the Conservatives' vivid reversion to the "nasty party" reminds me of Sir Frank Medlicott's speech to the 1962 Liberal Party Assembly, having returned to the party after some twenty years as a "Liberal and Conservative" (sic) MP: "From time to time I thought that my Conservative colleagues were changing; they were not - they were merely shuffling their prejudices."

My case is not merely for better policies, nor for more campaigning activity, but for an awareness and understanding of on what those policies and that campaigning need to be based. I am arguing, as ever, for a values-based politics and for the enthusiasm and commitment that the vision of a Liberal Society engenders. It was this that kept the mighty handful of Liberals going in the dark ages of the 1940s and 1950s and it this that is manifestly needed today. The party is never again going to flourish primarily based on mindless activism and extra millions of Focus leaflets. Quite apart from the impossibility of maintaining the activity without burn out, or even of permanently outdelivering opponents, UKIP has now grabbed our anti-politics niche, often in identical wording to countless Liberal leaflets over recent years.

Sadly I find myself depressed by my own foresight. In 1979, following a very poor general election result and the election of the first Thatcher government, I asked the party's Assembly committee to embark on a long project to renew and to re-express Liberalism. This began with a half day Assembly debate on Liberal philosophy, at which Russell Johnston as ever spoke brilliantly. My contribution, with community politics in mind, was to say that, "Electoral success may fall unbidden into our grasp but political success has to be worked for." The project to achieve such an aim carried on, in 1980, with the approval of my Liberal Values for a New Decade and then with work on applying these values to the current political agenda in Foundations for the Future. The fourth stage, in 1981, involving the whole party in developing these ideas into a manifesto, was rudely ended by the plunge into the Alliance with the SDP. Once again the search for the "silver bullet" overcame the efforts to build and entrench a political movement with its potential for commitment to a defined set of values.

Let us now examine the state of our society as a consequence of the failure to win the case for Liberalism:

  • Social welfare - the government has crossed a vital line by limiting social security in ways which harm children. Previously, even if a plausible case could be attempted for penalising "feckless" adults, it was never thought acceptable to do it in ways which made the situation for any children involved even worse. Nor is it acceptable to cap benefits in ways that arbitrarily harm vulnerable individuals - rather than, for instance, controlling rents instead of capping housing benefit;
  • The high-handed disdain that imposes the "bedroom tax" without any understanding of the hurt it causes to many elderly people who treasure the home they have occupied for decades;
  • The continuation of the "right to buy" legislation even though a quarter of the properties sold are now being let out by the buyers;
  • The denigration of the concept of "public service", which is pilloried as being ineffective and inefficient, and the promotion of outsourcing and "agencies" acting in compartments and largely unaccountable, even though it invariably leads to undermining key services;
  • The narrow focus on the minority of children more able - whether for academic, social or economic reasons - to gain high paper qualifications, even if travelling miles each day, at the expense of the majority and at a high cost to integration of the school and its pupils within the community;
  • The callous and miserable attitude to immigrants, whether students, asylum seekers or just those seeking a better economic or social life;
  • The imposition of "targets", even for work in which such box-ticking is actually detrimental to the quality of service being provided;
  • The narrow nationalism that suggests that a single country can opt out of globalisation, climate change and transnational capitalism;
  • The determination to keep locking up more and more men and women, often with longer sentences, so that we have a prison population at its highest level ever with a diminishing possibility of rehabilitation and yet no understanding that it is detection that deters not punishment;
  • The increasingly pervasive methods of surveillance, not just of CCTV but of bank accounts, car documents and of travel;
  • The virtual end of local government with municipalities merely agents of the government with almost all their income controlled and earmarked centrally, coupled with the cynical manipulation of grants so that richer areas receive more than poorer localities. Thus pluralism has been seriously damaged;
  • The obscene levels of executive pay which pander to the politics of envy and which provide a malign example to those living in poverty.

All these examples combine to create a selfish and unfeeling society incapable of creating a sense of solidarity, of interdependence and of community. The evolution to today's society has not arrived overnight in one fell swoop but bit by bit over years so that their cumulative effect has less impact. If you want some very trite examples of how it has affected our lives, take just four cases: first, we now, apparently, have to have certain seats on buses designated as being for those elderly or infirm. Since when have we not automatically given up all seats for those in need? Second, is it not significant that we not only now have to seek commercial sponsorship for roundabouts, but the company paying has to have an obtrusive board announcing it. So much for the Quaker principle of doing good by stealth. Third, is it not a a commentary on current values that a high proportion of grants for charitable projects comes as a consequence of gambling on the lottery? Lastly, is it not appalling that at least in urban society it is essential to have a burglar alarm on one's house? After fifteen burglaries I cannot get house insurance unless I comply with draconian conditions for a burglar alarm.

Do we have to accept all this? Of course not. We have to believe passionately that a Liberal society can bit by bit transform how we can live. Alone of political philosophies, Liberalism puts human values ahead of economics. It believes in "the market where possible, the state where necessary." It does not blindly accept economic determinism but places economics at the pragmatic service of society. It understands that human nature is a mixture of selfishness and altruism and that the aim of politics is to enhance altruism and to diminish selfishness. It understands that we are "spirit, soul and body" and that culture and linkages are vital after food and shelter. It understands that electors want to vote for "right thinking" and should not be bribed nor pandered to.

Once Liberals grasp the basis of their faith and become the emissaries for their values, we have the foundation for the necessary policies and for action. The texts are all there. It is the only view of society that has a chance of providing a survivable, civilised and human future. Without it we will sink even further into the abyss.