British Politics Review Sep 2012

Article for British Politics Review (British Politics Society, Norway)




by Lord Ashdown


British politics and society today has been shaped in hugely important ways by its Liberal inheritance. Indeed, until the early years of the twentieth century, it was possible to think of Britain as primarily a Liberal country.


Liberalism is essentially a child of the Enlightenment, that astonishing period in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when people throughout Europe threw off the shackles of the feudal order and began to question everything their predecessors had taken for granted – the divine right of kings, the tenets of established religion, the principle of inheritance as the basis for political authority. The spread of books and newspapers, the development of the scientific method, the acceptance of reason and rationality as the underlying basis for decisions – all mark the beginning of the modern age and its most important characteristic, the belief in the right of the individual to make decisions for him- or herself, rather than having them dictated by monarch, priest or lord.


Liberalism was and is the political expression of this belief in individual freedom. This gives Liberal political parties some distinctive characteristics, including an inherent scepticism towards authority – as I know well from my eleven years as leader of the Liberal Democrats! – and a predisposition to question tradition and received wisdom. Unlike conservatism, Liberalism is a philosophy of change – Liberals believe that the world can be made a better place – but unlike socialism or communism, it does not have a defined perfect end-point – that ‘better place’ is constantly changing, determined by the evolving desires of individual men and women. Unlike nationalist or religious fundamentalists, Liberalism is a philosophy of equality – the belief in the right of the individual to make their own choice is not restricted to particular races, believers or social classes – and therefore also of diversity and tolerance. And unlike revolutionaries and authoritarians, Liberals are reformists, achieving change by persuasion, education and rational argument, not by the imposition of beliefs from above.


The publication of the recent Dictionary of Liberal Thought here in the UK by the Liberal Democrat History Group (Politico’s Publishing, 2007) – to which I was priveleged to contribute the foreword – has helped me think through the ways in which these values have been expressed by Liberal thinkers and politicians throughout the history of these islands. The early Liberals – the Whigs of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries – fought to curb the power of the monarchy, to establish the rule of law and to create equality of respect before the law. Although out of power during most of the turbulent period of the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars, they nevertheless argued for reform, not repression, as a response to the growing demands for greater freedom of expression.


The Whig approach to reform, coupled with more radical demands from outside Parliament, laid the foundation for the gradual extension of the franchise throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, converting Britain slowly into a mass industrial democracy. At the same time Liberals were at the forefront of economic liberalisation, spearheading the campaign for free trade which took root not just in Britain but throughout Europe, marking what was perhaps the first real era of ‘globalisation’, from the 1850s to the 1870s. There was a strong economic case for free trade, but Liberals always believed in it for political reasons too: free trade helped to forge links between nations, bringing peoples together and reducing the likelihood of war. Liberals sought to establish the rule of law abroad as at home, treating all nations equally and seeking the resolution of disputes through peaceful means. Similarly, they supported the freedom of oppressed peoples and nationalities; tellingly, it was an international rather than a domestic issue – the struggle of the Italian nationalists for freedom from Austria – that in 1859 brought together Whigs, radicals and Peelites (former Conservative supporters of free trade) to form the modern Liberal Party.


The party went on to develop in significantly different ways from liberal parties in continental Europe. Acceptance of the New Liberal philosophy of social reform, which justified a more interventionist role for the state, allowed it to adjust successfully to the rise of organised labour in the early twentieth century. It was the great reforming Liberal government of 1906–14 that laid the foundations of the activist welfare state – graduated taxation, higher taxes on unearned than earned income, old-age pensions, social insurance – that Labour governments were to build on after 1945. But this was for identifiably Liberal reasons, in the name of setting people free from the shackles of poverty, unemployment, ill-health and ignorance. Thus the British Liberal Party became and remained a clearly social-liberal party, unlike many of its foreign counterparts, which dwindled into insignificance in the contest between the new socialist or social democratic parties and their conservative opponents. Although in Britain the Labour Party was a growing presence in Parliament during this period, this was largely due to an electoral pact with the Liberals; Labour at first displayed neither the ability to survive by itself nor any distinctive political programme.


Whether the decline and disintegration of the Liberal Party between 1914 and the 1930s was inevitable is one of the great unanswered questions of British political history. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that it had adjusted successfully to the new environment of mass industrial democracy and was set fair to preside over a further period of gradual reform, as it had done since the 1830s. In reality, however, the strains of fighting the Great War left it split into two warring factions just at the time when another extension of the franchise was bringing millions of new voters into the electorate. After a series of political misjudgements, it effectively ceded the role of leading progressive party to Labour, who by then had developed a philosophy and the policies to match, which were more in tune with the rise and eventual dominance of socialist and corporatist thinking in the first six decades of the 20th century.


This in turn had important consequences for British history. Most obviously, the Labour Party has simply not been as good at winning elections as had been the Liberals. In the period of Liberal–Conservative competition between 1859 and 1914, Liberals were in power for thirty years (55 per cent), whereas in the period of Labour–Conservative competition from 1945 to the last election, 2005, Labour governed for only twenty-five years (42 per cent). Even discounting the inter-war period, during which Labour replaced the Liberals, which saw predominantly Conservative governments, the weakness of Labour’s popular appeal has ensured that the twentieth century in Britain has been mainly a Conservative era. And even when Labour has been in power, it has failed to follow a consistently reformist line, most recently and disappointingly, some would argue, in the period of ‘New Labour’ government after 1997; and when it has reformed it has imposed its policies from the top down, rather than through persuasion from the bottom up.


So there is a strong case to be made for Liberal values once again to inform government in Britain. Our belief in freedom leads us to argue for a government which is run as directly by individuals and communities as possible – decentralised in scale, responsive to the needs and wishes of ordinary people, and one which trusts people to take more responsibility for their own future, in stark contrast to today’s over-centralised and over-regulated Britain. Our belief in social justice and freedom for all leads us to fight against the substantial inequalities of income, wealth and access to services that Thatcher’s Conservatives created and Blair’s Labour has done almost nothing to diminish.


Our belief in the rule of law and the preservation of individual liberties against the power of an over-mighty state leads to our efforts to ensure that measures taken in the name of the war against terror do not destroy the civil liberties they are supposed to be defending. Our belief in internationalism and the creation of effective international institutions makes us strong supporters of the European Union, and a reformed UN and, where necessary multilateral intervention subject to the rule of law.


Liberals have noted the massive shift of power into the global arena, where it subject neither to control nor governance. We have always believed that ungoverned power produces lawlessness and instability. Indeed our belief in the principle that where power goes, governance must follow, has been one of the well springs of our reformist tradition. It follows therefore that we accept that one of the most important challenges of our age is to bring governance and the rule of law to the global space.


This principle is nowehere more clearly evident than in the need to respond to what many argue is the greatest danger the world now faces, that of catastrophic climate change. International cooperation is needed to combat a problem that faces all countries, rich and poor. A commitment to social justice is needed to accept that unless the rich countries take the first steps to reduce the pollution they have themselves caused, we will never persuade the developing world to follow suit. The liberal belief in active government is necessary to ensure that effective laws are passed limiting pollution from industry, and making the investments, in renewable energy and public transport, that are necessary for the long term. And the liberal commitment to individual freedom is needed to set individuals and communities free to use their innovation and imagination in working out their own green lifestyles.


Until a century ago, it could be argued that Britain was primarily a Liberal country. Given the steady decline in support for the two other main parties since the 1970s, it may be the case that over the next few decades this will come to be said once more.