“… no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity”Preamble to the Liberal Democrats’ Constitution
To create the society described in our vision requires ten distinct types of freedom that must be extended to every individual. Here are some of the benefits of these freedoms.
Liberated from… poverty
Freedom to create and earn
All humans should have the freedom to use their creativity and talents, whether for financial gain, artistic or cultural pursuits, political activism, religious worship, or any number of other activities. At present, large numbers of people in our society are unable to do this because their mental and physical energies are required simply to make ends meet – and often despite their best efforts, even this is impossible. No economist can calculate the beauty and wonder lost from our world because of the restrictions our society has placed on the freedom to create and contribute. We must reduce the burden on those who want the dignity and peace that comes with a secure, well-paid job – but instead find themselves ripped off, spied on, or otherwise mistreated by their employers. In a liberal society, you will not have to spend excessive physical and mental energy on basic needs.
In the same way, the covid-19 pandemic has revealed once again the depth of inequality and injustice in health and social care. We know that too many people die or suffer from preventable diseases. While much of this depends on the NHS, governments have largely failed to encourage other aspects of a healthy life – from cycle lanes to green spaces to the availability of therapy. We must also correct for the long term the failings of our social care system. In a liberal society, you will have the support you need to improve your physical and mental health, and to be cared for throughout your life.
Meanwhile, individuals often require support – whether financial, educational, or technological –to realise their ambitions. Yet governments often cut support for individuals trying to create new products or services that bring new benefits to society. Worse, they often retain or even extend support or subsidy to large, profitable companies that have no need of state aid or tax benefits. By tackling this unfairness and redistributing resources more equitably, we can unleash the talent and potential of millions and create far greater economic diversity. Therefore, in a liberal society, you will be free to create and contribute to new products, services, and enterprises.
Finally, we all need inspiration. Arts and culture are fundamental to many people’s wellbeing, especially their mental health. But they can also be the spark that ignites the imagination of future writers, musicians, painters, sculptors and film-makers. Governments have rightly maintained free access to some of our country’s key galleries and museums, but this has too often resulted in benefit only to citizens living near those physical locations, especially in London. Liberals want to spread these benefits across the UK, and to see new audiences and appreciators given the chance to have mind-expanding, spirit-enhancing experiences. In a liberal society, you will have greater and more affordable access and opportunity to contribute to inspiring arts, culture and science.
Freedom to shape your surroundings
Humans are creatures of habit. We value our homes and seek to improve them, making them more in keeping with our unique identities. Therefore one of our society’s biggest failures is that millions of people in the UK do not have affordable, spacious, and pleasant housing. Many who do still have little power to change and improve their surroundings, because they are renting from landlords who place restrictions on their preferences. Many more are forced to move regularly, creating permanent instability and uncertainty in their lives. And still more live in unsafe, overcrowded dwellings, poorly insulated from the cold, or with landlords who refuse to make vital upgrades to reduce their energy bills or protect them from fire or flooding. This is unacceptable and needs to be an urgent priority, but governments have refused to act. In a liberal society, you will be empowered to choose the type of housing you want.
After our homes, the place we spend most time in as adults is our workplace. But again, too many of us have had our creativity curtailed and our enjoyment diminished by the ways that those who own and run the companies, organisations or charities we work for choose to control us. There is little room for individual sovereignty here – yet many scientific studies suggest that when workers have greater flexibility and autonomy, they are often more productive. The experience of covid-19 has been instructive for those resistant to change – but there is a long way to go. We need to rethink and reform the relationship between workers and bosses. In a liberal society, you will be empowered to negotiate with your employer for employment or ownership terms that better fit your needs.
Just as important as these changes is to give everyone real power to shape the local communities they live in. We all care about the streets we live on, the quality of the roads we walk, cycle and drive on, the local parks we spend time in. Our high streets remain vital hubs of social activity and local enterprise. Local government is a casualty of centuries of centralisation. This not only harms our politics and centralises power; it also greatly reduces our ability to use our own influence to offer ideas and hold our representatives accountable. Many people have no idea what services are provided by which tier of government. This is not their fault, but the fault of a system in which responsibility is frequently pinned on others, and where decision-making is too often remote from the people the decisions affect. In a liberal society, you will have local representatives with real power and funding – and you will be empowered to hold them properly accountable.
Freedom to move, live and love
One of the most insidious consequences of poverty is that it robs us of choices that others have. An ironic tragedy of covid-19 is that it has harmed many more poor people than rich, but it has been spread all over the world by the wealthy. Frequent travel across national borders – especially by air – is still a behaviour that relatively few people in society ever enjoy, but it is central to the pandemic we all now face.
Inequality of opportunity to see and enjoy the world is bad enough without governments that seek to limit our freedom further. Our governments’ craven failure to appreciate the energy and diversity of people coming from elsewhere to live and work among us, and the innumerable benefits they bring to our society, have led to ever tighter restrictions. This has led in many cases to families being torn apart, living separately because they cannot meet arbitrary financial or employment requirements. We must end this injustice and restore people’s right to build relationships where and with whom they choose.
In a liberal society, you will be free to live with the people you love – regardless of nationality and income.
Building on this right, we must also extend people’s rights to explore the world. Brexit is a small-minded destructive act that removes the rights of all UK citizens to live, study, and work in 27 other countries. We would of course seek to restore these rights as a starting point, but we can go much further. In all the breathless talk of free trade agreements – which according to official government analysis would bring almost no extra benefit to our economy – there is no consideration of what could be done to create more freedom for individuals. In a liberal society, you will be free to explore, travel and work in an ever-growing number of other countries.
A final key point: to say we have the freedom to move is meaningless if we are forced to choose, for example, between clean air and good jobs. If we are forced to live a transient or unstable life so that we can pursue our ambitions, that is also no kind of freedom. In a liberal society, you will be free from false choices.
Freedom to be generous
Because of the enormous inequalities we see in our society today, there is another disparity liberals should want to address. People’s views may differ on the concept of philanthropy: some more cynical people might say that both high net worth individuals and corporations who choose to distribute tiny slivers of their wealth to their chosen causes are securing for themselves an unwarranted halo, while others might simply applaud what they see as a simple act of social solidarity and generosity, welcoming the act of giving, however small donations are as a portion of the giver’s wealth. Whatever our views on the motivations of those who have such enormous wealth that they can afford to become proxies for insufficiently funded public services – whether in their own countries or elsewhere – the choice to be generous should not be confined to so few.
To make generosity a possibility for everyone, we must ensure that people are no longer competing for too few resources. Many aspects of comfort and wellbeing should not be subject to any kind of competition. We must also ensure that people are having to balance fewer competing demands: on their time, their energy, and their money. By rethinking and reforming the way our society works in a liberal fashion, we can ensure that for many people, life will no longer be a competition for scarce resources.
One of the ways we can make this happen is by returning our public services and social security system to their proper place. Rather than being a stretched and threadbare patchwork quilt of underfunded services, incapable of meeting today’s demands, let alone tomorrow’s, we should be honest with voters about what is required to create resilience and spare capacity in key systems like health, social care, and education. This is what a generous society offers to its citizens. By doing so, we can reduce the power of the philanthropists, making charity an optional extra to public insurance and social security, rather than a poor replacement.
Liberated from… ignorance
Freedom to learn and grow
Education is one of the most powerful equalising forces in human society. It is no accident that illiberal governments often seek to limit both the variety and scale of education in our country. Recent examples have included the disastrous decision to cut further education and adult skills budgets at a time when many citizens were struggling to find work or retrain for different roles. A liberal’s instinct should always be to expand the ways in which an individual can seek out new knowledge and arm themselves with its power.
Yet in our society, inequality of opportunity is baked in before many of our children have even learned to speak or read. Social mobility in the UK has been in decline for some time, and perceptions of life chances are drastically different depending on the region of the country you visit. There is a palpable sense of pessimism about life chances for many outside the south-east and London. This pessimism is felt particularly strongly among the young. This cannot stand. Instead, our vision is for a country where everyone has a great education, where money cannot buy you an automatic advantage, and where robust law prevents any such advantage from carrying through into adulthood. In a liberal society, you will not experience lasting privilege or disadvantage through accidents of birth.
Part of this commitment is the imperative to remove barriers and improve access to all kinds of education, formal and informal. This cannot start only from where people currently are. We must also make sure they have all the infrastructure they need. One of the most painful consequences of covid-19 has been the visible inequality of adaptation: some easily moved to a life lived online, operated from a home with space inside and a garden outside, while others constantly battle poor quality equipment, slow or non-existent internet connections, and cramped conditions, or take risks delivering to and servicing those in safety and comfort. For many children, this will further entrench the unequal start they have already had in life. In a liberal society, you will not experience barriers to the expertise and resources you need.
Finally, liberals will always see education as a life-long public good. For too many people in our society, it is something that stops when we turn 18 or 21, after which the horizons of our world contract, rather than expand. It is no wonder that we struggle to keep our minds open, agile, and hopeful when we are so quickly and so permanently consigned to intellectual drudgery. In our vision, there would be continuing access and expanding opportunities for personal, academic and vocational growth. Those who choose to pursue further study should not have to put their financial and personal stability at risk to do so. In a liberal society, learning will be for your whole life, not just your school days.
Freedom to specialise and adapt
Another area where covid-19 may have accelerated change is in the technological arena. Anyone who has followed the rise of modern technology will know that there is deep concern over how automation and artificial intelligence might affect workplaces, taking away jobs from people who do not yet have the skills to adapt.
We believe that the freedom to learn and grow is fundamental to solving this challenge. But so is the freedom to specialise and adapt. For many mid-career people – or even those a few years into a career – a 180 degree turn into an entirely different industry or role may be nearly impossible. It is certainly not something we should expect everyone to cope with on their own. In a generous society, we should rethink and reform the way we support those who need to deepen or alter their skills to create new opportunities for themselves.
Therefore, in a liberal society, you will be empowered to pursue specialist knowledge and skills. This goes hand in hand with a commitment to adult education – but it also honours and dignifies the value that comes from exploratory research. The UK has a proud history of contributing new knowledge to the store of human understanding. Without supporting people into positions where they can uncover this knowledge and share it with us, we will lose touch with that heritage.
But at the individual level, we must also find ways to ensure that no one is left behind by technological advances. While we believe strongly that these innovations can bring massive benefits to humanity – whether through improving communications, healthcare, supply chains or many other services we rely on – the human cost must be counted and paid for in full. In a liberal society, you will be empowered to adapt when technological change creates disadvantages. And where necessary, that change will be regulated to ensure that it brings benefit to all.
Freedom to access good information
The internet has changed our relationship with information. Just as the printing press destroyed the role of the church as society’s gatekeeper, our always-on information system, built on global social media platforms, has drastically shrunk the role of traditional media sources. They have not disappeared completely – with people turning in record numbers to news broadcasts during the covid-19 crisis. But with the shrinking role of journalists, editors, and newspapers, a void has been left behind. is too early to tell whether this will ultimately benefit society as the printing press undoubtedly did. But for now, it is creating enormous volatility as we reckon with a sudden new explosion of information.
Society cannot make good decisions without accurate, trustworthy information. At present major countries are presided over by rulers who do not respect truth and who are manipulating the frenetic cacophony of modern information to their own purposes. This has sadly been the case in the UK, where traditional forms of scrutiny and truth-telling have largely been overrun. Liberals’ fundamental commitment to freedom of expression here runs up against our equally fundamental commitment to intervene to prevent harm to other individuals. Flooding the information system with misinformation is in some ways a new problem, and is certainly creating new kinds of harm.
In a liberal society, you will be free to find and use trustworthy information, and you will be empowered to hold the powerful accountable. Armed with this information, you will be able to make the best decisions for yourself, your family and your community.
Liberated from… conformity
Freedom from economic demands and anxiety
One of the key aspects of individual sovereignty is the belief liberals maintain that all humans have inherent dignity and worth. We must not allow this to be eroded by the way our economy is structured. We are too easily taken in by the idea that if a human is not economically active, or if they are not ‘paying their way’, they are somehow less worthy of respect and support. This is not the case. It is also what leads to bad policy – such as the current attempt by the Conservatives to equate the salary people are paid with the skills they have. In fact, the opposite is often the case: those who bring the most value to others in society are paid the least. In a liberal society, your worth and dignity will not be defined by your economic potential.
Moreover, because of the inherent worth and dignity of every human being, we cannot allow society to accept premature deaths as an acceptable price for economic recovery and growth. This is particularly relevant now, in the context of covid-19, where the UK has already seen far higher numbers of deaths than other countries partly because of reluctance to jeopardise our economy, and where we are likely to see even more because of a premature return to so-called ‘normality’. But sadly, it is also the logic of the way economic decisions are often made –with the wealthy cosseted, and those who are vulnerable left to fend for themselves. In a liberal society, your life will no longer be considered an acceptable loss in the name of collective prosperity.
Freedom from state and private intrusion
Another deeply troubling aspect of the technological revolution has been the creation of the so-called ‘surveillance economy’. This builds upon natural human curiosity by capturing and monetising our attention, often using methods that are not transparent to us, and which are based on the science of addiction rather than focused on social benefit. Because of the overwhelming success of these methods, private companies have been able to offer us unprecedented convenience, transforming the way we live and our expectations of what is normal.
But along with this convenience comes a threat: that our information and our data – willingly or unknowingly given – will be used against us. Many examples exist of private companies and political parties testing new methods of targeting on certain customers or voters, or sharing their data illegally with third parties. More troublingly still, the number of data breaches has escalated, with bad actors stealing information on thousands or even millions of people. All of these behaviours risk the privacy and sovereignty of each individual, and are often left unpunished. In a liberal society, you will not be treated as a gadget, a guinea pig, or a data point, and you will have more power and visibility on how your data is used.
Freedom to express yourself fully
The final freedom is perhaps the most important. It is what all the other freedoms aim to achieve. Humans are infinitely unique and different from each other. It is time that a political party had the courage and the vision to talk about this variety – and not just to talk about it, but to cherish it, to nurture it, and to govern in such a way as to see it flourish and grow.