Liberals have always faced an uphill battle. Even at the zenith of the Liberal Party’s political power, after the landslide election victory of 1906 under Herbert Asquith, the House of Lords blocked key social reforms that could have transformed the UK far more radically than the introduction of pensions, free school meals, labour exchanges, and minimum wages (which were all achieved during the same parliament). In particular, the introduction of a land value tax – the most efficient form of taxation, and one that could transform economies at a stroke – has always been opposed, despite winning the support of many leading economists and commentators including Joseph Stiglitz and Martin Wolf.
This opposition stems from one of liberalism’s most entrenched enemies: powerful groups with vested or special interests. We object to these in every sphere – from political parties that represent only certain groups in society, to landlords and rentiers who make money without a significant contribution to society, to trade unions and other producer interest groups who use their influence to arrest change that would benefit the public. Of course, these groups often overlap.
These groups are powerful because they weaponise the support of their members to maximise their influence, often using methods that are opaque even to those same members, let alone to wider society. Moreover, they harness negative emotion in a way that a party dedicated to the whole of society cannot. At their worst, such groups become tribal, rejecting out of hand the opinions of others purely because of their inherent difference, and whipping up fear among their own supporters. This, in turn, can generate a collective sense of temporary or permanent victimhood that can come to define the whole political narrative.
The UK is subject to many of these vested interests and battered by the divisive forces they unleash. The political and social volatility we have endured over the past decade is merely the culmination of a long decline. But the natural inclination of the human brain towards division – an ‘in group’ and ‘out group’, as sociologists describe it – has been accelerated by the information environment we now inhabit.
The ‘social media’ platforms that we almost universally use can give us a warped sense of reality in which our own interests and allegiances are amplified. Being exposed to a greater variety and volume of opinion has many benefits. It has however made hatred, extremism and conspiracy theories far more widely accessible too. The emerging body of evidence on the way algorithms can radicalise political views and spread falsehood has yet to be fully understood – nor have we developed good solutions for our collective decision-making processes, including democracy itself, in the light of these developments.
We cannot give in to these forces. When we allow them to dominate, we end up with a smaller, meaner society: one in which the powerful encourage the weak to turn on each other. The scapegoating of vulnerable people and groups becomes commonplace. We have seen the vitriol meted out to immigrants, people with disabilities, and people who rely on social security in recent times. Trans people and people of colour especially face constant and organised hatred and abuse online. There will always be people who are trying to limit the freedom of others. Our struggle for generosity and freedom is never over.
There is a final challenge. Some people encountering this vision for the first time will worry that it is simply too generous. This is not correct. Humans are imperfect. That’s why political and economic power needs to be spread out. And it is why any welfare system is, occasionally, abused. A liberal society strives to reduce fraud, even though we know we’ll never reach perfection. But we are honest that it will happen – and that it is a price worth paying for real security and freedom for every person.
Liberals believe in the rule of law, and its use to curb behaviour that does harm. But more fundamentally still, we want people to have true freedom – and you cannot have that without some people choosing to misuse it. This is a feature, not a failing, of a free society. We trust in a liberated people to treat those who abuse the system with justice – and generosity.