The personal realm
Liberals have long been in the vanguard of the movement for greater personal freedom. There are countless differences in how humans appear, live, and interact with others. This creates natural and beautiful variation. But societies and governments the world over reject this natural and beautiful variation. They instead misuse legal systems and whip up hostility to force people to conform, to stigmatise and punish them, and to prevent them from benefiting from the protections, rights, and social acceptance that others have long enjoyed.
Even when societies are less directly antagonistic and restrictive, we see time and again that some people are forgotten and excluded by powerful people with no knowledge of their lives. Those with disabilities often have to fight to be remembered by our government and our public services. They have faced punitive sanctions at Jobcentres, must often fight to afford food and warmth, and face discrimination in the workplace – all while their costs are higher than others’ to start with. Even MPs with disabilities, whom we have elected to represent us, were temporarily disenfranchised by a government that insists on risking their health by enforcing physical voting. In a liberal society, everyone is valued. No one should be an afterthought – instead, we must empower people to be able to fully participate as equals.
The systemic racism that shames our country and many others must cease. Whether it is the protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd, the tragedy of Grenfell, or the disproportionate loss of black and brown lives to covid-19, we see examples daily of this injustice. The tragic death of Belly Mujinga, the railway worker spat at by a man claiming to have the virus, perhaps draws together these threads most acutely. A generous liberal society demands more than future equality, but justice for past and present crimes. It is time that our housing, our policing, our justice system, our public services and our politics all reflected and honoured the rich ethnic diversity of our society and all those who contribute to that diversity.
Just as we are coming to see race-based bigotry for what it is, simplistic beliefs in two genders, two roles, or one sexuality must also be consigned to the past, despite the best efforts of conservatives on both the right and the left to cling onto them. But our laws and society still do not reflect scientific evidence nor lived reality for countless people who feel forced into moulds that don’t fit. And there are still more powerful, influential people whose lives are dedicated to stopping them from having the freedom that is their birthright. Liberals must fight passionately to ensure they have that freedom, and soon enough that it can be enjoyed in full.
For all those who have been subjected over centuries to bigotry and ignorance, access to justice is especially vital and urgent. A liberal society is one where people can challenge and overcome injustice without disadvantage and without being forced into poverty. It is time to start listening seriously to those who have suffered injustice the longest, and putting their ideas into action urgently. By doing this, we will also build a stronger foundation from which we can demand justice from other nations that have too long ignored their own bigotry and injustice. And we can create truly just laws that anticipate and encourage wider social change.
Any vision for a liberal society must start here: nonconformity is the wellspring of wellbeing. The pressure of conformity reduces the richness of our individual and collective lives and robs us of the most precious freedom of all: our unique identity. Every single person must feel inherently accepted and valued. Liberals are traditionally good at standing up for the weak against the strong, and being champions of the marginalised and the oppressed. But our vision must be of a society where no one needs to fight for extra support or protection just to be themselves.
The political realm
This embrace of individual expression and self-confidence can only be achieved if we extend true choice and individual sovereignty into the political realm and the public square.
It is here that the collusion of our authoritarian opponents is most blatant. This is because they know fundamental change to how our society works can only come through the political system. The limits they deliberately place on our right to choose those who govern us are the source of a galvanising anger for some, and deadening apathy for others. For all that Brexit is a catastrophic policy for individual rights, the economy and the nation, this is perhaps its greatest crime: offering false hope to people who have been offered almost no representation, no control, and no choice in the decisions their governments make.
Taking the same principle of nonconformity, our vision for society is pluralistic. We believe in proportional representation not merely because it is the obvious mathematical and ethical way to construct a real democracy. We champion it because it allows new and awkward voices to be heard, and overbearing voices to be put in their place. The concept of long-lasting, single-party majority government ought in itself to worry a liberal.
Instead, our vision relies on a political system that maximises enfranchisement and representation – extending it beyond citizenship and nationality, to all those who are directly affected by decisions made in government, and who are subject to direct taxation. Everyone with a stake in society should be represented. Our vision, in short, is of a society where everyone has a voice and a stake, and where power flows upwards only where this meets our needs efficiently and fairly.
The social realm
A standard definition of the social realm might be the area where we use our identities and skills – both to earn a living through work, and to spend what we have earned on leisure and loved ones. But the pandemic has also highlighted the importance of the non-monetary benefits we gain from living in communities, and how much poorer we are without them.
Here, again, decades of illiberal government have resulted in our choices being snatched away from us. At a fundamental level, people are increasingly questioning whether the very concept of work is still relevant in a time where scarcity of resources is becoming less relevant. If resources were distributed more efficiently throughout society, it is possible that far fewer of us would need to work as much, or at all; something the great liberal economist John Maynard Keynes had predicted that has not yet come to pass.
The great tendency of socialists and capitalists alike is to treat human beings primarily as units of labour. This again diminishes human variety and imagination. Liberals instead believe in a diverse economy: one where those who wish to sell their labour can do so at a fair rate, but one where others can choose to retrain, start their own enterprise, or become part-owners of their workplaces. By treating all those involved as adults, and encouraging cooperation and creativity, we can finally move away from the obstructive, adversarial practices of the more militant trade unions and the exploitative actions of greedy bosses.
Our idea of the social realm must also encompass the natural world. Climate change continues to be a great unaddressed challenge of our time. Liberals have always understood the importance of ensuring that the great diversity of all living things is protected. But for too long attempts to address this problem have been focused on mitigation of harm, and not expansion of our ambition. We should find new ways to present the benefits of following science – including the richness of a life of travel, exploration and adventure. The covid-19 pandemic has awakened many people’s hunger to spend time in open spaces and to see wild, untamed, awe-inspiring places. This is an opportunity to reframe our common goals. It is time we honoured the natural world we depend on, and do all we can to ensure that future generations can have the same freedom we have collectively enjoyed – even as we expand that enjoyment to everyone today.
Our vision is ultimately for a society where every individual can enrich themselves, materially and spiritually, in the ways they choose. For liberals this is not purely financial. People may choose to forgo wealth, a larger income, or a more ‘successful’ life in exchange for time, privacy, pleasure, or education. Many people also use their time, energy and money to contribute to the rest of society. While we believe in a more equal society – both in terms of opportunity and outcome – we also believe in the ingenuity of humans to define their own happiness and seek it, regardless of what that may look like to others.
The global realm
Liberals are committed internationalists – believers in free movement of goods, services, people, and ideas. It is for this reason that we so strongly support cooperation between countries to enable these freedoms. We support international organisations including the European Union and the United Nations because they offer the chance to advance liberal goals, enhancing individual sovereignty around the world.
Globalisation has had many positive effects on the world. It is also fundamentally liberal to allow people and goods to flow freely around the world. However, the expansion of cross-border trade and an internationalised financial system has also created huge downsides. The UK has played an outsized role in the damage done. The City of London is arguably the financial centre that has most enabled illicit financial flows from the developing world, stealing wealth from the citizens who create it, and placing it far away where it cannot be taxed or otherwise recovered. Crown dependencies and overseas territories governed by the UK are often the recipients and guardians of this wealth.
Rule of law ensures no one is above or outside the law, upholding our deeply human sense of fairness and justice. But our own governments have eroded even this – the foundation upon which a liberal society rests. Most recently, the dangerous populist antics of Theresa May and Boris Johnson, threatening our European allies and then our own parliament, media and judiciary, have contributed to deep divisions in our society. Liberals want rulers kept in their place – and held accountable when they break the rules they set for us all.
The principle of individual sovereignty is once again our guiding star as we consider the UK’s place in the world. It was partly because politicians have failed to articulate the great value of international cooperation in expanding individual freedoms – not only in the European Union, but especially there – that so many voters ultimately chose to torch their own right to travel, study, work, and live in 27 other countries.
But liberals also know that we have a responsibility to every human being. The best reason for the UK to assert itself internationally and maintain a strong commitment to rule of law is as an advocate and guarantor of the same rights in other countries. The more we erode our national standing, the less we are able to do that. Our vision is of a society that can be proud of Britain’s achievements in and for the world.