The word ‘liberal’ – at least as used in modern politics – has a strong case for being the most mistreated in the English language. It is casually strewn throughout discussion of politicians, activists and media figures from all parties and none. Most egregiously, it is often forced into use as an adjective attempting to amend and soften nouns that are its natural opposite, in unwieldy formulations like ‘liberal conservatism’ or ‘liberal socialism’.
Since the Liberal Party faded into obscurity, replaced by the Labour Party as the major opposition to the Conservatives, the understanding of what liberalism is, and what liberal parties stand for, has faded too. Almost no one living in Britain today has experienced a liberal government. Almost no one in Britain can likely conceive of a majority liberal government in the next decade. Meanwhile, the five years of coalition government between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, with its 5:1 ratio of MPs, has only served to confuse people more about what liberals believe and want – a severe political failure.
Other parties have often borrowed at least some of liberalism’s clothes and – in particular – its policies relating to social and cultural freedoms and equalities. We can think, for instance, of Roy Jenkins’ liberal policies as a Labour Home Secretary, during which time abortion and sex between men were decriminalised (with Liberal Party support and in the latter case, via a Liberal MP’s private member’s bill) and censorship was reduced. Later, the advocacy of Lib Dem MPs secured the legalisation of same-sex marriage, introduced gender pay gap reporting and successfully outlawed ‘upskirting’. These changes and others have ensured that the UK remains a ‘liberal democracy’ in many people’s eyes. We naturally champion and welcome change that results in more equal rights under the law and reduces discrimination.
Despite our relative lack of influence in raw numbers, this demonstrates the continuing power of the liberal approach. Throughout our time in the political wilderness, we have nonetheless pushed other parties to adopt our policies and shamed them into changing their mind. Starting with the post-war expansion of the welfare state – based on the Liberal William Beveridge’s great proposal for a national health service, and the 1906 Liberal government’s social reforms (pensions, free school meals, labour exchanges, minimum wages, health insurance, and many others) – there have been many subsequent achievements proving liberalism punches well above its weight. The pandemic’s enormous impact on our country and our world offers a similar opportunity for change.
Clear examples in recent memory are the Iraq war and Brexit: two grave errors on which the Liberal Democrats provided the main opposition in both cases, either because the major parties were united or because they could not agree among themselves. Liberals were fighting to uphold the law, maintain the rights of UK and EU citizens, and protect the UK’s reputation and place in the world. On the same basis, we have strongly advocated political and military intervention where we believe it is justified and would uphold and strengthen international law: in 1989 we stood up for Hong Kong citizens, as we still do today, and we demanded the international community did not turn its face away from the genocides taking place in Bosnia and Rwanda. Closer to home, Lib Dem ministers between 2010 and 2015 secured key changes: laying the foundations for a massive expansion in the UK’s renewable energy output, securing shared parental leave, and implementing automatic pension enrolment – reducing harm to the environment, promoting equality and freeing millions from poverty in retirement.
But without wider, deeper reforms to bring liberation across politics, law, and society, our society cannot truly be described as liberal. And these reforms will never take place unless liberals are able to articulate the kind of society we want to see. The Lib Dems as a party are at a low ebb in the public imagination. This is partly because of the political cycle the party finds itself in – with only 11 MPs, not even the third party in the House of Commons, and far from the visibility and influence it had from 1997 to 2015. But there is no excuse for a political party of any size to consent to uncertainty on its vision and what it wants to change. This was the clearest conclusion drawn from the party’s own commendably candid review of the general election: “the Liberal Democrats had not translated their beliefs into a clear and relevant vision or the strategy to put it into place”.
Without fundamental renewal of the liberal movement – based on a new vision that reimagines how our values should be applied – liberalism itself will never awaken in the United Kingdom. And if this sleeping giant does not awaken, the UK’s current dismal trajectory – one of increasing isolation, international embarrassment, rejection of the rule of law, and divisive politics pitting groups against each other – will never be arrested, let alone corrected.