Monday, April 18, 2011

Why I am a Liberal Democrat!

Quite a few of my friends and acquaintances find the idea of being a Liberal Democrat somehow strange.  Pre-Coalition the Lib Dems were viewed by many as fringe party that had no chance of ever being elected, and no chance of obtaining real influence or power.
How things have changed.... or have they?  To explain why I am a member of the Liberal Democrats, an explanation of what a Liberal (or liberalism) actually is...

What does it mean to be a Liberal

A Liberal traditionally has believed in the liberty of the individual and equal rights. In believing in liberty, I mean the belief that individuals are capable of:

  • governing themselves
  • exercising free will
  • taking responsibility for one's own actions
As such, Liberals have traditionally believed in 'small' government.  I am not so sure that I agree fully with Thomas Paine who argued that 'government even in its' best state is a necessary evil', however I do believe that a state that involves itself too deeply in the lives of its citizens' on a day to day basis results in some unhealthy outcomes i.e.:
  • the erosion of civil liberties and the creation of a climate of fear through which central control by the state is both encouraged and desired
  • a diminution in the overall ability of the people to take responsibility for their own lives
Looking at the above, it is clear why I do not support Labour - the actions of the last Labour government with its strong centralised, statist instincts resulted in some of the most illiberal legislation the UK has ever seen, with a corresponding reduction in the rights of the individual.  All done in the name of the 'war on terror'.

Ah, I hear you cry, surely then you must be a Conservative?  They believe in small government as well....

As a Liberal, I believe in equal rights, however equal rights do not occur naturally in society; in order for people to have equal rights, there is a need for the state to provide a framework within which the rights of the individual are guaranteed.  In most countries this would be through a written constitution, however the UK does not have one of these.  Today, the principle of equal rights is embedded in legislation (Equality Act 2010 and its predecessors) and the much maligned and misunderstood Human Rights Act.  It is here that I diverge from the Conservatives.

As far as I can see, the Conservative Party is truly ambivalent on human rights. They talk about the rights of the individual, however they are remarkably unwilling to enshrine those rights in law - after all, if they truly believed in human rights, surely they would have introduced a Human Rights Bill sometime in the twentieth century?  After all, they were the dominant government for much of it!

Liberal also believe in free and fair elections and a multi-party democracy that reflects the fact that we live in a plural society (one within which there are many cultures and sub-cultures).  Again, Conservative philosophy and policy dictates against this - their passionate defence of the first past the post voting system (a system which is perceived to be the only way of producing 'strong' government) is a system which actively discriminates against multi-party democracy and does little to ensure the representation of the cultures existing in the UK today. 

At heart I am a social liberal; I believe that the state has a role to play in governing the way our society develops and changes.  Unfettered capitalism and rule by the markets is a philosophy I CANNOT bring myself to believe in.  There is no morality or ethics or justice in the market - to my mind monopolies are developed through market freedoms because there is no such thing as a perfect market.  The recent failure of the international financial services system indicate the need for real governance and regulation; the obscene levels of profit which are generated by the financial services industry illustrate a failure of the market which was eminently preventable by previous Labour and Conservative administrations the explosion in property prices and the escalation of prices of commodities are all indications of market failures, as perfect competition does not exist.

What about on the world stage?  Is Liberal philosophy relevant?

Liberals have always accepted the reality of war.  War is sometimes - some would argue often- necessary in  order to pursue the attainment of liberal objectives of democracy and free trade.  However, in the world we live in today, characterised by the forces of globalisation and interdependency, the unilateral use of force to achieve liberal objectives will mainly result in a cycle of violence that will be very difficult to break.  A perfect example of this is the outcomes of the war in Iraq and to a lesser extent Afghanistan, where coalition forces still remain and sustain losses on a regular basis.  Liberal thinking led to the creation of the worlds' major international institutions, creating a framework through which international conflict could be reduced and minimised.  This of course includes the European Union, which had its roots in the post war efforts to minimise opportunities for conflict through the management of strategic resources - coal and steel, as well as nuclear weapons.

SO, as a social liberal, I must therefore reject the economic policies of the coalition government then? After all, surely it is not possible to be a social liberal and support the imposition of neo-liberal economic policies based firmly upon the monetary policies of Margaret Thatcher? 

That is a question for my next blog.