Liberal Democrat values and principles discussion

The Liberal Democrat values and principles of liberty, equality, community, internationalism and environmentalism discussed at the Newbury, Vales and Downs Branch meeting of 10th March 2020.

The Party produced a Consultation Paper 141: 'Liberal Democrat Principles and Values' for discussion at the Spring Federal Party Conference in York, which had to be cancelled. 

The Newbury, Vales & Downs Branch of West Berks & Newbury Local Party had its own discussion on 10th March (before the lock down!) about this. I was supposed to take our comments to Conference but here is the written response.

The Branch Chairman Ann Turner opened the meeting to the whole LP membership but 13/14 attendees were from NV&D Branch. For three attendees it was the first Branch meeting they had attended. The answers below to each question in the consultation paper attempt to capture the main points raised as well as the views of the lead discussant Cllr Tony Vickers.

To understand our comments below, you need to read the paper itself that lists the five Liberal Democrat values as…

  • Liberty
  • Equality
  • Community
  • Internationalism
  • Environmentalism

and please find below our thoughts on the questions raised in the consultation paper.

Q1. Which values are absolutely foundational for Liberal Democrats? All five values are at the core of liberal democracy but probably Liberty is the absolutely fundamental one. Environmentalism  (or ‘sustainability’) is arguably becoming as fundamental in the modern era but most discussion in our Branch centred around Liberty.

Q2. Is the optimistic liberal view of human nature justifiable? An optimistic attitude towards 'fate' and towards one's fellow human beings is what marks out most Liberal Democrats from the more cynical Tories and Idealistic Socialists. We believe that, given all the facts of a situation, human beings would generally share our hopeful attitudes. That is why education and openness are so important. We trust people to run their own lives because of that - but on the basis that hope is innate as part of our survival instinct.

Q3. What are the main challenges to Liberalism in the 2020s? We must make the climate emergency central to our approach without losing sight of our historic mission. We must also see the 'stealth' threat to liberty that comes with the dispersal of control over information - by digital technology. An example was given: implanting a chip in a human body to help manage routine processes (such as heart rate), whilst apparently benign could threaten the 'agency' of any individual. Information is power: potentially power to remove our liberty.

Q4. What are the main opportunities for making Britain and the world more liberal? The threat of climate change is also an opportunity, because for the challenge to be met successfully it will require mutual trust between government and governed. Liberal Democrats should be best able to rise to that challenge. The combination of Internationalism and Community enables us to bridge the divide between individuals and nations, giving leadership at all levels.

Q5. What are the key differences between liberals and libertarians? Liberals believe there is a need for Government, as a means of maintaining order and arbitrating dispute. Libertarians are more extreme believers in the independence of individuals and their ability to cooperate without an outside arbiter, whereas liberals accept that order has to be actively maintained.

Q6. How can liberals justify restrictions on individual liberty in the light of, for example, public health? Because nobody has a monopoly on knowledge, nobody knows fully how to ensure that their actions will not harm others - or the shared environment that supports life. We believe that Liberty for one person is incomplete unless all have Liberty: "I am not totally free unless all are free". To minimise the harm that individuals can do to each other and to wider society, we have to impose restrictions on individual liberty. That is as necessary at a global level as it is within a family.

Q7. How should liberals respond to the findings of behavioural economics that humans are prone to over-value short-term against long-term rewards?  In a word: education. We are less than 200 generations from the Stone Age and have not evolved far beyond simple "fight or flight" short-term instinctive reaction and tribalism. Wisdom has always come with knowledge and experience. In the Age of Reason and with access to so much knowledge-based science today, we are largely able to overcome the primitive short-termism. But we need to recognise it lies just beneath the surface in everyone.

Q8. What are the main threats to individual liberty in modern Britain? Climate Change. Tribalism / nationalism. Pandemics. Terrorism. The "bubble mentality" made much easier by social media, as much an anti-social force leading to intolerance and hate as it is potentially a uniting one.

Q9. What are the main barriers to equality of opportunity in modern Britain and how can that be overcome?  The education system is in many ways no longer fit for purpose. It needs radical reform to ensure that what is now only available to the rich can be offered to all. All children need to learn how to learn, not mere facts - especially when it comes to history and 'civics' which can be manipulated by malign forces to engender antisocial tendencies. A reformed education system is seen as absolutely vital if we really want to give equality of opportunity to all citizens. At present we still tend to treat education as a factory for producing workers and consumers, rather than rounded individuals capable of living free lives and aspiring to achieve the best for themselves and others.

Q10. What are the main barriers to equality of treatment in modern Britain and how can that be overcome?  Equality of treatment tends to flow from equality of opportunity - which is about education and the wealth that accrues to those who inherit it or can move up "the ladder" because of qualifying for higher earning jobs. There is also an issue around perceived (sometime real) inequality of treatment feeding 'left behind' groups' attitude towards ethnic minorities such as unskilled white British people. "They are taking our houses and school places, hospital beds" etc. Partly this is inequality of treatment of whole communities and regions. This can only be overcome by radical reform of both regional and local government - and the tax system which currently fails to enable those tiers of government to raise the necessary funds to tackle these problems, such as lack of investment in communications infrastructure.

Q11. How far should liberals support constraints on individual freedom in order to secure greater equality? We must recognise that our laws result from centuries of privilege - especially for landowners, who made all laws until 150 years ago - and fight the monopoly power that comes from this. "The Land Monopoly is the Mother of all Monopolies" (Winston Churchill). Patronage flows from this and perpetuates it. Our suspicious attitude to authority is healthy because of this. We must put the fight for equality of opportunity right at the top of our priorities, tempered by the principle "Do No Harm". Recognise that "all power corrupts" and there is evil in the world, causing harm which is magnified many times when it accrues to the powerful.

Q12.What are the main challenges to freedom of expression in modern society?  "No platforming" is illiberal, reflecting growing intolerance more generally. "Words can never hurt you" is true - even hate speech (for most people, in a closed environment such as a lecture). But there is a new and potentially very harmful energy behind words, thanks to the internet. So there is an urgent need for international and enforceable laws around how words are used to foment hate and terrorism. [See Internationalism]

Q13. What, if any, is the role of the state in promoting and supporting non-geographic communities? We need to be able to selectively monitor all kinds of communities but the role of the state must be limited. The best way may be through facilitating whistle blowing and outlawing non-disclosure agreements or rules of secret societies that 'trump' that.

Q14. Is the current balance between markets and state intervention in the UK the right one? Are there any particular sectors in which it should be changed?  We need to recognise what "Land" is, in the wider economic sense: Nature. Nothing that isn't man-made should be privately owned, so we should look to devise policies that return to the "common wealth" all assets that are essentially Nature, including water, mineral reserves, money creation, railways, the broadcast spectrum, the sea bed. Markets cannot operate where there is a natural monopoly in these things. This has to be done in such a way as not to disrupt the operations of the wider economy. "Markets where possible; State where necessary". The role of the state is to correct market failures, not to replace markets entirely.

Q15. What scope is there for alternative models to the public and private sector such as mutual enterprises? Liberal Democrats are the natural allies of Mutualism. Especially at a local level, we should encourage worker, community and customer ownership of a range of essential services. Entrepreneurship can best begin when ordinary people are given the chance to own things that are shared. It empowers and strengthens them as individuals. We should welcome the current growth of community bonds. It keeps wealth created by the community within the community to be used for the community.

Q16. What opportunities are there to further disperse power in modern Britain? What are the main concentrations of excessive power, whether in government or the private sector? Where to start! We need to implant the idea that authority exists to support individuals and not control us. If we think of the sovereignty of the individual, not of the state, then all power is seen as upwards devolution. We have been brainwashed over centuries that we must beg or fight for the right to run our own lives. We need a written constitution that starts from there. Then we can decide what functions really need to be assigned to local communities, districts, regions, nation states, etc. At present, far too much power is concentrated in Whitehall and Westminster, the City of London and overseas in large multi-national corporations that even our "sovereign" government cannot easily influence on our behalf. This is poisoning society, hence the cry "Take Back Control" was so effective. But "control" from where and to where?!

Q17. How can we engage the public more effectively in helping to shape their communities? Use of multiple channels but with consistent messages. Citizens’ Assemblies.

Q18. How should liberals respond to the rise of populist nationalist movements throughout the developed world? What underlies hostility to internationalist values? As this is an international challenge, we must use international bodies, forums and media. We must support like-minded liberals and open democracies everywhere, advocate strong and deep reforms to existing bodies like the UN - through UNA-UK especially. The right-wing media have spent decades undermining most supra-national bodies, which are far from perfect but absolutely essential. Freedom of movement is vital for our young people, as is removal of barriers to education of girls. Ignorance and resentment of remote centres of power closer to home is being used to foment reaction against globalisation - which has its faults (mainly down to monopoly power) but has huge potential for good and is essential if we are to manage climate change, food security and conflicts over other resources.

Q19. While liberals have traditionally seen no contradiction between support for local decentralisation, national patriotism and strong internationalist commitments, it is clearly problematic for many people. How do we overcome this? Good point, not made often enough. Again - education is the answer. If we explain that our view of sovereignty puts individuals at the top of the upturned pyramid, people should see that every tier of government exists to support us (not the other way round, as we are led to believe) but that the local is (in every sense) closest and most important, because near the "top". The individual and planet Earth are tangible realities but every form of organisation in between is 'abstract' and it is up to us to devise and maintain forms that work better for the greater good.

Q20. How do we integrate environmentalism with our other values? In particular do we place enough emphasis on protecting disadvantaged groups during the transition to a zero carbon economy? Every decision needs to be judged by its overall impact on the sustainability of the planet: the 'triple lock' of social, economic & environmental must evolve to place environmental paramount. There is no economy and no society if there isn't a healthy Planet for humanity. Unless the overwhelming majority of disadvantaged people buy into that idea, it will be much harder to achieve survival - let alone prosperity - for human society as we know it. So this is enlightened self-interest.

Q21. How is our approach to green issues distinctive from that of other progressive parties, in particular the Greens? We value Liberalism and Democracy as eternal values. We don't value Environmentalism for its own sake, as do the Greens. Tackling the climate emergency is essential because unless we succeed we will find ourselves in a "dog eats dog" anarchic society quite soon, totally illiberal and hostile to Democracy. Greens would set aside Democracy to manage planetary survival indefinitely if necessary.

Q22. Do you support a particular hierarchy of liberal values – in other words are there particular elements of our philosophical heritage which you think should always prevail over others in the event of a conflict? Liberty is the aim - for all time and all people. Our other values support that.

Q23. Are there particular elements of our philosophical heritage which are especially salient in current circumstances? Community. Society is in a very fragile state. Fear is rampant. We must show Liberal Democracy as the best form of leadership in these times. Politics is a noble profession because it is at its heart a public service to the Community.


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