Sunday, 25 September 2011

Back to the Future – A New Liberalism for the 21stCentury

As I return from the Liberal Democrat Conference 2011,I thought I share some thoughts with you.
I have been a Liberal for a long time and was a member of the Liberal Party (in fact I was a member of the Conservative Party, briefly in the very early 80s).
I have seen Liberalism change in the party that bears its name, firstly through our merger with the SDP and then as we moved to the Social Liberal hegemony of the liberal left during the Paddy, Kennedy and Ming years.
Then, the party new young guns became the engine of the Orange Book and begun the move back to the Liberal centre.
After that, the party passed through the calming and self-analytical spell of the Cable Regency.

The Clegg and Huhne leadership election showed how evenly divided the party was.
This division was important in terms of the future for our party and it is to both Nick and Chris credit that they managed to get the party to gel as a united fighting force, after their election contest.
Then came the general election of 2010 and the Coalition with the Tories.
National circumstances and subsequent world affairs meant that we all had to compromise what we wanted but not who we were.
We truly had become the Liberal Democrats, 2 wings of a party, each feeding the other with weaponry and bullets to fight both left and right while we carved out a new position for the Liberal Democrats.
A truly Liberal position.

It was not an easy relationship internally, during the 1st year of the coalition with the Tories.
We wanted to be taken seriously and the nature of the circumstances surrounding the nation, dictated that this course of action was inevitably the one taken.
Some saw the opportunity to attack the Tories and others Labour.
The Social Liberal Forum mounted a well-organised and timely campaign over the NHS, culminating with the spring conference motions in Sheffield earlier this year.

At that conference, I had yet to see what was beginning to happen in the party.
In fact, it never dawned on me until after the 2nd day of the autumn conference in Birmingham 2011.
The Liberal Democrats had become a real-politics party, in Government.
We grew up.
We took all we had learned from being ignored by the media and written off by all, the years out of power, the internal differences and we changed that into a single laser like focus in Government.

Nick Clegg touched on this with “doing the right thing; not the easy thing”.
Something else began to circulate around the halls, training and fringes.
It was being debated over lunches and dinners as well as over drinks late into the night.
I have been lucky, I had been bouncing ideas with my mate, Benjamin Mathis from Hackney for some time.
Not many could quite put his or her finger on it at the time, and only few of us have been able to do so since.
21st century Liberalism was being born.

How does this Liberalism differ from late last century or indeed from its beginning?
Traditionally, Liberalism has been concerned about the relationship between the state and the individual and how to redress that balance in favour of the individual.
Responsible Liberalism and the Keynesian consensus prevalent post World War 2, made the state a powerful tool for providing freedom from poverty, ill health and lack of education.
Liberalism had organically evolved over the period.
Fast forward to the period 80-2010.
The UK had been through the Thatcher, Major and Blair-Brown years and in that time power had been concentrated on the hands of a few very powerful and influential institutions and people.
What I came to realise in Birmingham 2011, is that the new Liberalism was very much the old Liberty of Mills.

The true power of Liberalism lies in that it foments utmost belief, that the individual can make a better tomorrow than he or she encounters today. It is inherently optimistic about the nature of life.
The past is exactly that which Conservatives seek to preserve; the present, a transient state that Socialism insists on changing.
This is the transformative power of the individual at work in its broadest sense. It questions and asks why and why not.
It dares to confront and ask power to justify itself before the tribunal of individuality.
What autumn 2011 revealed, was a Liberalism that was prepared to take head on the power of vested interested wherever it was found.

"the people who exercise the power are not always the same people with those over whom it is exercised". Mills on Liberty

Liberal Democrats began to relish the fight.

In big business, cartels, unions, utility companies and banks and even in Government itself, Orange Book Liberals and Social Liberals in the party are about to challenge the structures of power and those who hold it.

Whether you are a consumer or a small business; small shareholder or an employee; a saver, borrower or mutual lender, 21st century Liberalism will be there on your side.

If you find the power of the state, organised religion, utility companies or media oppressing you, Liberal Democrats will be there on your side.
Autumn 2011 saw the nascent spring of a new force in British politics;a political party truly on your side.