Sunday, September 25, 2005


Liberalism in the 21st Century

Last week the Liberal Democrats held their autumn party conference at Blackpool. I managed to take some time off and drive up to attend on the Wednesday and the Thursday. This was my first time at a national conference and overall it was an enjoyable experience. It was refreshing to be surrounded by people who are actually interested in current affairs and politics for a change.

Liberal and liberalism are now often derided words, especially among certain bloggers. Americans particularly confuse socialism with liberalism. However I’m more than happy to call myself a liberal. To me liberalism is to do with liberty, fairness for all and striving to have minimal restrictions on the individual within society if what that individual does doesn’t adversely affect those around them. Economic liberalism has always been to do with free trade and social liberalism to do with freedom.

Conversely, it seems to me, that socialism is to do with sharing out the wealth across society and for everyone to collectively control production which is a step away from communism where need is more important than want. This is all very well, in theory, but human nature means that if you reward need then this creates more need and there is no incentive on the individual to progress. It reduces society to the lowest denominator and creates a grey moribund society. The 20th century was a battle between two ideologies – capitalism and communism. Fortunately capitalist has won but it must not go unbridled.

Although there are a few communist countries left – they do seem to be on the wane. Can China really be described as communist – being that is has become the work factory of the world? Communism also appeared morally bankrupt as few countries allowed their people to vote and they put severe restrictions on their people to travel outside and within their borders. They also created monsters like Stalin and Mao who butchered millions. Finally they were often corrupted as officials helped themselves to many benefits within the system which is what communism was designed to prevent. It was doomed to fail.

After the cold war, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the break up of the Soviet Union – America has emerged the victor. However pure capitalism creates serious problems of its own. If all markets are completely open and everything revolves around money then this can result in a huge dividing gap between the rich and the poor. It is strange to a live in a world where many workers are laid off and single mums derided yet fat cats in certain companies can run them down to the ground ad well as lose money and yet walk away with huge financial pay-offs. Therefore capitalism needs to be compassionate and have sensible laws to regulate markets.

This means having minimum wages, progressive taxation and civil right protection. Lots of those on the right bemoan big government and yet if we look at the times under Reagan and Thatcher – the size of government has grown along with bureaucracy. The Liberal Democrats believe in devolving power to the regions – localism. People within the regions are more likely to know the needs of that region than an official in a central and distant bureaucracy. Labour has already done this partially with devolving limited power to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh parliament. However the regions of England are still pretty much controlled by London. Councils are limited and capped as to how much money they can spend.

I believe the 21st century will be a battle between authoritarian and libertarian values in western societies. The danger with the current fears – real and imagined - over terrorism will mean that many countries will try to roll back many civil liberties of individuals. This control by the state has to be resisted when and where it goes too far. It is understandable that we will have to live with more security around us but when the government can hold people almost indefinitely in jail without charge – this has to be challenged.

Social liberalism is also something that needs to continue. Since the 60s people have become more in control of their bodies and their choices in life. Although many will want to turn the clock back – I find it heartening that people, particularly women, can choose to leave unhappy marriages if they so wish. It is no longer a social stigma if couples or single women choose to have babies outside of marriage. Sex is no longer such a big taboo and sex education, for the most part, is taught in schools. Women are now more likely to have children and work which is important if we wish to see women get into the boardroom.

Naturally people will point out the downside - broken marriages, lots of single mothers, under-aged pregnancies and abortions, latch-key kids and generally a breakdown of the family. We cannot put the genie back in the bottle – this is what individual freedom is about and government should be careful not to over legislate in this area. Couples should have easier access to marriage guidance, relationships and responsibility need to play a bigger part in sex education, more nursery care needs to be provided etc. Individuals can have information, freedom of choices as well as being responsible citizens.

Liberalism is about being comfortable about the world and the people around it and yet wanting to improve life for everyone where possible. I sometimes feel the traditional left and right will try to scare people over being exploited, or controlled or swamped with immigrants etc. They often talk about taking drastic action and yet their words often don’t match up. The Liberal Democrats are pro-European Union – and that doesn’t mean it doesn’t believe there are many things that can be vastly improved within the Union but it is better to work alongside our European neighbours on issues which effects us all – rather than continually play the Eurosceptic card whilst signing treaty after treaty like the Tories did.

After this year’s election, the Liberal Democrats won 11 more seats taking its total to 62 – it’s highest number of seats since 1923. However it is still in third place within an essentially 2 party system. Over 22% of people voted Liberal Democrat and if that was translated directly into seats it would take their total to over 140 seats. Nevertheless the party still needs to attract more member and votes by continuing to look at its policies. The party most likely won votes because of it’s stance against the Iraq war and yet it could have been more emphatic against the war when hostility started. The party, also in my opinion, needs to be harder on crime and punishment and re-look into which tax will be most sensible for the country. Finally it needs to present itself as a modern party with clear, concise and attractive polices.

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