Thursday, May 24, 2012

'Why I am (probably) not liberal' - Peter Kellner, Journalist, Political Commentator and Founder of YouGov

As Professor Joad used to say on the Brains Trust, (a popular, if somewhat patronising, discussion programme on BBC radio in the 1940’s), it all depends on what you mean by “liberal”. Here are three different ways in which the word has been defined in recent times:

1.       By supporters of the free-market right, to mean maximum economic freedom for businesses and individuals, with the minimum of state spending, intervention and regulation

2.       By civil and human rights activists and social libertarians, to mean the maximum possible personal freedom, especially in regard to sexuality, abortion, drugs, religion, free speech and the rights of defendants

3.       By Americans – by the Right as a term of abuse, by progressives as a badge of pride – to mean federal laws and spending to build a more equal society, and to defend the rights and advance the interests of less well-off Americans

I am definitely a liberal in terms of definition 3, and mainly one in terms of definition 2. I am not a liberal in terms of definition 1. So why do I say that, all in all, I am probably not a liberal?

For a start, I dislike labels whose meaning is either unclear or ambiguous. And in the contest to define “liberal” my sympathies are with the European mainland concept of a philosophy that puts personal autonomy ahead of collective decisions. To me, a thorough-going liberal is someone who wants the state to keep out of both private morality and business decisions.

On that definition, few people are true, 100 per cent Liberals – some libertarians, perhaps, but not many others. Quite a few people are economically liberal and socially conservative (the new Right in Europe and the US); lined against them are those who are economically interventionist and socially liberal (most of Britain’s left, including the Greens).

I belong broadly to the second group – except that I am queasy about taking an absolute position on the rights of defendants accused of terrorism. It’s not that I want them to lose their freedom without a proper trial, or to be convicted on the basis of secret evidence that can’t be tested: we lose the right to call ourselves civilised if we abandon habeas corpus and punish them too readily. But I do believe that we must balance the rights of suspects and the rights of the potential victims of terrorism – that is, all of us, or society as a whole.

And that is the point, for it has a wider application. Balances must be struck in all kinds of ways between the liberal rights of individuals and the collective rights of society. In strict terms, the minimum wage is an illiberal policy, as it interferes in the freedoms of employers and workers to negotiate pay. So is the ban on smoking in offices, pubs and restaurants. Speed limits curb our right to drive as fast as we like, and taxes curb our right to spend what we want.  Race Relations Acts and the laws of libel and contempt restrict our freedom of speech. As I support the minimum wage, smoking bans, speed limits, generous, tax-funded state provision, and some checks on what we can say in public, I am reluctant to claim to be a liberal.

Now, there are many people, including good friends of mine, who share these views and insist that they are good liberals. Their argument, as I understand it, is that liberalism has never been a purist doctrine, and that it is perfectly happy with restrictions on personal liberty where the benefits of collectively agreed restrictions outweigh the virtues of individual freedom.

The trouble is that this approach dilutes the definition of liberalism so much that it embraces virtually everyone except crooks, sociopaths and some recent bankers. Who, from the Thatcherite Right to Old Labour’s left-wing, would NOT defend their policies in terms of finding the right balance between personal freedom and collective rules? They would differ sharply about WHERE to strike that balance but not about the FACT that a balance is needed.

If “liberal” is to be saved from being diluted to death, it must revert to its proper, indeed noble, concept of a philosophy that values individual liberty above all else.  I want a society in which there are plenty of such liberals, perpetually questioning arguments for collective rules and challenging accretions of state (and, indeed, private) power.  They are vital irritants, ensuring that the proper quest for balance does not tip into authoritarianism.  However, I believe that many of the biggest problems we face today – from poverty to climate change – require collective action. So while I want liberals to question everything the state does, to probe the motives and measures of every government minister and corporate mogul, and generally kick up a fuss, I don’t actually want them in charge.

And if I don’t want them in charge, I can’t really call myself one of them.

Peter Kellner's YouGov blog

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

'Why I am a Liberal' - Alice Westlake, Artist and Supporter of the Womens' Movement

I am a Liberal because I desire earnestly the advancement of the people morally, intellectually, and materially, by the redress of all wrongs that fall upon the weak, and the removal of all obstacles that stand in the way of the true happiness of men.

The essence of Liberalism is to be continually pressing on towards those objects, and its existence is incompatible with a complacent satisfaction in things as they are, or even with a continued toleration of them.

From Andrew Reid, Why I am a Liberal (1885)

Monday, May 14, 2012

‘Why I am not liberal’ – Andrew Oldham, Poet and Author

Politics has always been a game of one, one candidate, one self and one ‘ism’ to represent the masses. I believe ‘isms’ are dangerous, childish and profoundly the playground of those who are fantasists. They are not radical, they are for dreamers, they are a catch all, a white wash to what is, and always has been more complicated situation, what it means to be human. I do not see myself as a Liberal, I do have Liberal beliefs but then on any given day, in any given moment of anger, irrationality or love I can say that I have socialist and conservative ideals. A liberal in a car jam can quickly descend into right wing thoughts after the second hour of being stuck behind a white van beating out dance music. Likewise, a Conservative can strike a deal with a radically opposed viewpoint to gain power as can a Socialist. We are then back to the politics of the self and the selfish. The problem we have, and has always had, is that we still believe that politics is black or white, left or right, for or against and we roll in the ‘isms’ to substantiate a political system that is flawed. I think we have to stop planning our politics for the short term, for four year policies, the bust and boom economics and the desire to please all whilst pleasing no one. Politics can teach us something, that all of us have a desire to survive in the worst of situations even when grasping at straws or spin doctors. All of us have to take responsibility to plan for the long term. To plan not as individuals, not for the self, or for nations (which is flawed, as geology shows us that there hasn’t always been an England) or as voters (though so few of us bother as we seek only the self). We all have to embrace the very thing we have yet to embrace, our humanity. I am not talking about some wishy-washy, touchy-feely idea but to really begin to understand our collective strengths and weaknesses, from the ability to pull together against adversity to our ability to breed too much. Until then we will continue to pigeon hole ourselves in ‘isms’, call ourselves Liberal, Conservative or Socialist when we should be humans, more than the sum of our whole parts, more than the self or the politics of the self. Maybe then we can develop social and political models that will aid our development not for four years, not for one hundred years but for millennia to come. If we want to continue to be intelligent, then we have to think about our long term beliefs and where we are going to be a thousand or a million years from now as a species. Until then, we won’t even be able to label ourselves even as human.

Andrew Oldham’s poetry has been published in The Times, Transmission and Ambit. His first poetry collection was Ghosts of a Low Moon (Lapwing, Belfast 2010). A forthcoming pamphlet, The Anchor will be published by Glass Head Press in 2012. His poetry has been broadcast on BBC Radio Four's Poetry Please. Andrew's website can be found here.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

'Why I am Liberal' - Cathy Galvin, Journalist

Soon a For Sale board will appear outside the 1930’s house where I grew up in Coventry. It’s difficult to know how to value a home. To my father, who died last year, the house was his legacy to my sister and I. Sitting in the back room after tea once a week, we would watch as he opened a little red tin and divided his weekly pay-packet from the tractor factory where he worked in to different compartments: building society, bills, food, clothes, holiday.  Occasionally, when he was on strike, the little tin lay empty but it triumphed in the end: he clocked in and out of the factory and the bills were paid. The house is now ours. Almost.

Leave its bay-window behind, walk for fifteen minutes and you confront the architectural scars of the City Centre - what remains of a great medieval metropolis shattered when two-thirds of its buildings disappeared in the blitz, stitched bluntly back together with 1950’s modernist bravado. It’s difficult to know how to value a city. This blend of old and new was once thrilling to those who flooded in to work in the booming factories.  After the horrors of two world wars, it represented a dignified post-war settlement. “The principle of Liberalism is trust in the people, qualified by prudence, “, the great Liberal Prime-Minister Gladstone offered in 1885. In Coventry, the decent liberal values of hard-work and egalitarianism finally rose, phoenix-like, from the indecent ashes of war. Almost.

While my Dad was counting his pennies, I’d either be doing my homework or day-dreaming. It’s difficult to know how to value a culture. I read the Daily Mirror. I read the New Statesman. I read poetry. I knew from family history the tyranny of the English oppression of the Irish, the English oppression of its own working-class. “Get yourself an education, then you can go and clean toilets”, was the puzzling mantra from my Irish maternal line. My Mum was, indeed, a cleaner. Her money added a few nicer touches to the house. My Dad was wary about all this aspiration. Working wasn’t about gaining materially, it was about buying a life safe from both the authorities and the vagaries of market forces. He sensed it could all disappear so easily.  Yet I believed in an inevitable political and social progress.  We had peace and democracy. My sister and I would be the first in our family to study at university. Children, fulfilling work, sexual freedom, economic independence. I had it all, as would my daughters. Almost.  

As the For Sale board goes up, I have to wonder. What do we own in the end, those of us whose parents were allowed the promise of a better life while it was convenient to offer it to them? Those whose grandparents were shovelled in to a mass grave when Coventry was bombed? This city is worth little now that its industry has gone and the semi-detached houses even less.  My progress allowed me a place as a senior editor at The Sunday Times for many years but now I am redundant, I know how fragile that was.  I was not entitled.

For Sale boards dot our collective consciousness: we, who thought we owned the benefits of houses, hospitals, schools and universities, are invited to sell up before things get even worse but someone else is benefitting from what we are giving away.  My place in the world appeared to come from the top-down: governments embracing liberal values ensured the likes of us were given the security of the welfare state, pensions and work. In fact, it came from the bottom-up: men and women fighting for generations for the right to a decent wage and the vote.

Liberalism has to be more than a luxury bestowed with largesse. It is freedom from debt and bondage. It is guaranteed by the people, not the market or the state. In our little semi, it tasted sweet. Now my children must buy debt simply to be educated. Is some kind of bondage to a floundering economic next? Their legacy, should they choose it, is the knowledge that neither austerity nor progress are inevitable and that everything must be fought for.  As early as 1839, the workers who published The Chartist Circular in Glasgow stated this:  “For a nation to love liberty, it is sufficient that she knows it; and to be free, it is sufficient that she wills it. “

Let’s pause for a moment and relish those thoughts, before we sell anything else. 

Cathy Galvin's Twitter

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Why I am (or am not) liberal....

This is the question we want you - whoever you are, whatever your political affiliation, and wherever you're from - to answer. Tell us why and how you are liberal. Tell us why you are not liberal - perhaps there are flaws in liberal values that make you uneasy? It's up to you and we'd love to hear from you.

All submissions will be published on this blog, with a selection being published in a book in late 2012/early 2013. Please send your thoughts to, with either 'Why I am liberal' or 'Why I am not liberal' in the subject line.

'Why I am liberal' - Nicholas Murray, Biographer and Publisher at Rack Press

It must be, after the experience of this Coalition government, a small “l” but the word, often used as a term of disparagement in the United States, is one that still resonates in Europe where it is almost always a term of praise. 

It is the spirit which animates, in Gladstone’s century, works like John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty and Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy and its work is still not done because its antithesis – authoritarianism, hierarchy, power-worship, is still very much with us.

It is in two areas that liberalism matters to me (since I have little interest in economics): freedom of thought and freedom to live in the way one wishes.  The liberal wants to permit, to allow, to grant freedom, believing that the very concept of toleration is in itself a social, moral and intellectual good.  Pluralism, toleration, multiplicity, are, by contrast, what the illiberal mind finds odious.  The authoritarian or the dictator is stirred by visceral feelings of hatred, resentment, anger at the proliferation of what it cannot control. The illiberal mind wants there to be only one way: its way.

Liberalism, by contrast, wants to see freedom, diversity, multiplicity, the absence of unnecessary constraint.  It trusts people to work out their own salvation.  The illiberal mind, often fuelled by religious or sectarian or race hatred is maddened by the prospect of free minds exercising themselves according to their own principles and values.  The dictator is for this reason a ridiculous figure, a strutting absurdity who knows nothing beyond the limits of his or her own mind.

Liberalism is tolerant.  It does not see any virtue in imposing only one way, in declaring some lifestyles, preferences, beliefs, practices to be impermissible.  Liberalism, however, is weak – it can be seen to vacillate – when it merely tolerates and does not engage with what it knows to be wrong.  Some beliefs and practices must be challenged and contested, but not with illiberal weapons of repression.  Open debate, vigorous advocacy, dissent, challenge, dialogue are the tools of liberalism.  Censorship, bullying, suppression, closure of debate, are the tools of its enemies.

I am a liberal because I want to live in a free society and live in my own way, in so far as this is compatible with social responsibility and respect for others.  I am a liberal because I believe in human freedom, in the fathomless resources and creativity of the human spirit when it is unconstrained and can follow the laws of its own being.  To be free is to be fully human.

Nicholas Murray's blog
Nicholas Murray's website

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

'Defining Liberalism' - Alan Durant, Author and Poet

My main area of interest in defining liberalism is in the role education – in a wide sense, not just the curriculum – plays now and in the future. How will we in the books we write, the lessons we teach and the examples we set encourage and inspire a new generation of compassionate, independent-minded liberal thinkers – men like Gladstone, not monsters like Anders Breivik? I first came across William Gladstone as part of my A level history course, but I was a teenager, he a Victorian and the teaching uninspiring so then he passed me by. Like him, however, I have a Christian faith (followed with fluctuating intensity since adolescence) and my political and ethical views have always been liberal.

I write for and work with children of all ages – from toddlers to teenagers – often in a multi-racial context. Schools are a microcosm of society and, at a time when radicalism of the young is rife, it is essential that the liberal voice should be heard – particularly in the light of recent events around the country and at a time when political Liberalism in this country appears to have lost its way. In a world in which religious conflicts have become more acute and intransigent and fundamentalist terrorism ubiquitous, traditional liberal values such as tolerance, empathy and the willingness to listen to the views of others without prejudice, are of greater importance than ever, but also increasingly at threat. Young people need to see that liberalism is alive and (vigorously) kicking.