Monday, 29 June 2015

Starting at the beginning - Liberalism

Deciding exactly where to start a shiny new blog when you have lots of random things to say is never going to be easy. I thought the most logical place to begin is with the very basics of Liberalism itself, what it means to me, and why I consider myself to be a 'Liberal' (and why, therefore, I am a Liberal Democrat).

Now I'm not about to go into a long academic exercise of different definitions of the term - there are plenty of places to find such things, and they won't always agree on every detail. This is about how I see it. Working backwards, in a sense, let's start with the opening sentence from the preamble to the constitution of the Liberal Democrats (the one which appears on Lib Dem membership cards):

"The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity."

That's a pretty reasonable way to sum things up - for me it's all about 'Liberty' and 'Freedom', and everything else comes from that.

Many people seem to misunderstand 'Liberalism' in all kinds of ways, and see it as something 'wishy-washy', 'in the middle' or 'neither left nor right'. Partly that is down to us liberals not explaining ourselves terribly well over the years, and part of it is down to the simplistic 'left versus right' political model beloved by political commentators and media outlets. It doesn't give a true picture of what it's all about, though.

To put it bluntly, I believe that everyone has the right to be free to do what they want and be who they want, as long as they don't screw that right up for anyone else. They have the right to be 'different', either by birth and circumstances, or simply by choice. There are 'nature versus nurture' arguments in some quarters, for example, about homosexuality - whether it is something 'genetic' or something 'environmental' (and some even say it can/should be 'cured'). To me it really doesn't matter - it fundamentally doesn't matter 'why' someone is what they are, they should be free to be what they are anyway! A black person is born looking 'black', but a 'goth' has made a personal decision to look as they do - are the rights of one more or less important than the other? To me, no! It doesn't matter why they are 'different' - they should be free and accepted just the same. Freedom necessarily has to come with acceptance (acceptance, not just 'tolerance') and diversity - a society cannot be free of people are only free to 'conform'. There is no freedom without choice, and there is therefore no freedom without acceptance of the choices made by others. There can be no freedom without diversity, and diversity necessarily has to mean equality for everyone.

Diversity is a good thing - it enriches our lives and our society, and it is a visible demonstration of our own freedom. Nobody has a 'right' to be 'offended' just because someone else has made a choice that they wouldn't have made themselves. At the same time nobody has the right to go out of their way to specifically and deliberately offend others because they don't agree with their choices. Everyone must be equal in their rights to be who they are without discrimination or harassment from others. These are universal principles that apply to everything - race, religion, disability, lifestyle, sexuality, culture, subculture, clothing, etc., etc..

This belief is not the same as 'Libertarianism', though - where 'Libertarianism' (and Conservative-style 'Neo-liberalism') fall down is that they fail to appreciate that society is not equal to start off with. People are do not currently have equal opportunity to make their way in the world without prejudice or disadvantage due to choices or circumstances. This is where the 'no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity' is so vital - in order for people to be truly free, we have to address not only prejudice but inequality of opportunity. If those things are not addressed effectively, freedom becomes the preserve of the few rich and powerful at the top who can be perpetually 'looking after their own' - they have the effective freedom to deny freedom (socially and economically) to the rest of society.

Of course, governments need to exist to have a role in doing that, but that doesn't mean that governments are there to dictate to 'their people' - quite the opposite, in fact. They exist to enhance and protect freedom and equality of opportunity, socially and economically, for everyone in society. That's significantly different from the 'equality of outcome' aims at the heart of socialism - it's not about enforced redistribution of wealth, but about ensuring that a framework exists that allows everyone to succeed according to their own efforts and talents, regardless of the circumstances of their birth. They also, of course, need to involve people actively in decision-making as closely as possible at all 'levels' - the freedom to be actively involved in making decisions is an important one.

That basic principle of 'Liberty' that underpins Liberalism is key to understanding what Liberals stand for. In UK politics, on the one hand there are those who just want to leave things alone so that those who have the power and money (often themselves) keep the power and money. On the other there are those who think that the government (comprised of themselves) should be interfering directly in the economy and lives of the population to impose their own ideas of 'fairness' based on making sure that those who previously had power and money have it taken away and redistributed. In the middle, if you like (though I try to shy away from 'centrist' descriptions, because they aren't usually very helpful!) exists a group who just want to make sure that the government only interferes as much as it has to to ensure that everyone is free and equal.

Both 'left' and 'right' inevitably tend towards governmental authoritarianism - one 'side' because they believe that they know best how to distribute everything for everyone, and the other because they think that those who traditionally had authority are best placed to continue to have it. Hence over the last century or so the UK has been on an ever-increasing spiral of centralisation, to the point where we now hear talk of issues such as 'ID Cards' and massive government communication snooping from both 'sides', as if those things are somehow necessary and reasonable to 'protect us'. Liberalism is what is needed to break that up and give governmental 'authority' and responsibility to the people themselves as active participants in society, and Liberalism is what recognises that we shouldn't be living our lives in fear of different choices, diversity and 'the others' to the point where we willingly sacrifice our own freedom to our government.

'Policy' is effectively the manifestation of ideology in the context of current reality. In practical policy terms, there can be some broad agreement between Liberals and others on 'both sides' about specific social or economic measures, but that doesn't mean that the underlying ideologies are the same, or that principles are being 'abandoned' by policy compromise to find practical solutions that can be broadly supported by multiple parties (because they fulfil the practical requirements to further the ideology of both, though perhaps for slightly different reasons). This often seems to be misunderstood.

To summarise, as I said for me it's really all about that 'Freedom'. It's all about people being allowed to make their own choices for their own lives, and having those choices accepted and respected by everyone else. It's all about not having to 'conform', or having to suffer discrimination or prejudice on the basis of being 'different' from someone else. It's about equality and diversity being seen not only as positives, but actually as essential to a functional society that works for everyone. It's about everyone having the opportunity to make their way in the world according to their own choices, not being limited by either their circumstances or the prejudices of others. It's about government being nothing more than the instrument of the people to ensure their continued freedom and enhance their equality of opportunity, and about the people having the freedom to be involved in the decision-making process through an effective system of democracy that both represents the majority and protects the freedoms of 'minorities'.

Everyone is part of a 'minority'. Everyone! Absolutely everyone! Nobody is the same - we are all individuals ("I'm not" - sorry, couldn't resist that!). 'Majority' is necessarily a fallacious concept in a free society - everyone makes their own individual choices and has their own individual circumstances and attributes. That is diversity, and that is a wonderful thing that needs to be enhanced and protected through freedom. That requires not only public acknowledgement but government action, and that is why I am a member of a political party that shares those ideals - the only such party in UK politics.


(Note - The picture of a castle was chosen to represent both government authoritarianism and enforced social conformation, the very opposite of 'Liberalism'. Castles, of which there are many in Wales, are, of course, fine and fascinating structures, but they stand as a very visible reminder of just how completely strength and power can be abused, and how important it is for us to constantly seek to enhance and protect our Rights and Freedom)

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