Because, dear reader, I think you're great, I thought I'd give you a special treat this week.
It's the Liberal Democrat conference this week. I think that a lot of people struggle to understand Liberalism.
So, at the end of this email, there is an extract of my book, The Breakdown, in which I attempt to define what it means, where it's come from and where it may be going. I hope you find it useful.
If you really enjoy it and quite like the idea of buying the book, click on either advert for it and you'll be whisked straight to the shop.
Well, that was fun, right?
What a 4 days of Commons action we've had. 6 defeats for Mr Johnson. Don't forget that Tony Blair had three defeats in 10 years. Unprecedented, turbulent times.
That's all done for now, though. Instead, we get to look forward to a Party Conference season that will be supercharged. Tensions are high over Brexit, almost all parties feel excited and like election success is just round the corner, but also that things aren't necessarily going to plan.
The Conservatives are tearing themselves apart with expulsions, rebellions and defections. Labour are struggling to maintain a coherent message on Brexit - esp as Deputy Leader Tom Watson announced this week that Labour should become a Remain party. There is some suggestion that they have lost the forward drive that saw the unexpected election surge in 2017, but you can never write off the veteran campaigner Jeremy Corbyn at election time.
Anyway, I'll discuss both those parties in the next few weeks, but today is all about the Liberal Democrats. The last election saw them grow from 8 MPs to 12 in Parliament. It would definitely have taken at least two taxis to get them from Parliament to the bar of their choice. Recent events though have seen them grow to 17 MPs with rumours of more on the way.
The Party has also taken advantage of Labour's slightly confusing Brexit policy and become the loudest voice for Remain in England. They've got a new leader in Jo Swinson who appears to be able to get her voice into spaces that Vince Cable either couldn't or didn't attempt. They're riding a wave and they're loving it.
As a guide, here is the programme for the next few weeks:
Liberal Democrats - 14.09.2019 - 17.09.2019
Labour - 21.09.2019 - 25.09.2019
Conservatives - 29.09.2019 - 02.10.2019
Green Party - 04.10.2019 - 06.10.2019
SNP - 13.10.2019 - 15.10.2019
The wonderful kids show I do withe the excellent Tiernan Douieb has a couple of London dates in the next few weeks.
Saturday - The first day of a conference is normally quite quiet. People are still arriving in Bournemouth. They might wander into the main hall in time for, say the Report on the Campaign for Gender Balance at 10.15 Maybe they'll wait for Wera Hobhouse MP's speech at 11.30. Perhaps they'll just enjoy a nice glass of organic rose in the bar.
Sunday - Another relaxed day. They've got a policy motion (where conference vote to back or not back a new policy for the party) on 'Stop Brexit to Save the NHS and Social Care'. For those who haven't been paying attention, this will not be a close vote. We've also got a speech from the one and only Vince Cable. He's not the headline act he used to be, but he's still got lots of fans in the party.
Later we'll spot Jo Swinson on the stage for the first time when she does a Q&A. This is often the first time the news will report on the conference. It's up to her really. If she wants to keep it in house and a chilled vibe until Monday, she won't say anything controversial. IF she wants people to sit up and pay attention to the conference, she'll launch a stinging attack on Boris Johnson. We'll see.
Monday - Jo Swinson is the leader, but you could argue that the best known Liberal Democrat MP is Chuka Umunna. It still seems odd to type that, but he is a Lib Dem now. To highlight this, he's got a big speech on Monday morning, ready for the lunchtime news. He'll almost certainly be doing interviews for the six as well. Fancy tuning in? It starts at 11.
We've also got Edward Davey on today at 4.10 - he lost the leadership election, but in doing so he also raised his profile and will deliver another anti-Brexit talk.
Tuesday - The highlight of any conference is the leader's speech. Today is the first leader's speech of the season. Jo Swinson will come out (at 2.10) swinging.
It's going to be fascinating, essential viewing. I may be a little tiny bit nerdy, but these five leader's speeches are the absolute highlight of my year. Pure ideology. This is how the country should be. They're inspiring, aspirational, engaging and they give such insight into who the parties really are.
Sunday - My wonderful family politics show rolls into The Arts Depot in Finchley. Join us if you can!
Extract from - The Breakdown, making sense of politics in a messed up world
Like Mel Gibson in Braveheart, liberalism is all about freedom. Freedom to do what you would like to do. Freedom to be who you want to be. Freedom to express yourself in any way you wish.
To say that liberals like freedom is something of an understatement. They blooming love it. I hope very much that at some point in my life I will love something the way that liberals love freedom.
If you need proof, let’s look at some of the founding ideas for liberalism. It has its roots in the seventeenth century but it didn’t really start to become a big thing until the 1700s. At that point, there were all kinds of feudal and hierarchical arrangements in place, and most people had very little individual liberty. But in the late 1700s, times started to change. The Americans rose up against their British overlords for one. What did their Declaration of Independence call for in 1776? Yep. Freedom. Specifically, the right to ‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’. Remember the bit in the free market section about people acting in their own self-interest? That’s all about the belief that society is better off if we all act in ‘pursuit’ of our own version of ‘Happiness’.
It wasn’t just the Americans that were all over this. The French Revolution took place not long after, in 1789. The next year, one of its leaders, Maximilien Robespierre, coined a phrase that would become synonymous with the revolution and that is still the national motto of France: ‘Liberté, égalité, fraternité’. That’s freedom, equality and brotherhood. What comes first? Freedom. At the time of the revolution, the phrase was also often followed by ‘ou la mort’, which means ‘or death’. Freedom or death.
To be fair, both the American Declaration of Independence and the French motto also refer to equality and that’s a key part of the ideology, too. But what that equality means is something that liberals have argued about. A lot. And we will come back to this a bit later.
Before we leave the eighteenth century altogether, though, it’s worth having a look at what else was happening at that time. Adam Smith (remember him? He was the invisible hand guy we spoke about a few pages ago) was busy writing the template for liberal economics. His book The Wealth of Nations was published in 1776, the same year as the Americans were calling for their liberty. The links between liberalism and the free market are there for everyone to see.
Anyway. This isn’t a history lesson. It just helps to understand that liberalism and the desire for freedom has been around for quite a long time. Also, that it has always been inherently linked to capitalism.
So, how does this work? On a day-to-day basis it works around the free market. Everyone is free to act in the way they desire. In doing so they create a society or community with those around them. That’s what almost all liberals would agree on.
The issue is what happens when this goes wrong. What happens when people need more support? How does that sit with the importance of freedom?
The answer lies in what kind of freedom you believe in. There’s the idea of ‘freedom from’ and ‘freedom to’. ‘Freedom from’ means that you are free from all state interference and rules. It might be the first one you think of. The kind of freedom that people in prison might dream of. It’s not a complicated idea – you’re free to do anything you want as long as it doesn’t have a negative impact on other people. While liberals disagree on the extent of that freedom, a truly liberal government might take some steps to have fewer things banned and leave people to make their own decisions.
So, you are free to make money in whatever way you see fit and you are free to spend that money in whatever way you see fit. You don’t have to work, but then you will struggle to pay for nice things. It’s your choice whether to leave school early and start making money, or to stay on, learn a bit more and then maybe earn more later on. You want to drink yourself into the gutter? No worries, my friend. Just don’t expect us to pull you out.
The legalisation of drugs, for example, is a typically liberal idea. It should be up to us what we put into our body. Yes, there are negative effects of drug use, but who makes decisions about me? Me, that’s who. The other advantage of legalising drugs is that the free market will regulate the trade. Cost, purity, user experience and all that will be controlled by the invisible hand.
Don’t forget, though, most liberals who believe in ‘free from’ still believe in restricting liberty where individuals might harm one another. There aren’t big liberal movements to allow greater access to knives or guns. Not in the UK, anyway. While liberals may campaign against online restrictions and state-run rules on porn, few would advocate removing the ban on hardcore stuff on TV. There is a really interesting debate to be had here about speed limits, too. Is that personal liberty or reckless endangerment of other people’s lives? How about if it’s only in one specific lane of the motorway? Sorry. I’m getting carried away by liberal moral discussions. Back to ‘free from’ and ‘free to’.
Freedom to do something is more focused on the equality side of liberalism. It’s all very well to say that everyone is free to do what they want – start a business, work your way up a large company, whatever – but isn’t all that much easier if you’ve had a leg-up with your start in life? If you were born to rich parents, you probably have the money, connections and the public-school education that make it an awful lot easier to start that business or climb that greasy pole.
What about people who are born poor, with a family history of unemployment? In a world without rules, where we are all free from all that government interference, how can they compete against the rest of the world? The world of casual labour and zero-hours contracts awaits. In that situation, are you free at all? Surely it’s the bosses and the companies that are free to treat you as they wish?
Liberals who believe in ‘freedom to’ argue that the state needs to support people. That starts with an excellent education and lifelong healthcare to get people back on their feet – and back to work. And workers’ rights that will protect individuals and their pursuit of happiness from the evils of big corporations.
These two camps of liberals can disagree quite strongly. At this point we need to talk about tax. Stay with me on this. One way that classical liberals (the ones who are all about ‘freedom from’) want us to be free is to be able to spend our money however we want. Freedom from tax. It’s my money and those cat memes aren’t going to buy themselves. These people aren’t against all tax entirely.
There is consensus from all the ideologies we’ll be looking at in this book that some tax is inevitable. We all want schools and hospitals and all that. But for ‘freedom from’ liberals, tax should be at a minimum possible level.
So, there is no way that things like going to university – a free choice made by individuals in their own pursuit of happiness – should be paid for with taxpayers’ money. To be clear here, by taxpayers we are talking about people who choose not to go to university as well as those who do. Which groups are least likely to go? Those with the least money. Things are changing in this respect, but if the government wants to subsidise university education, that basically means poor people paying for middle-class kids to get an extra advantage over them. Or so the argument goes.
Those liberals in the ‘freedom to’ camp, however, are big fans of the government levelling the playing field. That means, for example, making sure that university is a place that anyone can attend. If students are charged or saddled with massive amounts of debt, that makes it a privilege. No, extra money must be spent on university so there is equal opportunity and everyone is ‘free to’ do whatever they want.
These ‘freedom to’ liberals, then, are quite keen on government spending, which means that they have to be keen on tax. The money for public services has to come from somewhere. It’s just another way that these two camps of liberals disagree.
Judging by the name, you might think that the Liberal Democrats are the home of British liberals and to some extent you might be right. Almost everyone within the Lib Dems would describe themselves as liberals. That said, there are many, many people in other parties who would also describe themselves as liberals. There are plenty in Labour, loads in the Conservative Party and even a good number in UKIP. This wide spread across the parties is partly down to the huge range of opinion within the liberal ideology.
In fact, in 1992 a man called Francis Fukuyama published a book called The End of History and the Last Man. He wasn’t saying there would be no more events, but rather that liberal democracy is the globally victorious ideology. Everyone describes themselves and behaves as a liberal in some way. That’s what we see in political parties in the UK. Everyone wants people to be free to behave as they wish, within the rules.
In 2019, we see that perhaps Fukuyama was a little premature in his description of the end of history. Both socialism (which believes in some level of instruction as opposed to pure liberty) and conservatism (which believes in hierarchy and roles for different people) have seen a distinct comeback.
While other parties all stand for at least some liberal policies, the Liberal Democrats have over the years, provided us with the purest form. Indeed, a brief look at Liberal Democrat policies from the past fifteen years or so demonstrates the broad liberal church. Under Charles Kennedy, the party’s 2005 manifesto had some standout liberal policies. See if you can spot which camp he was in. He wanted to scrap tuition fees; to introduce free personal care for elderly and disabled people; smaller class sizes in primary school; to scrap Labour’s plans of introducing ID cards.
Did you get it? Well done you. Have a biscuit. His Liberal Democrats were all about ‘freedom to’. They were happy to spend a little more money in order to give people more opportunities and the best start in life. They believed that the state had a role to play in people’s lives.
That position didn’t last for long. Before the 2005 manifesto, a few Liberal Democrats had released The Orange Book: Reclaiming Liberalism, written by some people whose names you might recognise: Nick Clegg, Vince Cable, Ed Davey and David Laws, among others. The book was about the wonders of the free market, and how competition was the goal for our times. It would drive down cost and allow much more personal freedom.
If you recognised any of the names, you’ll know that it’s those liberals who took over the party in 2007. The next manifesto, in 2010, had four statements on the front cover: fair taxes that put money back in your pocket; a fair chance for every child; a fair future, creating jobs by making Britain greener; a fair deal, by cleaning up politics. Yes. They led with lower tax. Sure, a fair chance for children is in there, too. Absolutely. But it’s number two to tax cuts. That ‘freedom from’ is creeping into view.
The 2010 election ended up with the Liberal Democrats entering into a coalition government with the Conservative Party. We’ll discuss conservatism in a minute but, like I say, many Conservatives consider themselves to be liberals. The Conservative form of liberalism, though, tends to be much more ‘free from’, as the Liberal Democrats became. Their new commitment to free-market liberal economics really allowed that match to happen.
As we’ve seen, all liberals are fans of freedom, in some form or another. But some are absolute fanatics. We call them libertarians.