An Evening with the Liberal Family: Discussing the Future of British Liberalism

(Image: John McHugh)

BY PHILIPPE LEFEVRE, Chair at the Institute for a Greater Europe

“We must be proud again to be liberals!”

In an event hosted by the University of York Liberal Democrats, it was posited that we should celebrate, not apologise for, the great achievements that Liberalism has brought us.

Yet, for all its achievements, why is British liberalism failing?

The evening itself was moderated and cautiously pulled along by Professor Miles Taylor of the University History Department, the “Dimbleby of the evening”, who threw successively Harder questions at the panel.

The panel fulfilled a wide berth of the liberal spectrum and debated their answers with the notorious politesse that the liberalism is known for. Among their number was firstly April Preston, Director of the Radical Association, seeking to bring radical liberalism to the Liberal Democrats, and candidate for Manchester City Council, beholden with powerful experiences that truly drives her with passion. Sat beside her was another powerful woman, Sarah Brown, a counsellor and graduate of Cambridge who’s work in the LGBT+ Lib Dem Executive has brought her success on the Independents “Pink List” in past years, a list of influential LGBT+ people. Lastly, adding what he calls “a bit of spice” to the liberal line-up is Daniel Pryor, a self-confessed neoliberal but non-party member who works with the Adam Smith Institute, seeking to promote the use of free markets for a better society.

Among the bleak questions of “Why is liberalism dying” and the even bleaker answers such as the need to “ban Nazis”, the evening drew upon the fundamental theme that Liberalism has done good, and if it is to succeed again then it must survive the onslaught of illiberalism and eventually bore out its time again in the light. This, as Sarah mentioned, is the Pendulum theory, where after a time in the spotlight, the pendulum of popularity inevitably changes, owing to a “stupid “ economy, but will eventually return.

This is not to say that there was advocacy for doing nothing, many of the panel took a view that the clear way forward was to get loud and liberal, taking back control of the narrative. Big issues, as discussed, require big ideas, and these cannot be taken by little liberals with little voices.

The often touted idea of a Universal Basic Income was much lauded, with sensible empiricist demands for more proof trumping recently loud discussions over its implantation by other parties. Indeed, a main point on the discussion of policies is the need for Liberals to take back the narrative of their own policies, some of which have been pinched by Labour. Preston commented further, with the arrival of bigger and bolder policies, there is a distinct need for these ideas not to be taken by the wrong individuals for their own Machiavellian interests. Having experienced destitution in her early life under the cloud of Labour, she exclaims the narrative of Labour supporting the working class was laughable and needed to be stripped away and tackled head-on.

Markets, Immigration and Social media, far from being Angela Merkel’s worst nightmare, were also on the agenda, with Social Media taking centre stage. It is here that our aforementioned suggestion of banning Nazis was used, and to good effect. Karl Popper’s ‘Paradox of Tolerance’, whereby the tolerance of intolerance destroys all tolerance, was wielded in lambasting social media, particularly the likes of Twitter and Facebook, in their ineffectiveness to marginalise intolerance.

Nuance arose on the topic of the blurred lines between free speech and hate speech where it was clearly stated that the laws are there. The solution has been found. The experts consulted and the bills signed. However, the issue is the wielder of these laws feels no obligation to be the arbitrator of moral values, despite their function being laid down in the very laws they hold.

The role of social media in fuelling intolerance was discussed in depth. The ecosystem of the internet contained by social media has suffered considerably since its monopolisation by a few key companies, but as Myspace shows, this is hardly the future. Competition was one such solution, with stringent regulation merely stifling the already tight market. The other option being to simply to stop thinking about it. Whilst Social media is a large part of the internet, it is not the only part, and they do not owe us free speech.

Finally, the discussion turned towards the existential threat facing liberalism, where glimmers of hope remain. Liberal values brought billions out of poverty, gave minorities their rights, and women the vote. Liberals should be unashamed of these, strong and unapologetic. Be proud, go-forward and make people care. End the patronising of the electorate, and show them why they need not turn towards the illiberal to find solutions as liberalism has the answers.

To summarise, it is. The emancipatory action liberalism has brought into the world cannot simply be left by the wayside, but the current ideology that inhabits these values must change if it is to have any chance of regaining dominance.

With liberalism seemingly under siege and on the retreat globally, British liberalism cannot exist in a bubble. Discussions should not be limited to one centrist party in the UK. The Future of British liberalism, in essence, requires self-determination, reflection, and an unabashed pride in its achievements to see off illiberal threats from the left and the right.

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