Saturday, January 30, 2010


Love and Liberty IV – Liberal Internationalism (#LibDemHeart #LibDemValues 1.4)

Continuing my series on what the Liberal Democrats stand for, today’s instalment is perhaps the most problematic part of Love and Liberty, a 1999 booklet exploring my own Liberalism – struggling to set out a Liberal approach to international problems, not getting as far as I’d have liked… And before Iraq. Still, if you’re searching for my answer, there’s another one I prepared later. In the meantime, I paraphrase David Lloyd George (not usually my favourite Leader), suggest the biggest difference between Liberals and nationalists, and come up with a good line knocking the Tories. That’s always fun, isn’t it?

Love: Liberal Internationalism

I once read a line from David Lloyd George, where he exclaimed that he hated fences and wanted to kick down any he came across. He may well have been thinking of Welsh landowners, but that quotation always pops into my head as part of that instinctive Liberal internationalism. Liberals don’t like neat little boxes and borders that individuals can’t cross. I want to kick down fences, too, and I don’t see how the concerns of Liberalism can be confined to one country. We've always been the most internationalist of creeds, and also the most individualist. That flows perfectly logically from the borderless connections individuals make in their own ‘living circles’, though perhaps, with my dual nationality, it was never going to seem like a contradiction to me. That's another difference between nationalists and us: we include everyone, rejecting the idea that we shouldn't bother with rights for people beyond the border - our principles don't stop on the shoreline. As the Preamble to the Liberal Democrat Constitution puts it,
“our responsibility for justice and liberty cannot be confined by national boundaries; we are committed to fight poverty, oppression, hunger, ignorance, disease and aggression wherever they occur.”
There are many pragmatic reasons for internationalism, too; Paddy Ashdown outlined the two main Liberal opportunities at the turn of the millennium as the globalisation of power and information, and the growth of individual autonomy and choice. Standing up against multinationals is no longer possible for many countries in isolation, recessions cross-national boundaries, and one country can’t save the world’s environment on its own. Common peace and security, economies and the Internet are all parts of the movement into internationalism which should hold no terror for Liberals, whose outlook was never confined to the short-term interests of one country.

Other parties have more difficulty; even Labour’s hopeless dithering is preferable to the Conservatives’ approach to Europe. In government, the Tories were like a drunk at a party – not listening to anyone else, standing propped up in a corner, ranting away at the other guests, making our friends move away in embarrassment and those who didn’t want us invited in the first place say ‘See! We told you they couldn’t behave!’ Now they just want to sit at home and complain about the noise next door.

Nationalism, of course, contains a greater danger than mere isolationism. While there is a difference between those for whom nationalism is the end and those for who self-determination is the means, the nationalist assertion that ‘we’re good’ easily leads to ‘they’re bad,’ which too easily becomes ‘we hate them’ and unleashes racism or fascism, particularly to distract attention from failure – for some people, it’s so much easier to put up with if you can blame ‘them’. If you can’t live with differences in people, you start by stopping people living their own lives, and finish by stopping them living. Those who believe Liberalism’s values (rather than some of its methods) have changed so much in the last century should compare Mr Gladstone’s concentration on Bulgaria with Mr Ashdown’s on Bosnia.

Liberal Intervention?

A Liberal response to issues in other countries is a key area where Liberal values clash – often setting diversity and democracy against duty. Liberal internationalism is a tradition that’s long been kept alive in Liberal hearts, but we try not to talk about the movements also once active in the old Liberal Party for pacifist isolationism or imperialism. If we recognise no borders to our love of humanity, what about freedom for ‘a people’? What about self-determination? What happens to persons, when it has to apply on levels other than the personal? Liberalism’s search for ‘truth’ means Liberals should accept practical, pragmatic experience solutions, but not believe in any ‘perfection for all time’.

One lesson of the 20th Century is the growth of cultural and colonial independence – but another is that ‘muscular’ Liberalism must sometimes intervene to prevent hideous crimes, even at the expense of pluralism. If we regard individuals as different from societies, then causing harm to ‘our own’ is still ‘harm’. A majority can’t consent to harm a minority, but it can be a difficult circle to square with not forcing your own idea of ‘best’ on others – particularly if ethnic cleansing starts in a ‘democratic’ country. Where is the balance to be found between protecting cultural diversity by not stomping over a country from outside, against protecting cultural diversity by stopping the leaders of a country eliminating internal pluralism? While I’ve always tended towards pacifism towards attacks on me, I’ve always favoured weighing in to defend someone else, and I have a similar view about intervening to protect the oppressed in other countries. Even so, who appoints you a policeman? Who holds you accountable? What if you’re wrong; if reason fails, can you only say that might happens to be right, so it’s OK? As with ‘internal’ guarantees of liberty, Liberals believe the long-term answer will be to set rules, and look at each case on its own merits. Instinctively keen to look beyond national boundaries and pool sovereignty, Liberals’ solution is a framework of ‘international law’ and agreements, not merely to rely on US unilateral action. It is difficult to reconcile the appalling actions of the Taliban towards women, for example, with the still-revolutionary Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Problems on a global scale or made plain through global communications, whether war crimes or multinational company power, are problems for consenting international institutions.

Tempting as it is to re-write the whole of Love and Liberty, I’ve only been polishing the odd particularly clumsy line here and there, or just changing it to my ‘house style’ (double quote marks for direct quotations, single for anything paraphrased, unattributable or just made up for a laugh, and so on). I frowned on re-reading today’s piece, though; the earlier part of it has several lines which I – can I be charitable to myself? – which I’m sure I borrowed, but the second part just isn’t really up to scratch.

I still agree with myself as far as I went (and haven’t changed a word of that part), but I knew what I wrote about Liberal intervention was a bit threadbare at the time, and it looks much more so post-Iraq. It’s partly because there’s a definite clash of different Liberal values here, and I don’t have an easy answer to it. It certainly needs more work from me.

Fortunately, I did do a bit more work on it, so here’s one I prepared later, which does at least weight matters post-Iraq, if far from definitive. In 2006, commenting on the Liberal Democrat policy paper on Britain’s Global Responsibilities: the International Rule of Law I wrote an article for Lib Dem Voice which outlined three areas where Liberals tend to have arguments – as I said yesterday, while all parties have ideologies, they don’t all focus on the same things – and focused in on one in particular. My theory is, you see, that we all generally tend to agree that informed consent is the touchstone for what people should and shouldn’t do, and it’s usually a pretty coherent model. What happens, though, in situations where informed consent can’t apply? I wrote,
“It seems to me there are three big issues on which Liberals lack an instinctive compass, and they’re all situations where it’s impossible for all those concerned to give informed consent: animals, children and international law. I remember coming up with these in discussion during the writing process on the party’s philosophy paper It’s About Freedom. Its chair, Alan Beith, agreed that these were issues on which Liberals might well not have easy answers, and while I thought that was a good reason to raise them, he – perhaps wisely – thought the opposite was true!”
So, if you want to read what I thought further (if still not far enough) on the international rule of law, it’s here in my thoughtful and understated article, When Liberals Attack!

You can find the evolving links to the whole of Love and Liberty with an introduction here. Over the following days, I’ll be expanding on the consequences of putting love and then liberty at the heart of my Liberalism – check back to that contents list and watch for those links to spring into life. Oh, and don’t forget to give your opinion on whether #LibDemHeart or #LibDemValues makes the better tag!

Back to III

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