Saturday, September 10, 2011


Love and Liberty VII – Freedom from Poverty (#LibDemValues 1.7)

Many people feel, now we’re in coalition, that they don’t know what the Liberal Democrats stand for. Answering that question has never been more important – but it’s not a new problem. For many of us, Liberalism is the clearest, most consistent philosophy among Britain’s political parties… But not a lot of other people see it that way! Back in 1999, the Passports To Liberty series published my own idea of Liberalism, Love and Liberty. I’ve previously republished some of it here, adding new notes. Tonight I set out why freedom from poverty is one of our three great aims.

I actually started republishing Love and Liberty split across a series of ten more manageable posts early last year, inspired by the forthcoming General Election. I read the whole thing again; I decided not to rewrite it from scratch, though there were plenty of bits that might have been better that way, deciding that I still agreed with myself – mostly – and so it wasn’t worth trying to reinvent it; I made the odd change or addition, largely to clean up some of the clumsier passages, add appropriate links or insert more up-to-date quotes from Lib Dem politicians and knocking copy against the others (being at the fag-end of a terrible Labour Government instead of just past the fag-end of a terrible Tory one). It was going to add up to the first – or first ten – in a mammoth series of articles looking at my and many other people’s ideas of ‘What the Liberal Democrats stand for’. And, as you might guess, I argued that for Liberalism to work it needed to stand for both love and liberty – each having limitations on their own. How well did I knit them together?

I wasn’t expecting it all to unravel, but suddenly it did. After polishing and publishing six of the ten parts, I came to a grinding halt, and I still can’t say precisely why.

In part, it was because I became rather ill – which I very often am. In part, because after being very ill, my flow was broken (and before long I became much more ill, and stayed that way for most of last year). But it was also, I think, a crisis of confidence. Sections seven to nine were different to the rest of the essay. Where the rest of it follows a clear philosophical thread, these were basically bundles of loosely linked policies. They didn’t flow as naturally; they weren’t as well-written; they seemed a jarring change from the rest of what I’d written; they had enormous gaps where I really should have expanded into other issues, or where what I said was far too skimpy (probably because at the time I first wrote it, I’d seen something I needed to raise, but couldn’t think of anything interesting to say and just mentioned it in passing). And they seemed a bit pompous as a result. I’d really liked the previous bit I’d published, too, which as it turned out didn't help – after I’d felt uplifted by re-reading section VI, Equal Voices, Different Choices, nodding along and feeling it came from the heart (or from Conrad), suddenly the rest just felt like a cobbled-together manifesto. And once I lost confidence in myself, it was very difficult to go back.

Well, I’m back. I’ve read it all over again; I still mostly agree with it. And I do feel now that, more than ever, we need to set out what the Liberal Democrats stand for – so I should finish setting out what I thought about Liberalism, so I’ve got something to build on.

Of course, if you want to read the best book on Liberalism published in 1999, you should read Conrad Russell’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide To Liberalism, obviously. But mine’s free.

You don’t need to have read any of the other sections before starting on the latest one, but none of the individual pieces are very long (fortunately), so if you want to catch up, here’s the story so far. And, hopefully, the rest will be along in rather less than eighteen months.

Introduction and Contents

Part One: Love

One Person, One Value
Liberal Individualism
Liberal Internationalism
Green Liberalism

Part Two: Liberty

Equal Voices, Different Choices

And now, at last…

Liberty: Freedom from Poverty

The three most important challenges for Liberals set out in the Preamble to the Liberal Democrat Constitution are to ensure that that “no-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity” – because those three are the three biggest roadblocks standing in the way of people’s freedoms. And by putting freedom from poverty even before freedom from ignorance and conformity, the Liberal Democrats make a bold statement that for Liberalism to mean anything, it must be social Liberalism.

Poverty Stands in the Way of Freedom
“To have a little freedom, you must have a little money”
said occasional Liberal Winston Churchill, rarely today regarded as having been on the fierily anti-Conservative wing of the party. He was pointing out the material baseline to equality of opportunity – but it isn’t an end in itself, maximising choices and chances goes deeper than elementary social justice. Liberalism doesn’t fall into the trap of assuming that possessing ever-increasing amounts of money is always the same as enjoying ever-expanding freedom, nor into the trap of enforcing equality of outcomes to give everyone equal wealth and assume that the work of liberation for all has miraculously completed. Material well-being is an essential base on which to build, not the only end in itself. Happiness, self-discovery and self-fulfilment are not just material, but also come from unleashing individuality and imagination – whatever the tunnel vision of materialists from ‘left’ and ‘right’ alike might think. By treating every individual as uniquely precious through their simple humanity, whatever their choices in life, Liberalism makes equality of opportunity central.

When you recognise every individual as equally valid, important, unique and precious, no-one can be just dismissed as a ‘failure’ and tossed on the scrapheap, or left forever trapped by poverty. Equal access to the essentials for making choices is a precondition for choice. For people to have a fair chance to exercise freedom to think and act, Liberals must fight for freedom from poverty and all the disadvantages associated with it. Uniting freedom from poverty and ignorance from the start of his Leadership, Nick Clegg raised the issue of the comparative wealth, health and death rates in his home city of Sheffield (where a child born in a poor part of the city is likely to die fourteen years before a child born up the road), leading to setting extra money for early years education as the most powerful way out of poverty and to tackle the high stress, poor health, susceptibility to infection, and earlier deaths that all follow for too many trapped in low income areas. While Liberal Democrats have long argued for more such ladders out of poverty, too many institutions instead pull them away, denying people living in poorer areas essential services for anything from banking to entertainment to crime prevention. Freedom from poverty is a means to reach many other freedoms.

Liberal internationalism also demands action to assist members of the human family who suffer in utter, absolute poverty; for huge numbers of the world’s citizens, ‘economic liberty’ would have to start with freedom from economic insecurity and privation. Countries with the power, money and resources to help have a duty to do so, most clearly through overseas aid, while guarding against over-prescriptive strings attached to that ‘aid’; at home and abroad, programmes to reduce poverty must create opportunities and self-reliance, rather than making people jump through ‘moral’ hoops and denying dignity by meting out crumbs as if to children who’ll never be allowed to grow up. And once again, it’s not just love but pragmatism that calls for action – global environmental degradation and pollution, the flow of refugees and the hope of security are all intimately tied to how well we help our fellow humans to build themselves up.

Success Needs Freedom

Not just poverty itself, but the fear of it through desperate insecurity must also be challenged. In the words of William Beveridge, perhaps the Twentieth Century’s most influential British Liberal in fighting poverty:
“A starving man is not free, because till he is fed, he cannot have a thought for anything but how to meet his urgent physical needs… a man who dare not resent what he feels to be an injustice from an employer or a foreman, lest this condemn him to chronic unemployment, is not free.”
Liberals support fairness at work, so employers can’t bully their employees; for practical reasons, involving a business’ own workers in decision-making not only makes them more secure, but by introducing more ideas, makes the work more successful. Freedom from poverty needs economic success – and with small businesses usually the bedrock of a successful economy, Liberals have long advocated small-scale, imaginative solutions to boost financial autonomy, security and creativity, such as co-operative enterprises. If you want to unlock people from poverty, unleashing creativity to succeed has to be a major part of it. As Nick Clegg said:
“A Liberal believes in the raucous, unpredictable capacity of people to take decisions about their own lives.”
Labour in power have seen poverty as something to be levered out of, ticking boxes to make sure that you’ve moved by exactly the prescribed increment so as to meet exactly the right target. ‘Freedom’ has nothing to do with it. It’s no surprise that they’ve failed their own targets as a result, with the gap between rich and poor wider than at the height of Mrs Thatcher’s government. Perhaps doubling the rate of income tax paid by the lowest earners, while giving massive tax breaks for the rich by slashing Capital Gains Tax, wasn’t such a great idea after all? Which is why the Liberal Democrats would raise the income tax threshold to let people on low incomes earn more of their own money – without having to pay it to the Labour Government, fill out a hundred forms, feed it through a tortuous bureaucracy, then if they’re lucky have a bit of it dribble out back to them if the Labour Party thinks they’re ‘deserving’. And paid for in part by reversing Labour’s tax loopholes for the rich that have allowed that gap to grow so wildly, reducing poverty and increasing fairness.

The Conservatives say they want tax cuts too, of course. But of a very different kind. Cut services to the poor; give the money to dead millionaires. But then poverty has never been a major Tory concern. Where Labour’s regimented approach to poverty had nothing to do with freedom, Conservative ‘freedoms’ have tended to create limited ‘choice’ while destroying opportunity. This is just the ‘freedom’ to exploit, not real liberty that can be gained and shared by all. Creating opportunity is necessary to enable many people to exercise real choices, but making choices for people is an abuse of power.

Freedom from poverty doesn’t mean doing everything for everyone, or putting up material ‘progress’ as a panacea, or forcing people through conditional hoops to win their basic dignity. It means simply removing a massive barrier in order that people can develop along their own line, so long as they don’t harm others, and unleashing talents which would otherwise have no opportunity to flourish for themselves, or to benefit anyone else.

Back to VI

Forward to VIII

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So glad to see you back & producing such good quality stuff. You are the chicken soup for the liberal soul. Your words not only appeal to our instincts but remind us why we're in this game - to change lives & motivate s to get out there & change minds.

Hope to see you in Birmingham.
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