Why I am a Liberal Democrat


Why I am a Liberal Democrat

                                                           by David Howarth

No-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance, or conformity

A phrase from the preamble to the old Liberal Party’s constitution, now happily transferred to the Liberal Democrats’, says best what the Liberal Democrats stand for. Liberals, it declares, work to build a society in which ‘No–one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance, or conformity.’


Not even the opening page of Mill’s On Liberty, with its assertion that no-one should be coerced, except to prevent harm to others, expresses so accurately the essence of Liberal politics. Liberalism is not just a shield to ward off an over–mighty state. It is a sword, a weapon for change towards a distinctive, and distinctly better, society.




Plainly, economic improvement is not a distinctively liberal aim. But ensuring that none shall be enslaved by poverty is. It focuses not on increasing material wealth for its own sake, but on eliminating the repression poverty causes. Poverty prevents people from being free – free to make choices and even, when the struggle to survive is paramount, to think their own thoughts.


This focus on the political effects of poverty, rather than just on inequality, allows Liberal Democrats to hold wide, non–materialistic views of economic questions. It allows, for example, advanced views on environmental protection. Conventional measures of prosperity notwithstanding, where the environment has been destroyed, vast numbers of people experience political conditions equivalent to absolute poverty. Where the struggle to ward off ill–health and find physical safety become all-important, freedom, autonomy and dignity disappear. But the same non-materialistic view inoculates Liberal Democrats against claims that any sacrifice of liberty is worthwhile if it increases material well–being. Material welfare, including health, is a means to an end, not the end itself.




Creating a society free of ignorance dominates Liberal Democrat thinking to an extraordinary degree, from the Party’s central 1990s sound-bite – ‘a penny on income tax for education’ – to opposition to censorship and support for open government and freedom of information.


Liberals still believe in what is fashionably called the ‘Enlightenment Project’. Not only should everyone be capable of participating in political discussion, but also, reason and knowledge, especially scientific knowledge, should form the basis of that discussion. Liberals instinctively reject the reliance on traditional authority and the cynical manipulation of myth and superstition which are fundamental to conservatism, including its modern ‘communitarian’ forms. Critics say that the Enlightenment Project has led to arrogant and ultimately disastrous attempts, such as Marxism, to claim to apply scientific methods to politics. But Liberals have never claimed, as socialists did, that they possess knowledge that authorises them to reconstruct society. They claim instead only that a society is rational to the extent that its members debate the future in a rational way.


Critics also say that the Enlightenment Project leads all values to dissolve into relativism. But there is a big difference between saying that there is no moral and political truth, as relativists claim, and saying that although objective truth exists, we cannot be certain what it is, and so the state should not impose all-embracing moral, religious or political views. Indeed, relativism underpins not liberalism but its enemies, the power-worshipping doctrines of Leninism and fascism and the reactionary inertia of ‘post-modernism.’




Creating a society in which no-one is enslaved by conformity is perhaps the most distinctive liberal aim of all. It expresses a fundamental commitment to protecting individuality. Human creativity is the ultimate resource, and its shackling by convention and prejudice the ultimate extravagance. Moreover, this same aim is central to the Liberal Democrat conception of human rights. Freedom of speech and religion are forms of the freedom to be different.


But freedom from ignorance and freedom from conformity counterbalance each other. Traditional authority is subject to rational criticism, not to romantic but irrational revolt. Freedom from enslavement by conformity means not that it is wrong to criticise others, only that it is wrong to criticise others because they are acting unconventionally. Ignorance of the consequences of one’s actions for others is one of the most serious forms of ignorance. Liberalism is for individuality, not individualism – at least if individualism means that existential individualism in which no-one is accountable to anyone else.


Ultimately, one can divide political ideologies into those that appeal to fantasies of control and those that appeal to fantasies of liberation. Socialism appeals to people offended by the disorganisation of markets and by apparently never-ending political debate. Liberalism, by contrast, appeals to those who wish for themselves and others to be free.




The writer is MP, Cambridge.


1 Response to “Why I am a Liberal Democrat”

  1. 1 Niklas Smith November 19, 2009 at 1:25 pm

    A superb article; having just re-read it I realise it is deeper than I thought at first. The discussion of the “Enlightenment Project” and moral relativism is especially interesting. Take this sentence:

    But there is a big difference between saying that there is no moral and political truth, as relativists claim, and saying that although objective truth exists, we cannot be certain what it is, and so the state should not impose all-embracing moral, religious or political views.

    Daniel Defoe made a similar point in 1710 in his pamphlet An Essay upon Publick Credit:

    “Reason, it is true, is DICTATOR in the Society of Mankind; from her there ought to lie no Appeal; But here we want a Pope in our Philosophy, to be the infallible Judge of what is or is not Reason.”

    This and David Howarth’s argument remind us that a degree of intellectual humility is essential to liberalism.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: