The party is currently running an essay competition for members of the Liberal Democrats, to submit 1000 words on the theme “What it means to be a Liberal Democrat today.” The deadline for contributions is 2nd November.
Agenda 2020 Essay #2: What it means to be a Liberal Democrat today
To be a Liberal Democrat today is to be tilting at windmills. After decades of being the wasted vote, we broke into coalition government. Then we collapsed. But the need for Liberal Democrats is more pertinent than ever.
Ignorance: The Cycle of News
Whichever paper I am reading, the same themes return again and again: that public trust has collapsed, that few people believe that politics has the power to deliver change, and that our society is divided between the nihilistic, the apathetic, and the outraged. With every case of child abuse, each random murder, every scandal of public expenditure, the news asks ‘What are the politicians doing about it?’ The government replies, and the opposition scoffs. The news cycle begins again.
The news wields Occam ’s razor as a maiming instrument. Issues of dynamic complexity are boiled down to yes-or-no answers. Questions are posed to politicians which no-one could answer, and when the politician stumbles it is held up as a triumph of journalism or a failure of political leadership. If the politician replies with nuance, he has avoided a straight question.
Our media landscape is dominated by duality: by left and right, us and them, yes and no, right and wrong, government and opposition, Conservatives and Labour. The pace of television news has accelerated and amplified the basic conflict our constitution is predicated on: the two party, first past the post system. This is carried over to the online world where debates between nuanced and considered comment pieces are hijacked by the us-and-them narrative in the comment section.
The glut of news belies our ignorance of government.
Conformity: The Constitution
The Leviathan that Hobbes described is an exclusive sovereign with an indivisible will, designed to exclude Catholics and Jews from England’s seat of power. After the cataclysm of the 20th Century, which demonstrated with brutal clarity the remorseless logic of exclusion, our society has grown to include many different people. Tolerance is now a popular tenant of citizenship: that the equal treatment of religions, races, genders and sexualities are is no longer a question of state patronage, but of human rights. The Conservative and Labour parties insist on an anachronistic interpretation of democracy to justify their stranglehold on a country which has outgrown a constitution made for aristocrats and surfs.
That any singular party has the right to lay claim to representing an entire country is a basic denial of the individual’s right to political representation. The votes of diametrically opposed philosophies are lumped together under the banner of a ‘constituency’ which amounts to an accident of bureaucratic topography: it is the act of voting one has a right to, not a say in parliament.
For the professional politician, it is not necessary that these voters are persuaded or convinced: it is only necessary that they are consulted once every five years to be duped, bullied, or blackmailed by the news cycle into one camp or the other.
If a vote goes to a third or fourth party, at least it has not gone to the real enemy: if the right camp is bigger than the wrong camp then government can continue. Parliamentary debate is largely performative: as long as the opposition is small or divided while the government is big and united, it is impossible to contradict, refute, or resist the ‘sovereign will of parliament’.
The inequality of our voices herds us into manageable, uniform blocks of us and them.
Poverty: Our Place in the World
While the government manages its image the great contributions Britain has given to the world have been left to fester. Both the UK and the EU are splitting because neither the Scottish Nationalists nor the Europhobes believe that multiple nations can co-exist in a singular state. Britain has lost its ability to lead because it no longer believes in its foundational idea.
So withers Britain’s voice in international affairs, human rights, and climate change. Opportunity passes us by without our notice: whole new sectors of our economy fail to materialise, because we no longer believe that our state, our voice, or our jobs really matter. ‘It’s pointless, really’ is a contemporary phrase: it’s how the disillusioned console themselves in the office or the pub.
The nihilist can stare at this scene without needing hope. The apathetic feel its absence, but resign themselves to a fate they do not believe they can fathom. And the outraged sublimate their fear into sadomasochistic blame games: the cycle of news.
Ignorance and conformity have impoverished our prospects.
Equality, Dignity, and Freedom
A Liberal Democrat is anyone who believes that someone he disagrees with has a right to be heard. That no-one has a monopoly on right or wrong. That somewhere between all these black-and-whites is a radical shade of grey: a radical compromise where controversy is just the inability to look deeper than our prejudices, and which is unafraid to confront ugly truths to give rise to more beauteous ideas.
The theatre which distracts us from our government comes from the structure of our politics. So long as we are forced to see these conflicts and divisions recycle our nightmares over and over again, we will feel that our society is forever a sinking, zero-sum game and nothing can be done about it.
So we have to change the structure. The conflict which divides us is artificial: it only has two dimensions. By putting the whole spectrum of public opinion in parliament, our divisions will no longer be so stark. Debate will give rise to compromise rather than theatre. The cycle of news will lead somewhere other than what any one party wants at the expense of everyone else.
Only when this is done will our country be prepared to tackle the issues. From local government to global climate change, the possibilities will swim into view, and with them change. To be a Liberal Democrat is to live in hope.
* Toby MacDonnell is a Lib Dem member. He is a graduate in history from Sussex university reading Keynes and Baudrillard in preparation for postgraduate studies.