We need liberalism for the 21st Century

We need Liberalism for the 21st century

By Jo Swinson Nov 11, 2017 11

Every year, on this day, at this hour, we come together in thoughtful silence to remember those brave soldiers who died on the battlefields in the First World War and subsequent conflicts.

99 years ago the guns fell silent. 

But barely 20 years later the world was engulfed by war once more. 

And then, out of the depths of unimaginable pain and suffering and loss, emerged the green shoots that would become the European Union. 

World War Two marked the third war in seventy years between France and Germany. Today, a war between these two pillars of democracy is unthinkable.  Instead, we have enjoyed seventy years of peace and prosperity in western Europe.

The European Union has been - and remains - a beacon of peace, in Europe and right across the world. It has defended human rights, upheld shared democratic values, and brought security and economic prosperity to countries across the continent.

It is not perfect. As Liberal Democrats we have long been at the forefront of calls for reform.

But there is no doubt that we are better off staying in.

We are stronger together.  The single market reduces trade barriers and protects jobs.  Cooperation on justice and security makes us safer.  Shared standards have improved our environment, workers’ rights, and the quality of the goods we buy.

Vince is spot on.  We need an exit from Brexit.

When the SNP won East Dunbartonshire in 2015, I was of course gutted to lose a job I loved.  But what distressed me the most, was what Scottish politics had become. 

A hostile, nasty environment, polarised to the extreme.  Fake news, long before it became fashionable.  Online vitriol and echo chambers.

Actual violence and intimidation where before we had prided ourselves as a country on robust, good-natured debate.

And families and friends split by their votes, some unable to reconcile their opposing views.  Agreeing to disagree seemed a lost art.

Of course we know that referendums are by nature divisive – or if we didn’t before, we certainly do now. 

Being forced to pick a side, and make a binary choice, when the reality is that life is complicated and most issues have many shades of grey.

Now it isn’t just Scotland that feels divided.  Brexit has extended that franchise across the rest of the UK.

We are a country divided by age, by geography, by education, by income.

Divided by referendums and by polarised values, divided by extreme nationalism and by the rise of populism, divided by a government that has doubled down on a hard Brexit instead of trying to bring the country together.

These sorts of divisions threaten our shared liberal values of tolerance, of respect, and of understanding.

The referendums, both on independence and the EU, have also lifted the lid on something much deeper in our society.  Sentiments that had been hidden.  Frustrations that had been mounting.

Resentment. Hatred. Anger at what people see as a broken system. For millions of hardworking people all over the UK, there is a feeling that the current system simply does not work for them.

The basic deal – you work hard, you get by – feels broken.

People are left feeling that things can’t get much worse, that they have nothing to lose.

And instead of trying to find real answers on how to reinvent the system for the 21st century, too many politicians prefer to point the finger of blame.

Whether it’s the SNP blaming England, Conservatives scapegoating immigrants (remember Theresa May’s ‘Go Home’ vans?), or Corbynista Labour attacking moderates in its own party and beyond.

Stoking divisions creates an increasingly polarised society. 

Politics feels broken. To me, to many in this room, and to many far beyond this conference hall.

I was chatting the other day to my brilliant American intern Grace, and she said something about this that really stuck in my mind.

Her parents, who are both journalists, had said to her: you might think this is just the way politics is, but you need to know this is not normal.  Where we are now is beyond shocking. The division between right and left is unprecedented and it is dangerous. The outright rejection of objective facts and the disdain for the established values of respect and human dignity is unlike anything we have seen before.

Trump’s America might look a bit like Brexit on steroids, but there are underlying similarities. 

To varying degrees, both pull together some of the same constituencies, mixing genuine concerns with some intolerant attitudes:

  • discomfort with multicultural society and immigration
  • climate change denial
  • nostalgia for how things used to be
  • concern about globalisation and its impact on jobs
  • feminism-has-gone-too-far
  • and no doubt political correctness has gone mad

Then they fold it all into a nationalism that assumes superiority over others.

But there is an appetite for change.

We need to challenge the populist blame game with radical liberal solutions to the many future challenges hurtling down the tracks at us.

The world of work is changing. Constant technological advances, in automation and in artificial intelligence, threaten many traditional jobs.

Manufacturing. Retail. Transport. Professional services.   

In the next 15 years, almost 1 in every 3 current jobs in Britain could be automated. 1 in 3. That’s 10 million people.

What will we say to the truck driver whose job is a thing of the past? To the shop assistant laid off as robots fill the gap?  To the paralegal, or auditor, whose knowledge and analysis is no match for the algorithm?

The government must start planning for this future. They should have started already.

The demographic challenges of our ageing population are well-documented, but where is the government commitment to developing cross-party, long-term solutions on social care?

Technology will transform healthcare too, with genomics enabling personalised medicine in place of one size fits all treatments.

And overlaying all of this is our changing climate.

Last year, Nasa’s top climate scientist warned that our planet is warming at a pace not seen in the last thousand years.

Climate scientists predict global warming will have reached over 2 degrees by 2050 - far beyond the 1.5-degree safe limit set in the Paris climate change deal.

And yet, Brexit threatens to weaken collaborative climate action in the UK and Europe.

Faced with these big issues that deserve government attention, bold plans and innovative solutions, what do we have?

It’s so depressing.  The Conservative Government limps from one crisis to the next, running away from votes in Parliament, Ministers clinging on courtesy of a weak Prime Minister.

It isn’t doing enough to prepare for next month, let alone the next decade.

It is just Brexit at all costs, whatever the cost - and we know the cost will be huge.  There is no room for anything else. 

They are so obsessed with the constitutional question, they have taken their eye off the ball.  Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

So what should we do differently, as Liberal Democrats?

We must seek positive, radical, 21st century, liberal solutions to these problems and more.  This is not a time for incremental change.

The march of the robots into our workplaces means we need to rethink jobs.

Machines still have limits, and will continue to do so. They cannot empathise or accurately mimic the full complexity of human interaction, and there are few signs they will be able to do so in the near future.

Increasingly, this will be what separates us from them. Our very humanity will be more precious than ever.

Our ageing population requires a growing care sector.  Care work should no longer be dismissed as low paid and unskilled. 

Instead we need a care revolution to place caregiving where it belongs: as a vital and hugely valued part of our society, with well-paid staff recognised for the significant skills they bring.

We need to boost investment in renewable energy and step up the transition to electric cars too. The government has pledged to end the sale of petrol and diesel cars by 2040 but companies such as Volvo are showing how timid that is. In two years’ time, they will stop all production of petrol and diesel-only cars.  We should be more ambitious to save our planet.

This way, we can start to clean up our polluted cities. Respiratory-related illnesses caused by pollution are putting further stress on our already overworked and underfunded health services. By cleaning up our cities we will help our NHS too.

And while we’re on healthcare, we need some serious innovation: the NHS is - shockingly - the world’s largest buyer of fax machines.

We’ve seen a rise in new Apps that support NHS processes. Apps helping patients manage their medication, apps helping doctors with diagnostic processes. We need to invest in health technology to bring the NHS into the 21st century. 

Most importantly though, as Liberal Democrats we need to bring people together to create these answers to our shared challenges.

We must not leave room for the populists to sow their seeds of division.

This means getting out of what can, at times, be our own echo chambers and starting to bridge the divides in our communities.

Our proud liberal tradition of community politics and grassroots campaigning means we know how to do this.

We have the wind in our sails.  Growing Council groups, strong by-election campaigns, more MPs at Westminster. 

People are listening again, open to our message.

British politics needs this radical thinking, this consensus-building, this reaching out across party and ideological divides.

British politics needs the Liberal Democrats.

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