An Open Letter on The Future of Liberalism
The new SLF Director outlines ambitious plans for the organisation's future as a liberal 'think and do' tank.
On Tuesday 9th June, I took up the post of Director of the Social Liberal Forum (SLF). I did so because I passionately believe we need a more liberal Britain, and a more liberal world. I am writing to you today to set out some of the SLF’s future plans, and to ask you, our members and supporters, for help. I do so at a time when the values we share are under more severe threat than they have been for many decades.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed fundamental weaknesses in our system of government, fragilities in our health and social care systems and unacceptable injustices in our society. It has highlighted the risks a society runs when it places all the emphasis on efficiency and far too little on resilience. And in the process, it has thrown new light on a British model of capitalism that is overly concerned with short-term shareholder gain at the expense of long-term corporate, employee and community stewardship.
This pandemic was not only predictable but predicted. The fact that we failed to prepare for it highlights fundamental flaws in our ability to think about and to manage risk effectively. The catastrophic economic fall-out now set to unfold will be felt not in dry economic statistics but in the lives, livelihoods and dreams destroyed by business closures and unemployment on an epic scale.
Internationally, while the crisis ought to have driven home the point that twenty-first century problems are global in distribution and consequence, and that the key to influence over events lies in states exercising power in partnership with others, the early signs are not hopeful. The international response has been far too fragmented. There are also significant and justified concerns that a number of authoritarian governments are using the crisis to undermine privacy, democracy and human rights.
The challenges thrown up by COVID-19 now take their place alongside, and provide a new context within which we must think about the profound challenges already on the agenda before the pandemic broke. Among these:
- a technology revolution that is going to transform the world of work and, if we allow it, significantly reduce human freedom in the face of both surveillance capitalism and the surveillance state;
- A climate and biodiversity crisis that threatens not just our existence in the long-term but a series of sudden, non-linear shocks like the pandemic in the nearer term;
- Huge inequalities that privilege a few, while condemning the rest to lack of opportunity;
- Levels of trust in politics and political institutions at historic lows;
- The rise of an illiberal populism that seeks to hijack calls for economic change and wrap them in rhetoric that scapegoats’ outsiders and;
- The fragmentation of the West and the erosion of all kinds of multilateralism.
In the face of these challenges the election in December delivered a catastrophic election result for progressive parties. The Liberal Democrats suffered a third disastrous election result in a row and the Labour Party a fourth defeat. While political parties opposing the Conservatives polled around 52 per cent of the vote their fragmentation, coupled to the first past the post electoral system, delivered an 80-seat majority for the Conservative Party. By the time of the next election, if it comes in 2024, the Tories will have been in power for almost 15 years, and for all but 13 out of the last 45 years.
Intellectually, the zeitgeist is also filled with attempts to bury us, and to reduce the rich and diverse liberal political tradition to the pejorative ‘neo-liberalism’ of the Thatcher and Reagan years and its legacy. Plentiful tomes describe the latter’s collapse and assume it represents the collapse of liberalism itself, both domestically and internationally. Books charting a course to a new liberal renaissance are, on the other hand, thin on the ground.
We are mired in crisis and as the historian Margaret Macmillan intimated in The Economist recently, time is short. We must, she argues, drawing on Abraham Lincoln’s words, ‘reach for the better angels of our nature: enlightened leaders and publics capable of creating together sane and inclusive policies, and strengthening our vital institutions at home and abroad. The alternative story will not have a happy ending.’
The SLF Vision
In conditions such as these, it would be easy to give in to despair. More than one reader of this letter will have considered throwing the towel in after the last election. But we do not have that luxury. As we survey the scene the sense of foreboding for our own futures and for those of our children and grand-children is palpable. We know our country and the world is heading in the wrong direction.
In place of despair, we must develop a unifying and visionary politics of hope. To do that, we need intellectual ferment, new thinking, bold ideas, and better organisation. It is time to remind ourselves, our country and the world of what liberalism is, what it has contributed and why its core ideas are needed now more than ever.
Under my Directorship, that is what the SLF will try to do.
Over coming months and years we will set out and campaign for a vision of a Citizen’s Britain where what matters is not a person’s race, religion, gender or sexuality but the content of their character. A country where every human life has equal worth and where all are equal before the law. We will campaign to create a country where individuals take power at every level and use it to shape a better life for themselves, their families and their communities. We will challenge the remote, over-centralised, and unresponsive British state and the massive accumulations of unaccountable private wealth and power that sustain an unjust status quo. We will chart a course to the next renaissance and to a society and government not only of the people and for the people but by the people.
It is our belief that only such an approach can restore trust in our institutions, create the conditions for much needed fundamental reform, build resilience in our communities and provide the opportunity for mass flourishing that our citizens deserve and our planet so badly needs.
A Liberal Think and Do Tank
The SLF will play its part by becoming and effective think and a do tank.
We will build and host a set of liberal networks across science, technology, business, academia, the media, law, engineering, the arts and politics. By drawing on their expertise and via a series of events, publications, consultations with members and exercises in participatory democracy, we will analyse, host virtual and physical debates on, and develop liberal solutions to the biggest questions of our time.
We will pursue an era of great reform so as to decentralise the British state and usher in an era of community power. We will campaign for fair votes. We will campaign to re-engineer our cities and towns so they become the sustainable urban centres upon which our survival is going to depend. And we will campaign to replace our crony and oligopolistic economy with a new economy of the common good, where everyone has a stake and where we ask not what we can do for capitalism but what capitalism can do for us.
We will go wherever the debate takes us, and not shirk big or uncomfortable questions or talk only to ourselves. To build a liberalism that is future ready, we will think through and articulate an electorally viable ‘build back better’ strategy in the era of COVID-19; study and learn how to beat the populists; work to extend the social reach of truth and to tackle fake news; build and promote liberal technologies in the age of AI; grapple with the profound challenges of a shifting geopolitical landscape; and combine the articulation of a liberal form of patriotism with a passionate defence of the very idea of international community.
And while ideas matter, we know that they alone will not be enough. The struggle for change takes place on the ground and not only in the air. We will turn the SLF into an activist hub and network for knowledge sharing so activists can learn and share experiences on how best to take and use power in their own communities. And we will target constituencies where we can help make a difference to electoral outcomes.
Running through everything we do will be a commitment to social justice. A Citizen’s Britain will require redistribution of wealth as well as re-distribution of power and it will require more than lip service to equality of opportunity. That much talked about idea must become a lived reality transforming the lives of millions of people in our society who now, today, are disinherited from its promise.
I have no illusions as to the amount of work that must be done if we are to achieve even modest progress against these objectives. And we will get nowhere at all if we do not work together with others who share our values and find better ways to draw upon the energy and expertise of our own members and supporters. But we can do this. And in the end comes the realisation that if we do not, we cannot expect others to do it either. We are the people we’ve been waiting for.
A Call for Help
If you share the vision I have articulated in this letter, both for the SLF and for the country, I invite you to help in any way you can. If you are not yet a member please consider joining at this link. Lapsed members will be contacted again shortly with information on how to re-join in time to vote in the upcoming SLF Council elections.
I can promise you every penny of your membership fee will go toward pursuit of the goals I have set out. If you are already a member or supporter and know others who might be interested to join in our common endeavour, please share this letter with them. And if you have expertise or are an activist in need of help or with knowledge to share, please reach out to me so we can harness your contribution or try to help. My e-mail address is at the foot of this message.
Dr. Ian Kearns
Director, Social Liberal Forum