Values Worth Defending

There’s an old joke attributed to David Foster Wallace that goes something like this; two young fish are swimming along and bump into an older fish heading in the opposite direction. The older fish greets them, ‘morning boys, how’s the water?’ The two young fish continue on their way for a while before one turns to the other and asks, ‘what the heck is water?!’ So used are these young fish to their surroundings, they don’t even think to name the environment they live in. It is simply there, the way things are.

I’ll leave the water analogy to one side for fear of torturing the metaphor, but I’m sure many of you can see where I’m going with this. We in the West are so used to the political framework within which we operate: powers divided between government, legislature, and judiciary; individual rights and freedoms legally recognized – that we don’t often give thought to the term liberal democracy, what it means, or how recent an innovation in the history of human governance it is. Most people living in Scotland are unlikely to consider themselves to be liberals, though many hold core liberal values. These include a belief in the importance of a democracy that includes robust checks and balances; individual rights and freedoms, including of speech, assembly and movement; internationalism; tolerance; and a reformist – rather than revolutionary – approach to progress. This is a temperament which, in the words of Adam Gopnik, views the world in terms of ‘not liberty and democracy alone – vital though they are – but also humanity and reform, tolerance and pluralism, self-realization and autonomy, the vocabulary of passionate connection and self-chosen community’. To this list, I’d add scepticism and dialogue, too.

In the post-war period, liberalism so described appeared to have won the ideological battle in the West. Elections fought no longer on prospectuses of whether but instead to what extent the government should intervene in the economy – Keynes and Hayek were, perhaps confusingly, both liberals – and not whether but to what extent the state has a moral obligation to provide for its citizens. This post-war consensus so entrenched small-L liberalism in our political system in all but the most fringe positions that there seemed to be little need for a capital-L Liberal party. Indeed, in the 1951 Westminster election the Liberal Party won just six seats, three of which were in Wales, two in England and one in Scotland (Orkney and Shetland, of course). ‘Because Britain as a whole is liberal,’ argues Professor Bogdanor, ‘the Liberal Party dies’. During this period, One Nation Conservatives and Social Democrats alike tended to share a broadly liberal outlook. People with a similar temperament can be found in all of the major UK parties, whether or not they describe themselves as liberals. You might even be one yourself. 

I say all of this not in an attempt to give a history lesson (though both the Bogdanor lecture linked above and Gopnik’s book are well worth your time), but to set out why I am worried. The Financial Times last week published a column setting out some of the UK government’s latest thinking, each policy a hammer blow to the liberal democracy that has been in place for close to eighty years. Democracy? Bring back first-past-the-post for all elections Westminster has control over. Checks on Government? Ministers can overturn court rulings they dislike that curtail their powers. Freedom of assembly? New restrictions on protesting, where the police have power to stop and search without suspicion. Internationalism? Brexit, stripping citizenship leaving people stateless, confiscating passports from drug users (from whom effective treatment methods such as methadone have recently been removed). Tolerance? Inclusion? Withdrawal from Stonewall schemes. Reformist progress? Rolling back progress.

In the West we’re often quick to pearl-clutch at LGBT-free zones in Poland and Orbán’s stated goal of creating an illiberal democracy in Hungary – which are a rejection of the values their nations signed up to when becoming EU member states – and for which they must be held accountable. Many of us are similarly horrified at what is happening in the UK. Still, there is a sense of denial, an it-can’t-happen-here-ism that is as concerning as it is misguided.

We’re fortunate in Scotland to have protections against some of these policies, though this cannot be taken for granted. Devolution is already being undermined. We’re also not uniquely immune to illiberal influences, however much we might like to pretend. That these influences haven’t (yet) bloomed here doesn’t mean they haven’t taken root or that they don’t hold sway. After all, Scotland has elected MEPs from UKIP and the Brexit Party. Alba may be mercifully miniscule, but they are loud.

For as long as Scotland remains part of the UK, those of us with liberal values must be prepared to argue, fight, and vote for them. When Scotland becomes independent, those of us who have campaigned for it to build a freer, fairer country must do what we can to prevent our new state becoming a mini-UK, transposing its legion flaws. A written constitution and newly created constitutional or supreme court are a crucial part of this, as are a strong commitment to rules-based international order, an openness to newcomers, independent media, and high levels of media literacy in our population. Without critical thinking and accountability, democracy suffocates and freedom with it. Thankfully, these are all features of the prospectus for independence that the Scottish Government appears to value, and rightly so. It’s time to roll up your sleeves, liberals of all parties and none. We have a fight on our hands.