The Great Liberal Tradition

Sid Cumberland

Sid Cumberland

I’ve just had another birthday, and I was interested to discover that I share my special day with Thomas Paine – author of Rights of Man, Common Sense and many other thought-provoking pamphlets and books. There are many worse people with whom one could share a birthday. Paine, of course, is one name in a long list of illustrious liberals who have contributed the ideas which make the Liberal Party the most progressive and radical party in Britain today.

The two contenders in our leadership contest last autumn were asked to choose their political heroes. Chris Huhne went for David Lloyd George, Nick Clegg cheated slightly and picked two – Harry Willcock and Vaclav Havel. I’m guessing everyone will have heard of Lloyd George, and that many people will remember Havel – one of the leaders of the Velvet Revolution which saw the bloodless end of communism in Czechoslovakia.

But Harry Willcock? Do people remember him? I certainly think they ought to. He was a north London dry cleaner, and a member of the Liberal Party. A policeman stopped him one day in 1950 and asked to see his ID card. He refused. “I am a Liberal,” he said. “I am against that sort of thing.” Thanks to his stand, which was supported by Liberal MPs and Lords at the time, the ID cards programme was challenged in the courts and eventually scrapped.

The liberal argument put forward by Harry and others in opposition was a fundamental one; it was an argument about liberty and the relationship between the individual and the state. For them, the imposition of ID cards was intolerable because of the power it gave to the state, a power which was inevitably abused. The same argument holds today. If anything, it has become even more relevant. The technology we possess now makes the use and abuse of information much more dangerous than it was.

The Labour government thinks that the state has the right to collect all the information it wants about us. Liberals believe that the state only has a right to know what it needs to know, and what we citizens agree to let it know. We think the whole ID card scheme, in particular the national database that would underpin it, go too far. To paraphrase Harry Willcock, ‘We are Liberals. We are against that sort of thing.’

Thomas Paine certainly wouldn’t have recognized the database state we are morphing into. We have more CCTV cameras per citizen than any other country. We have the largest DNA database in the world. Plans are far advanced to centralise all our medical records and introduce the most elaborate biometric ID cards in the world.

The government has recently highlighted the foolishness of the whole venture by scattering our private and personal data across the countryside like confetti. They blame human error – but as all government IT schemes are manned by humans, they are all susceptible to the same vulnerabilities. The government also seems to be unable to bring in any IT project on time or on budget. The Liberal Democrats would like to see the billions ear-marked for this project spent on measures to make our country safer – more police in particular.

We are different to the other parties in other areas as well. We believe in human rights, social justice and the fight against inequality.

Much of the agenda of the current government runs directly counter to liberal principles.

Liberals believe in international law. The government was prepared to flout it in their support for the war in Iraq, for rendition, and for Guantánamo.

Liberals believe in creating a fairer society, in which individuals have the opportunity to make the most of their talents. Britain is becoming more and more unequal.

Labour seems to have lost its belief in social justice. One in 12 of our children is likely to develop asthma, TB or bronchitis because of poor housing. Over a million children live in slums. The government has failed to understand the fact that sub-standard housing is the root cause of so much poor health and low educational attainment. To be fait, the blame for this should be shared with the Conservatives. When Mrs Thatcher was preaching about the return of Victorian values, we didn’t know she meant bringing back rickets.

Liberals believe in localism: giving greater responsibility to locally elected representatives and more power to local communities. Under Labour, we have seen the centralisation of public life. Citizens feel increasingly powerless. Public services controlled by officialdom are out of touch and remote.

David Cameron’s claim to the liberal mantle is no more plausible than the government’s. We cannot be forced to believe that it is year zero and that the recent past never happened. Was David Cameron not the author of the 2005 Conservative manifesto, the most reactionary of modern times? Was he not the brains behind Black Wednesday? Cameron is a man who thinks that being a liberal means not wearing a tie.

If Gordon Brown and David Cameron really want to know about liberal values, they should look at the great Liberals – the well known, like Lloyd George, J S Mill, John Locke, Beveridge, and the not-so-well-known, like Harry Willcock.