Tony Greaves: Why I am A Liberal Democrat

Tony Greaves (Lord Greaves) died on 23 March 2021. He was a Liberal legend. The Liberal Party, and the Liberal Democrats, owe an enormous amount to his commitment and drive, in local campaigning, in the House of Lords, and in the development of the party’s policy and ideology. We will publish a full appreciation of his life and career on this website, and in the Journal of Liberal History, as soon as we can, but in the mean time we reprint here his contribution to Why I Am A Liberal Democrat, a set of short essays collected and edited by Duncan Brack and published in 1996.

Why I am (possibly) a Liberal Democrat

Fundamentally I am not a ‘Liberal Democrat’ for fundamentally I don’t know what it means!

Only very rarely is a new political ideology invented. Liberal democracy is a set of ideas underlying kinds of government, but it is not an ideology and nothing has happened in the past eight years to turn it into one.

But simply in order to survive, the Liberal Democrats need an ideology. Liberalism needs a party. And as a liberal who wishes to take an active and serious part in politics, I too need a party. There is really only one choice on offer.

At the end of the last century a myriad forms of socialism were blossoming as ‘new’ ideologies. A hundred years on they are all wilting. People in the future may see socialism as the great heresy of the 20th century. So perhaps liberalism now has its chance?

But why such an unfashionable thing as ideology?

Politics is about the relationship of people to each other within the totality of humankind, and about their relationship with their environment. It is about people. That is inevitable since we are people and none of us can view anything at all except as people. We may wish we were gods or frogs or cybermen but we are not.

Ideologies are simply different views of the way people should relate to each other within society; different sets of principles on which to base political action.

This is so even for proponents of the latest ideology – an extreme ‘green’ view of the world. They are simply redefining the position and role of people in relation to the whole ecological system and therefore to each other.

Some ideologies are essentially authoritarian, some egalitarian; some based on religious beliefs, others on rationalism. Some are centred upon the primacy of leaders, national or other groups, class or gender or position.

Liberalism is fundamentally libertarian, tolerant and generous. It starts with people as individuals, with equal fundamental rights and the equal right to regard by others, not with categories or groups, whether inherited, imposed or chosen. It emphasises the equal inherent value and importance of each one and seeks ways in which they can enjoy the freedom to develop their talents and their lives to the full.

In order to fulfil their potential, people have to live in society and relate to each other. Relationships between people should therefore be based on openness, consent and voluntary involvement; not on decisions made by elites in secret and imposed by authority, whether arbitrary or according to rules laid down from on high, or even imposed by a majority if they deny basic individual rights.

It means tolerance in personal relationships; economic and political systems based on democracy; and freedom in all spheres, personal, social and economic, to the maximum extent that it does not impose unreasonably upon others.

Perhaps we can dream that, with the end of socialism, liberalism may flourish in the 21st century as the genuine libertarian left, in active opposition to all the malignant forces of corporatism and the greedy and intolerant right which are growing in strength throughout the world?

So I do my best to encourage the Liberal Democrats to become truly liberal, and liberals to truly embrace the Party. And I produce Focus leaflets and try to help create a liberal local community. What else can I do?

Tony Greaves is a councillor on Lancashire County Council and Pendle Borough Council, and a dealer in out-of-print political bookers and pamphlets.