Divisive politics hurts us all—we must fight for open, liberal thinking

From Donald Trump to the Tories' dogged pursual of a "hard Brexit," insular populism is winning. British liberals must fight to ensure our country remains tolerant and united

May 30, 2017
Thousands of protesters take part in a March for Europe. Photo: PA
Thousands of protesters take part in a March for Europe. Photo: PA

This past year has not been a particularly good time to be a liberal. First, there was Brexit. And then, if you thought it couldn’t get any worse, last November saw the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States.

As I said at the time of Trump’s election, “Liberal values of moderation, freedom, respect for the rule of law, openness and concern for one another can no longer be taken for granted. In the United States last night, those values were defeated. But those values are vital if we are to live together in peace, prosperity and freedom. Those of us who care passionately for those liberal values need to fight for them, to win the arguments, to inspire new generations to the great and historic cause of liberalism.”

Trump’s presidency is barely six months old, but it has starkly demonstrated the true danger of what happens when a leader, swept to power on a wave of populism, feels they have the mandate to ride roughshod over any form of opposition. The firing of FBI Director James Comey, who was leading an investigation into alleged links between Donald Trump's team and Russia, clearly shows the need for checks and balances against the arbitrary exercise of power.

The UK faces a similar problem, but for different reasons. Most polls have predicted a Conservative landslide at the General Election. Faced with a shambolic Labour party, Theresa May thinks she can get a large majority to drive through her hard Brexit agenda as well as her plan to “bear down on immigration.”

The Tories’ rhetoric on Brexit and immigration is typical divide-and-rule politics. It flies in the face of the fundamental liberal belief that our country flourishes because of its diversity. Divisive talk of “bearing down” on immigration dismisses the positive impact that immigrants have had, and continue to have, on our economy and society in the hope of short-term political gain.

Contrary to Mrs May’s claim of being a “strong and stable” leader, this strategy risks stoking the divisions exposed during the EU Referendum campaign. At the same time, it plays into the hands of nationalists in Scotland, who will inevitably seek to use Brexit for their own political gain.

Pulling up the drawbridge by leaving the Single Market and unrealistically promising to cut immigration to the tens of thousands also doesn’t represent a long-term solution to the challenges facing modern Britain.

I stand firm in my belief that liberalism holds the answers to these issues.

What it means to be a liberal

Being a liberal is about having an optimistic confidence in the capacity of ordinary people to make the most of their lives, fulfil their talents and realise their dreams. It is a belief that it is the duty of government to make this possible – by creating the conditions in which people and communities can flourish.

This is partly about investing properly into our public services, particularly our schools so that people are able to gain the skills they need to succeed in their lives and careers. But it is also about creating the economic conditions that help people and communities to flourish.

I strongly believe this country is best placed to create these conditions when it is open and outward looking, not closed and insular. How can British businesses, which do half of their trade with EU countries, be expected to flourish if they can’t easily access European markets?

Populism's triumph is not inevitable

Theresa May’s plan to pull Britain out of the single market is a failure of her duty as Prime Minister to maintain the economic conditions we need to succeed in the world. The Liberal Democrats are the only party committed to protecting our place in the Single Market.

Labour has already shown its failure to provide real opposition to Theresa May’s hard Brexit when it voted with the Conservative Government to wave through Article 50. In this General Election, only the Lib Dems can stand up for liberal values and provide real opposition.

Now is not the time to give in and accept that that the triumph of populism is inevitable. There is nothing inevitable about the rise of nationalism, protectionism and division. The success of Justin Trudeau in Canada and more recently Emmanuel Macron in France proves this.

Now is the time for liberals in Britain to ensure our country remains open, tolerant and united.