Meeting the Challenge 2: UK Challenges

The mini-handout we did for the local parties reads as follows:

Although no-one can predict the future, whoever is in government after the next election will need to face a number of challenges:

  • The struggle to extend freedom: to what extent is it justified to limit civil liberties in order to fight threats to those liberties such as terrorism and crime?
  • The pursuit of happiness: to what extent should government be involved in attempting to improve people’s quality of life and well-being?
  • Building a fairer society: what should we do to reduce inequalities in health, education and prosperity?
  • Developing an economy for the long term: how can the UK compete in an increasingly competitive global marketplace?
  • Achieving environmentally sustainable development: what should government do to tackle the effects of climate change and look after the interests of future generations?
  • Living in a changing world: how do we ensure global security and respect for international law?

What specific challenges do you think the UK will face over the next 5-10 years?

In addition, the paper itself can be found on the website.

First, a few random comments in response to the paper.


On crime…

Yes, tackling rational fear of crime is a real challenge, but indulging irrational fear of crime most certainly is not. That leads to one of the major challenges that need to be tackling which is having a clear idea about the threat we face, in terms of global terror, organised crime, low level crime and anti-social behaviour. I’ll develop this point further later, but in short it is not only bad for the individual to have pensioners afraid to leave their houses at night for fear of being attacked (despite its unlikeliness), but it arguably causes crime by depopulating our streets and making opportunity crime that much greater. The politics of fear, which the Lib Dems indulge in almost as much as the other main parties, creates a vicious circle that we struggle to escape from.

On political freedom…

Much of the problem with the stagnation that has hit the movement for constitutional reform and devolution is that it is structure-centric and not people-centric. The problem with the North East referendum for example was that it was very much a case of the government recommending a model for regional government which people who wanted something more were told to lump. Not surprisingly, the air escaped from the campaign like a burst balloon.

Compare this to the Scottish Constitutional Convention, where civil society had far more control over the whole process. This leads me to conclude that while political parties should introduce reforms to enable change to happen, constitutional change must be lead by civil society not by political parties themselves. Self interest, and perceived self interest, derail things all too often.


On quality of life…

A lot of people seem to have trouble talking about quality of life and wellbeing as they can’t see it as being any more meaningful than “happiness”. It would clearly be a bad idea to have the state pursuing “happiness” in the narrowest sense as doggedly as it current chases economic growth as the easiest way to do it would simply be to put something in the water supply. But it is equally unsatisfactory to argue that a strong economy is all that is needed to maximise “pursuit of happiness”.

I would argue that quality of life can be expressed in another way: the freedom to have real control over how one lives one’s life. That is wider than simply choice in the consumerist sense – allowing me to decide which brand of washing powder I want to use doesn’t give me control over my life. Neither is it libertarianism – allowing me to get addicted to heroin if I choose doesn’t give me control over my life, quite the opposite. Real control means being aware of the consequences of my actions and being able to do something about it. Two immediate things spring to mind from this: improved education on, for want of a better term, ethics and the cost of externalities being better reflected in market cost.


On fairness…

I’ve already written about fairness a great deal in my Tax Commission response.

I need to look at this in more detail, but I have a theory about social mobility. Social mobility shot up when the Tories introduced right to buy in the early eighties, but that improvement was not only unsustainable but in the long term is now holding down social mobility. My generation, broadly speaking, has never been entitled to right to buy as council housing is now for the most needy meaning that the people who could afford to take advantage of it never move into council housing. It was a lottery that benefited a few families who happened to be in the right place at the right time, while the rest of us have paid for it through the subsequent reduction in social housing. It’s not that I object to a right to buy, just that people are entitled to discounts (which no-one who rents privately is entirled to) they can instantly cash in on through property speculation, and that local authorities were specifically prevented from building more houses.

I mention this here because I feel it is fair access to assets that the paper glosses over. My generation will never be given what Auntie Maggie handed the previous generation on a plate, yet now we are being expected to pay for our own pensions, our parent’s pensions, property at inflated property prices and, under Lib Dem plans, the right for older people who own enormous assets to keep them and pass them onto their next of kin. People a few years younger than me have tertiary education to pay for as well. Is it any real wonder that social mobility is going in reverse? Will the Lib Dems finally have the nerve to advocate doing something about it, or will we keep our policies that would make the situation worse? Time will tell…

For me then, the key challenges are:

  • How do we give people real control over their lives, as opposed to narrow consumer choice and a free-for-all that disregards externalities?
  • Linked to that, how can we give the population real ownership – and a real sense of ownership – of their local community, nation and state?
  • How do we manage natural resources globally on an equitable basis?
  • How do we champion the ideals of liberalism – democracy, rationality and secularism – both at home and globally, in the face of fundamentalism and irrationality?


  1. Unfortunately various other pressures mean that I haven’t been able to engage with the MTC process as I would have liked.

    There is lots in this about political freedoms (civil liberties). What I think is missing is our attitude to ordinary bog-standard run-of-the mill freedom.

    As I think you (and others) have pointed out we have ended up on the illiberal side of the licensing debate. We are also the most gung-ho of the parties for a smoking ban. These are not isolated incidents, but fairly typical of the Lib Dem stance. If there is a public campaign to ban something for health or safety reasons, the Lib Dems are likely to be at the forefront of the campaign.

    Does it matter – these are marginal issues after all? I think it does. The political centre-left often comes across as worthy, earnest and a little bit controlling. The Lib Dems are at least as guilty of this as New Labour.

    I think the party should position itself as a party of the libertarian left – committed to improving public services and supporting the poor and marginalised over the wealthy and privileged, but not trying to impose the lifestyle choices of the average Guardian-reader on the whole of society.

  2. I would certainly agree to the extent that I think the party should be very careful to not be seen to be getting obsessed about such issues. Indeed, I think what we need is an overall approach to such issues that takes party politics out of it. Ultimately, while I can see the case for such issues being debated in Parliament, I can’t see why governments should waste too much of their precious time on it.

    What I find bizarre in the Lib Dems is the fact that we can have a three line whip over licensing hours, while leaving an issue like gay rights or House of Lords reform unwhipped.

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