I bet you think this blog is about you

Deputy Chair of the Lib Dem Federal Policy Committee Jeremy Hargreaves has made this contribution to the Meeting the Challenge website. Here, he outlines his proposed “narrative”:

It’s About You: putting you in control of your own life (and actively equipping you to be so), and making our shared institutions accountable to you.

I think he’s halfway there, which is a slightly nicer way of putting “he’s very, very wrong.” It isn’t that I’m opposed to a people centred politics, I just think that put like that it sounds very harsh, very consumerist and, frankly, very much like the Pre-Cameron Conservatives.

The most crucial criticism of this is that it isn’t all about you. It’s about your friends, your family, your community/ies. It’s about everyone you’ve ever cared for. It’s about your unborn children and grandchildren, nephews and neices. It’s about that poor starving African you’ve never met who you thought buying a wristband would help.

The point is, humans are by their very nature social creatures. If you want to be me going all Darwinian, there may be a bit of enlightened self-interest at play here, but what it basically boils down to is that no person is an island, and we should be wary of sounding as if we think that.

That isn’t to say the individual isn’t important. Of course we want to empower the individual. But that is because we have an optimistic view of human nature. Liberals believe that if you give people the means, broadly speaking they will be good citizens. Socialists believe it has to be done for them collectively while Conservatives don’t believe in good citizens in the first place. If liberalism didn’t contain within it that fundamental belief in human nature, it would be a dead philosophy.

In short, we should be individualist. But we should be championing an individualism that leads to strong communities and a more global conscience, not an individualism for its own sake.

I think it is important to reflect on Neil Stockley’s narrative archetypes:

  • The Politics of Hope
  • The Aspiring Individual
  • The Politics of Fear
  • The Enemy Within

Clearly, Jeremy has placed his flag squarely on “The Aspiring Individual” one. But that only tells us half the story. As Neil points out, Thatcher was keen on this, but she was also playing “The Enemy Within” card.

Ironically, I think we should consider doing the same. I hasten to add however that our “enemy” is very different from Thatcher’s! The “rot” we want to stop is mindless bureaucracy, centralisation, an anti-democratic culture (much of which the legacy of Thatcher herself of course). The reason we want to stop this rot is that it is destroying our ability to make meaningful choices about our own quality of life. Fundamentally, it is destroying our ability to care, leading to a rise in anti-social behaviour, lack of democratic participation and general engagement with society. It isn’t just about the right to choose school X or hospital Y, which is how the “choice agenda” is generally framed.

I’m not there myself yet: I still haven’t worked out how to distill this down to a few phrases. But we can’t afford to go into the general election sounding like rampant individualists. To quote a certain Mr Cameron: “we’re all in this together”.


  1. I think the point is that public services can and should be designed to empower individuals to help themsleves first and help others if they can.

    If instead you design public services to help ‘communities’ or other collective entities you generally fail to help both individuals and communtiies. The National Health Service is a case in point, it would be far more effective as a Personal Health Service that tailored services to help treat individuals as people with holistic needs rather than groups that need to be treated by average condition with scant regard to personal circumstance.

  2. That’s a fair point, but Jeremy and I are talking about narrative not specific policies. If you want a more individual-centred approach, you need to make the case for it being better for the wider community. You can’t just ignore it.

  3. The point where we draw the balance between society and the individual gets to the heart of the debate about narrative. True liberty is when we also have equality, so that we are not constrained in our freedom by affordability or other factors beyond our control. Of course we should not have absolute equality, and not even the USSR had that, but does anyone believe that inequality should be allowed to get even wider? Hargreaves’ point about “Putting you in the driving seat” is especially revealing: unfettered individualism encourages the car culture, but denies the individual the choice of having less traffic and pollution in their community. Environmental problems therefore require collective will to address them. We are in danger of some people leading us to adopt a simplistic populism, whilst ignoring the unintended consequences: of a society where no-one cares, crime gets out of control, pollution goes unchecked, public services deteriorate, and inequality excludes citizens from fully participating in society. (We already have a massive problem of housing exclusion.) If that means denying that a competitive market is self-legitimising, and of being creatures of the centre-left, then so be it.

    (Also posted on the Meeting the Challenge site.)

  4. It’s about respect for the individual and the community. Giving you control over your own life within the local/national/global/intergenerational community — and trusting you to use that power responsibly.

  5. I don’t think that there is a straight choice between ultra-individualism on one hand, and collectivism on the other.

    To say that “unfettered individualism encourages the car culture” seems, to me, wrong. In my opinion, individualism means individuals making choices for themselves. Sometimes that choice will be to drive a car, sometimes to take public transport, etc. I fail to see the morality in forcing people to behave the way we want to (not driving) whilst decrying others who try to force us to behave in ways we don’t like (religious hatred, smoking, ASBOs). Ultimately, individuals have to be empowered but also have to bear the costs of their decisions. This does not preclude collective action in some spheres, but we should never treat people as sheep to be herded around in the way that best meets our standards.

    “does anyone believe that inequality should be allowed to get even wider”? Are we saying that if people undertake actions that earn them more money (and that money is a sign that whatever they’re doing is appreciated by someone else), they are therefore doing a moral wrong by increasing the gap between their earnings and the earnings of others? This is absurd. There are plenty of ways of formulating reasons for assisting the poor without resorting to the crude notion that one person’s wealth is responsible for another’s poverty.

  6. “True liberty is when we also have equality” – I think you need to specific about ‘equality of what’. Particularly if you’re going to say ” Of course we should not have absolute equality” in the next sentence.

    Your other contention “does anyone believe that inequality should be allowed to get even wider?”, suggests much. Allowed by whom? the state doesn’t own us, nor the income and wealth we earn. Our soical contract with the state includes giving away part of that to insure against social harm and purchase social goods both for me and as a donation to those who can’t afford their own contributions, so we can all live in a decent society free from poverty, ignorance and conformity.

  7. Could we get back on the subject of narrative here please? This is very abstract stuff, which doesn’t appear to go anywhere.

  8. The problem with promoting individualism is that many people equate this with selfishness, however (unless I start getting all Darwinian and proposing that all actions are selfish, some are just stupid as well), this is not the case. Granted some people are selfish, but more realise that they have more to gain through cooperation.
    For us liberals I think it does all come down to power and our view of people. We dislike concentration of power, it leads to coercion of people and we have a natural tendency to question anyone who claims to know whats best for others. We like to treat people as individuals who are capable of making their own choices for the benefit of themselves and those around them.
    We would like you to make decisions which affect only you, you are the only person who can determing how to live your life from day to day. When it comes to interactions with others it rests upon informed consent between yourself and others.
    We are not just cogs in society as collectivists would have us believe, we are individuals who make up society through our interactions, we all have responsibility to others.

    We seek to harness the interaction between individuals to create beneficial changes for all. We try to create an environment in which social forces are most beneficial to all, like a gardener seeks to create favourable conditions for plants to grow in. This leads to our committments to free speach and human rights and our opposition to discrimination.
    This ‘gardening’ is what prevents us from being totally laissez-faire. We prefer a hands-off approach, but recognise the need to tweak things to provide a more suitable environment.
    The problem with this is it does not produce large short term gains, but it should be part of our narritive I feel.

    An example of thi is out approach to ‘respect’. Rather than a respect for authority and our ‘betters’, which is the thrust of Labour’s ‘respect agenda’, we seek to promote respect for each other, for the politician to respect the electorate, the old to respect the young and vice versa, fundamentally for individuals to respect other individuals not for one arbitrary group to respect another on the say so of yet another.

    The rise of mindless bureaucracy, centralisation, an anti-democratic culture (to quote you) is a gift to us in one sense. It does allow us to have an ‘enemy within’ against which to contrast ourselves. This should be useful to set us apart from the other two parties, especially with all this fuss about the ‘centre-ground’. It gives us something to contrast against, and something which people can recognise and which can see the benefits of.

    So, I think, we should promote the aspiring individual as part of society and use the ‘enemy within’ as well to give us a much more distinctive voice to contrast us with the other parties.

  9. I do often sense a tension between “communities” and “individuals” in the Lib Dems, even though I agree there shouldn’t be one. Although I don’t have a tight formulation, I would have thought what we’d want to express that:

    “Communites matter in as much as they are a collection of individuals who share common interests as individuals and in each other.”

    Too often I see suggestions within the party where communities are treated as the appropriate sovereign entities and where empowerment of (especially non-conformist) individuals within those communities are put down, usually in defence of conservatism, the status quo.

    This definition, whilst, I would presume is something on the face of it most members of our party would claim to agree with, often sits in opposition to people who want to “defend communities”. This might be against people selling houses or moving, the idea of something like LVT forcing old people to leave their mansions or even in taking a collectivist approach to public services – from healthcare to schooling, primary school to University.

    PS On the question of whether I would “allow” more inequality in the world – why wouldn’t I? It’s poverty rather than difference that we should be attacking.

  10. I think most people (if not most people contributing to this debate) believe that inequality in this country has gone too far. Relative poverty can be demoralising and some research suggests that it can lead to ill health and higher mortality. Inequality in housing is excluding aspiring home-owners from many parts of the country, and the effort to keep up with hyper-inflating housing costs is causing undue stress, and real, if hidden, poverty. I agree with LT Hobhouse (often quoted by Charles Kennedy): “Liberty without equality is a name of noble sound and squalid meaning.”

    Another thing: paying tax is not a “donation”, although some people like to think it is! Legally, HM owns all the currency issued in her name.

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