Towards a Radical Liberal Agenda

- Where have all the Liberals gone?

Zoom discussion, July 7

Councillor Robert Brown

The Club meeting on 7 July was centred round the two papers by Nigel Lindsay and Councillor Robert Brown which were concerned with identifying themes which would contribute to the development of a radical Liberal agenda.

The presentations were followed by a wide ranging and lively discussion, and concluded with a decision to take forward some of those themes over the coming months.

Below is Councillor Brown's introduction to the discussion.

You can download their paper "After the Crisis - Sharing Power More Equally" here. It is based on the paper “After the crisis”, co-authored by Nigel Lindsay and Councillor Brown about developing a strategy for a Radical Liberal Agenda. The original can be viewed on the Social Liberal Forum website.



Thank you for the opportunity to speak to the Scottish Liberal Club tonight. Our Party and our cause have been somewhat battered of late; Liberalism today finds itself somewhat adrift in choppy waters where reason and debate, public morality and the “spirit of a free society” –are swamped by amoral populist governments telling big lies.

Yet in many ways we see daily demonstration of the value of Liberalism.

The Covid crisis showed vividly the value of partnership and decentralisation. It demolished the myth that financiers and executives had more to offer society than nurses and dustmen, care workers and delivery drivers, local shops and volunteers.

The working out of Brexit is giving us empty shelves in our supermarkets, a chronic shortage of lorry drivers, a glut of bureaucracy, cost and clutter on our borders and the unnecessary levering open of the wounds and sores of the Irish problem – all stark displays of how much we need international partnership and how much of our social, economic and political destinies are intertwined with those of our European partners.

Liberal Democrats should be well equipped ideologically and by instinct to take on and challenge extremities of power and wealth, the excesses of globalism, the failures of social provision. Yet somehow our voices have been strangely muted and the powerful critique that Liberalism offers has not engaged as it should with the seemingly invulnerable interests of wealth and power. Perhaps the corrosive legacy of the Coalition was not just the tainted compromises of power but an attenuation of our political antennae, our radical sympathies and our human response to right and wrong.

A prominent campaigner told me recently that the way forward is to ask people what they want and work to give it to them. Now we do need to respond to the issues that concern people – but do we not need also to persuade them of our Liberal vision, to offer some answers? Franklin Roosevelt viewed the US Presidency as a pulpit from which moral leadership could be exercised, guiding the nation in directions which seemed to be right rather than responding to the breezes and fashions of the moment.

It is time to reclaim our radical Liberal heritage – the Liberalism brought down to us from earlier ages by Jo Grimond, David Steel, Russell Johnston, Jim Wallace and Charles Kennedy.

So what do we need to do?

Above all, we need an inspiring and motivating narrative put across by sympathetic and engaging public figures - establishing a post Brexit political agenda that understands and tackles the underlying contributors to Brexit, drawing more and more reasonable people into support for a new and attractive Liberal political synthesis, at once a vision statement and a radical political programme.

But there should be no room for the heresy of Neo Liberalism. This agenda is sometimes presented as traditional economic liberalism. It is nothing of the sort although, as with all political ideas, there are some common roots.

Mainstream Liberalism is supportive of free trade and reducing unnecessary bureaucratic burden, but highly suspicious of monopolies, concentrations of wealth and power and excess profits. It does not give to corporations and monopolists the freedoms that belong to citizens. It sees the market as a mechanism and servant of society not as its master. Liberals would thrust the neoliberal cuckoo out of the Liberal nest and give it planned euthanasia while the healthy shoots of Liberalism are replanted in fertile ground.

John Maynard Keynes had it spot on:

"practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribblers of a few years back." 1

Our Liberal Democrat narrative must have at its heart a strong sense of the public interest, which has been eroded by privatisation, by the farming out of the civil service to agencies and private interests, by austerity and the erosion of public services, by excess unmerited wealth on the back of poverty wages, by the excesses of globalism.

The narrative must seize the patriotic agenda back from the populists of various hues who arrogantly claim to speak for Britain, with cynical disregard for our country's best values, for minority or divergent views whilst damaging and disparaging in all their actions the good name, influence and integrity of the United KIngdom, our institutions and our democracy.

We plant our standard too in fertile ground which is European, internationalist, and outward looking - appealing to young people particularly across our country, to people in our great British cities, but also to those attracted to the values and lifestyle of traditional communities across the UK where Liberal values and voting habits have often thrived.

So what are the central radical ideas that should form the core purpose of the Liberal Democrats?

Firstly a modern concept of the state:

Our democracy needs root and branch reform. A new federal United Kingdom with a written constitution and an inspiring Declaration of Rights and Purpose rendered in compelling language, focused on the difference that a federal Britain would make for the citizen, where our nations and regions work in partnership and harmony and are not riven by destructive nationalisms.

A healthy democracy too means our leaders exercise an ethical view of their responsibilities and are accountable when they fall short. It requires a vigilant public and political culture, which expects high standards, and is tolerant of effort and good intentions but intolerant of Government lies, evasion and deceit, and overreach.

We have failed to give an effective voice and political traction to federalism, balance and morality in politics – it is way beyond time to remedy that.

Secondly a renewed commitment to community politics:

For Liberals, politics is rooted in the community and power should be positioned, as the Campbell Commission Report said, as locally as makes sense. We need to flesh out the solid powers we would restore or allocate to Local Government and the opportunities this would bring in terms of local leadership and flexibility, town planning, local economic empowerment, energy provision, welllbeing and local transport. We should continue to be resolute against SNP power grabs, whether it be police centralisation, using their policy failures in school to seize more central control of education, the unaccountable IJBs or the damaging proposal for a National Care Service.

Thirdly building on the dynamic concept of civic capitalism:

The current model of capitalism is not doing its job. Since 2008 it has been in a zombie phase.

  • Globalism has been corrupted by the excesses of power and wealth it has stimulated – and caused decay of belief in democracy.
  • Corporate govt is obsessed with maximization of shareholder value – with long established British companies taken over by international conglomerates and asset stripped on tick.
  • The financial sector does not support the productive economy as it should. Only 10% of UK bank lending helps non-financial firms – the rest supports real estate and financial assets.
  • Much of business has been plagued by a dangerous combination of low investment, short term management and outrageous corporate greed. From 2000-2008 after unprecedented corporate failure, the FTSE fell by 30% in real terms, but CEO pay went up by 80% – indeed from 20 times average pay in the 1980s to 129 times in 2016 .2
  • The dominance of powerful commercial interests are more of a threat to liberty than state power, unaccountable even to national governments, inevitably tending towards monopolies and cartels, enhancing inequality and insecurity.

Civic capitalism means a new ethos and structures for our economy, entrepreneurial and innovative certainly, creating wealth certainly but doing it sustainably, more equal and balanced in terms of reward and tax, funding common public purposes properly, with a moral and public purpose built in. Civic capitalism would not reward fraudsters and the dark economy, nor leech from the state to top up poverty wages.

We should be talking about alternative financial institutions like credit unions, regional banks on the German model, how pension funds use our investments and their power, the setting of executive pay and conditions at responsible levels.3 There should be a greater role for co-operative and social enterprise models, such as the John Lewis Partnership – or the whisky company Edrington, wholly owned by the Robertson Trust, one of Scotland’s largest charitable funders whose constitution effectively prevents a hostile takeover.

The Liberal agenda should be a radical one of the democratisation of industry, a modernised framework of free trade which reflects the public good and the need for local and regional production, finance and markets. The UK has a trade gap of £10.2 billion pa in fruit and vegetables but even that is dwarfed by the £154 billion annual imports of machinery, computers, vehicles and pharmaceuticals. It is doubtful if bringing avocados from Mexico, PPE from Turkey, or computers from China is particularly in the interests of fighting climate change or of a balanced world economy.

We should look at building a Sovereign Wealth Fund in which we all have a stake, possibly from the recoupment of unpaid tax4 or receipts from a general anti-avoidance rule; at a National Investment Bank to support housing, SMEs and innovation at the creation of Public Interest Corporations to deliver job rich infrastructure projects.

Fourthly, internationalism and strong support for remaining close to the EU

and rejoining when this is possible.

A Liberal approach to international affairs must be based on the UK exercising its influence along with our allies and partners to secure peace, stability and democratic reform, to uphold the international rule of law, to support effective development and good governance in some of the world's poorest countries - a stark contrast to the populist, global jungle that is now dominant in the Tory Party.

Fifthly, we need a fresh look at the role of Government.

Mariano Mazzucato, in her recent book, Mission Economy,5 argues that the problems that the USA and the UK face are

“the result of 40 years of weakening ability to govern and manage…”.

We certainly saw this in some of the inexplicable bottlenecks in obtaining good quality PPE during the pandemic.

She argues that Government should invest in building the core capacities of the public sector –

"in building their muscle in critical areas such as productive capacity, procurement capabilities, public-private collaborations that genuinely serve the public interest."

Like JFK’s 1960s aim to get a man on the moon, we need,

 "a mission-orientated approach aimed at solving key societal problems”

recognising that government is not just a provider of sticking plaster when things go wrong but a creator of value, of core public services like education, health or transport.

We should also reclaim the public realm, knock the arms length Executive agencies and Quangos on the head, and end the outsourcing of whole areas of public activity to unaccountable conglomerates like Carillion.

This is a 21st century development of New Liberalism and it totally alters discourse about public spending and the role of the state.

Government too needs surplus capacity and flexibility to cope with crisis. Schools bulging at the seams, hospitals built on too limited a view of bed and procedure capacity, too much public land sold off to realise capita receipts – and above all, the organisational and managerial capacity inhouse to do what government needs to do.

Sixth We need a new focus on innovation.

The speedy development of Covid vaccines has demonstrated what can be done when efforts are focused on it – and it was based in no small part on our strong University base. Researchers now have too an enormous availability of new information which could yield enormous results in investigation of auto immune diseases and cancer. Perhaps the next aim will be an Innovative Wellbeing NHS?

And the private sector, although under pressure, has showed the true benefit of the market as the more innovative cafes, pubs and restaurants adapt and develop new services, as delivery services become more sophisticated, as all sorts of services devise procedures to accommodate the COVID rules.

Liberal Democrats have talked of a Future Opportunity country and we must make this a reality.

Seventh Green agenda

We have long had a strong green thread through our programmes and the climate challenge means this must be ever more a core issue. But the concept of think global, act local links with a renewed Liberal emphasis on building local capacity, leadership and response as we move towards a carbon neutral society, the elimination of fuel poverty and the huge opportunities of green jobs.


Our Party has to rediscover a narrative and a politics which is anti-establishment, which is robustly critical of abuse and excess of power wherever it occurs, which aims to represent the general interest of the public, which sides with those who lack power in our society. It will be an agenda for all the people, for those left behind by Brexit, by Covid, by globalism, by change, for those offering innovation and dynamism in business, for those who seek simply a better and fairer world. We need to reinspire a new generation of Liberals with a sense of the depth, vitality and necessity – and the excitement - of our cause, which should be endlessly challenging and endlessly restless to give opportunity and wide freedom to our people.  As Russell Johnston said,

"Liberalismhas within it the dream that the good and the courageous spirit that resides within mankind can be given release."6

He would, I think, have approved of our theme tonight!


1. Quoted by Mariano Mazzucato - Mission Economy 2021

2. Mariano Mazzucato - Mission Economy 2021 p12

3. Specific problems in football/sport/media personalities/top civil servants

4. Major firms get let off with £25 billion by agreement with HMRC

5. Mariano Mazzucato - Mission Economy 2021 – Allen Lane

6. The Little Yellow Book (2012): Liberalism, by its nature is a philosophy of optimism, and hope, of belief in young people, and of the progressive improvement of society. We believe in the value of education and of freedom and democracy for its own sake; we are against arbitrary or monopolistic power, privilege and corruption. We are on the side of localism, of community, and of the public interest. Perhaps above all we believe in the centrality of ordinary people over privilege, and the supremacy of politics over economics, and over economic theories in particular.