As a Liberal a belief in the importance of freedom has always been pretty central to my political philosophy. There are many reasons why I dislike the authoritarian instincts of Conservatives or the meddlesome top-down approach of Labour but many of these come back to the central importance of freedom in the final analysis.
I’m not fundamentalist about it - freedom is not the only value in my universe - but without a large measure of both political and economic freedom we are all poorer – both literally and metaphorically.
So I naturally agree with a cry for freedom that reminds us that,
The founding texts of the English Constitution – charter, petition, bill of rights – have one thing in common: they create nothing. They assert old freedoms; they restore lost harmony. In this they guided America’s Revolution, itself a codification of earlier colonial liberties.”
But herein lies a difficulty. For the author is Ambrose Evans-Pritchard writing in the Telegraph of all places and the subject of his attack is the Lisbon Treaty which came into force earlier this week. As he puts it,
Europe’s Constitution – the Lisbon Treaty, as we know it – began as a sort of Magna Carta. EU leaders agreed at Laeken in 2001 that the Project needed restraining… People do not want Europe inveigling its way into “every nook and cranny of life”, they said. Needless to say, insiders hijacked the process … The text says much about the heightened powers of EU bodies, but scarcely a word to restrain EU bailiffs and constables.
The Charter of Fundamental Rights … asserts that the EU has the authority to circumscribe all rights and freedoms… In other words, our Magna Carta has been superceeded.
He concludes that in doing so the EU has crossed a subtle line and is no longer legitimate. I agree.
And for my money that precipitates the EU into a crisis – but it is a crisis of ideas as well as of legitimacy as the Economist’s Charlemagne blog pointed out this week in a post headed “Europe: where are the big ideas?” He quotes with approval Jacques Delors, the former European Commission boss,
“But we are not making any proposals … and to propose something, there has to be much more co-operation between us. But no, everyone is in their own corner. Germany is run from Berlin, France has turned into “Greater France” and Britain is more and more anti-European… If Europe does not take care, within ten years we will have a world run by two powers: the United States and China.”
He goes on to quote Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, president of the Socialist Group,
“The old democratic contract is broken. Globalization has taken sovereignty away from the nation state, leaving people vulnerable to forces outside their control. Europe is the only means to regain this lost sovereignty and to empower people once more. But if we do not act now, the danger we face is the withdrawal of democratic consent from the European project. It will happen slowly but surely if we do not change the way we do politics.”
Perhaps the best summary comes from one of the comments (rewt66),
It seems to me that there are two Europes.
There is the Europe of the liberal democratic tradition, of the rule of law, of stable institutions, and of transparent and accountable government.
And then there is the EU, which essentially decided to force a constitution down the throats of those that didn’t like it. (“Ireland voted against? That’s unacceptable. They’ll just have to vote again. Nothing will be permitted to block this constitution – certainly nothing so trivial as a democratic vote!”) The EU creates a maze of bureaucracy (so much for transparency) and removes the decisions further from the people (making accountability harder).
It seems to me that the EU is, if not diametrically opposed to the best traditions of Europe, then at least not fully in keeping with them.
So what is going on? In which direction does salvation lie?
The answer, I suggest is that we must rediscover our ancient freedoms and insist that the EU is remodelled to comply with them. It means a Europe where power is clearly understood to be delegated upwards, not downwards and where bureaucrats are servants, not masters – in short a Europe where democracy (and hence legitimacy) is restored.
All of which is a little difficult for the Liberal Democrats. In theory the party is fully subscribed to the idea that freedom should be a guiding principle, in practice the it is so clueless it has blundered into supporting the exact opposite. Tragically, Nick Clegg and his coterie have not understood that there are different ideas about how Europe should work; instead of working up alternative proposals based around freedom and democracy they have naively swallowed the establishment party-line that ‘there is no alternative’ (shades of Margaret Thatcher) and, in limply surrendering to the establishment framing, they have lost the battle.
It has also left the Liberal Democrats in a terrible mess as a party that thinks it believes in freedom but actually promotes the opposite.
We have by far the best and most trusted economic brain in Parliament at a time when that really matters, we regularly win local elections all round the country and the two big parties both looking utterly unconvincing; yet despite all this we are nevertheless managing to flatline in the opinion polls? Is there a connection between this lack of support at national level and our muddled message on freedom. You Bet! Not that it’s the only factor, but it’s certainly an important one and if we want to move forward and actually be a liberal party it’s one we have to resolve.
For one thing is certain; the ancien regime is dead – the political leadership is preoccupied with chasing poll ratings, the bureaucrats are consumed by office politics and the theologians have gone for the intellectual drivel that is neoclassical economics. Do we, as a party, want to join the dead establishment or lead the revolution? If the latter, we must lift our game but I see little evidence of this so far.