Not-so-Liberal Democrats

The Lib Dems have made freedom their big election issue - but not freedom as we know it.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

Launching the Liberal Democrats’ manifesto this morning, party leader Charles Kennedy took to the platform to the strains of ‘A New Beginning’ by ex-Boyzone boy Stephen Gately – the short Celtic singer who is apparently going to be dumped by his record company due to lack of public support. Interesting choice.

But if the soundtrack didn’t go down well (loud groans from the BBC’s Andrew Marr who was sitting next to me), Kennedy’s message was better received. ‘Freedom, justice and honesty’, he declared to the clicking cameras and political editors. ‘This sums up what the Liberal Democrats stand for.’ But does it?

Flicking through the manifesto, there is certainly no shortage of ‘freedoms’ – the word crops up on every page. Every issue, from health and education to crime and transport, has its own ‘Setting you free’ box – where the Lib Dems set out their proposals to free British people from the constraints laid down by previous governments.

This makes a refreshing change from the last general election in 1997, when the word freedom was a non-runner. The f-word was mentioned a measly five times in New Labour’s 1997 manifesto – while the Lib Dem’s 2001 manifesto mentions it five times on the front cover alone, before you get anywhere near Kennedy’s editorial and policy proposals over the next 20 pages. A new beginning, indeed.

So does this signal a much-needed defence of freedom after four years of New Labour? Unfortunately not. A quick look through the manifesto reveals that the Lib Dems are talking about something quite different.

The first two ‘freedoms’ mentioned in the manifesto are health and education. ‘Health is a fundamental freedom’ declares the section on improving the NHS, arguing that ‘no one can fulfil their potential without the best possible health’. Over the page, an article on ‘Investment in education – for all our futures’ says ‘high-quality education is the key to personal freedom’, claiming that ‘education provides the freedom to choose a fulfilling job, the freedom to exploit one’s talents to the full, and the freedom to contribute fully to society’.

Are health and education really freedoms? No doubt, we would all like to be in the best of health and to have an excellent, first-class education, but would either of these things make us free? Here, the Lib Dems are trivialising freedom – away from big democratic freedoms that people fought for in the past, towards the freedom to go to a decent comprehensive and not to have the flu.

Yet being perfectly well and well-educated doesn’t mean being free – as perfectly well and well-educated people under New Labour will discover if they try freely to exercise their right to protest or their right to trial by jury.

When the Lib Dems’ manifesto doesn’t trivialise freedom it changes it to mean something different. The article ‘Cutting crime – more resources, justice for all’ says ‘We all want freedom from crime’. And apparently freedom from crime will mean 6000 extra police officers on the street, presumably to stop and search suspicious-looking types, and the doublespeak of giving victims greater rights in court, which in fact can only mean undermining the rights of defendants and the presumption that everybody is equal before the law.

So even the Lib Dems’ proposals to strengthen the criminal justice system is dressed up as a ‘freedom’ that we are all entitled to. But as we know from New Labour, more Criminal Justice Acts means less freedom, not more.

What about the article entitled ‘Setting all people free’, where the Lib Dems argue that ‘civil liberties are the basis of a genuinely free society’? Even here, the Lib Dems are more interested in enacting new laws and legislation rather than scrapping those brought in by the law-happy New Labour government. The manifesto says the Lib Dems would ‘Pass an Equality Law to outlaw all forms of discrimination’, and ‘Extend Freedom of Information legislation’.

‘Labour has made a start’, says the manifesto, ‘but has fallen short of building the truly open society we want to see’. So the Lib Dems want to continue the good work done by New Labour towards the goal of ‘freedom’ – whatever that might be.

A new beginning, indeed.

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

(1) See the Liberal Democrat Manifesto

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Topics Politics


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