For over three years, the Liberal Democrats had a signature message: Stop Brexit! But as the United Kingdom has now left the European Union, albeit still enjoying certain benefits thanks to the transition period, Europhilia can no longer be the Party’s USP. There will be activists who argue that a return to community politics – in the pavement sense – is the only hope for the Lib Dems’ salvation. But while local government campaigning undoubtedly has an important role to play it would be a mistake to lower one’s eyes from the wider world.
For a start, given Britain now has a Brexiteer government more interested in wooing Washington than cosying up to Brussels it is vital that the Lib Dems champion the cause of retaining the closest possible relationship with the EU27, not least its two major powers, France and Germany. But now that we are officially outside the club we should also pay more attention to the wider Europe, including bodies such as the Council of Europe and the OSCE, which have been all too often neglected in our relations with the Continent.
After the Second World War, Britain was central in the construction of a new world order, based on the rule of law and a respect for human rights. This is now the creed for the whole of Europe, apart from a few back-sliders like Viktor Orbán’s Hungary. With the democratisation of much of Latin America, Asia and Africa in the final two decades of the 20th Century there seemed to be reason for optimism for the future of the world, especially following the collapse of Communism in Europe and an end to 40 years of Cold War.
But as the political scientist Francis Fukuyama himself has now realised, the “End of History” and the universal adoption of liberal democracy and market economics has proved to be an illusion. We live in a multipolar world in which the leading nations are headed by men who repudiate much of the rules based world order: China’s Xi Jinping, India’s Narendra Modi, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and, yes, America’s Donald Trump. But Boris Johnson’s post-Brexit vision involves a swashbuckling Britain ready to do business with everyone, and turning a blind eye to their violation of liberal norms.
Past Leaders of the Liberal Democrats, notably Charles Kennedy and Paddy Ashdown, had a proud record in standing up for what was right internationally on such issues as the Iraq War and the rights of the people of Hong Kong. Whoever becomes the next Leader of the Party must be prepared to be equally bold and unashamedly internationalist. That means standing up for multilateral institutions including the United Nations and the WHO, but above all championing the values of justice and fairness and the rights of human beings, individually and collectively, no matter who or where they are.
This new internationalism should embrace every area of policy, from the environment to health. And we should campaign for an education system that enables the next generation truly to “think globally, act locally”. The phenomenal development of the Internet and social media means that every child is effectively a world citizen these days, able to find out information and make connections globally. But this communications revolution also has its dangers. China and Russia in particular are manipulating systems and platforms to disrupt the rules-based order and undermine democratic societies. Donald Trump, for his part, is a one-man factory of fake news.
Accordingly, the new, values-based internationalism that I would like to see at the heart of future Liberal Democrat policy is one for which the public will need to be prepared, through the education system and the media as well as through political campaigning. An element of related lifelong learning should be the transmission of skillsets in areas such as critical thinking and how to recognise misinformation and disinformation.
First, though, the Party needs to state clearly its values, because it is clear from opinion polls that most British voters have no idea what those are. As I mentioned earlier, these are fundamentally European values in origin but which were adopted as a universal template from the UN Declaration of Human Rights onwards. They are now under attack from various sides but an internationalist Liberal Democrat Party should stoutly defend and promote them, not just as a rebranding exercise but because this is what we really believe in.
Jonathan is a British freelance writer, lecturer and broadcaster on international affairs. He sits on the governing Council of the Alliance for Liberals and Democrats in Europe (ALDE), as well as on the Executive of Liberal International. He is also Chair of the Liberal Democrats Federal International Relations Committee (FIRC). Jonathan writes reguarly at jonathanfryer.wordpress.com and Tweets @jonathanfryer.