Carmichael delivers 2022 Beveridge Lecture


Orkney and Shetland MP, Alistair Carmichael, has today delivered the 2022 Beveridge Lecture, as part of the Social Liberal Forum Annual Conference. Mr Carmichael used his speech to discuss the importance of liberal ideals against a current "zeitgeist" of populism and nationalism, and the need to renew Beveridge's drive to tackle the great evils facing society in the UK and internationally.

---

 

Good afternoon and thank you for the invitation to deliver this, the 2022 Beveridge Lecture.

For liberals and for Liberal Democrats it has been a bit of a rollercoaster of a week.

Our party’s outstanding success in the Tiverton and Honiton by-election was the most obvious high but there have been some pretty deep lows as well.

Earlier in the week our own UK Government brought forward a so-called Bill of Rights, designed to allow governments to choose those court judgements that they would obey and yesterday across the Atlantic the US Supreme Court up ended fifty years of women’s rights by overturning the case of Roe v Wade, having earlier in the week handed down a judgement making it easier for citizens to acquire guns.

Meanwhile on mainland Europe Putin’s Russia continues its war of attrition, grinding down the people and armed forces in the East of Ukraine. 

I realise, of course, that in framing the politics of the moment in that way I risk sending us all back into despondency and for that I apologise but I think it is important that, as liberals, we should all understand fully the challenges that we face.

The five giant evils that Beveridge identified – want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness - are as present in our country and the wider world today as they have ever been.  If, like Beveridge, you concluded that liberalism provided the best means of ridding us of them forever, then this is a moment where liberal thinking and liberal ideas are needed more than ever before because the liberal narrative is being challenged as never before.

The world today is a very different one from the world that informed Beveridge’s thinking.

  • A globalised economy allows goods, people services and finance to move around the world with an ease and a speed that was unimaginable then;
  • Technology has matched that economic globalisation with a social globalisation people around the world have access to contact with other people elsewhere again with an ease that would have been unimaginable in Beveridge’s day; and, of course,
  • We have a climate crisis that has already started to create a disruption to world populations where all five of Beveridge’s evils grow on steroids.

The common theme of all these challenges and others is that in order to meet them we need more cooperation between peoples and not less. 

If big corporate interests now organise across national boundaries and, in so doing, can avoid their obligations to pay tax on their income, then surely tax authorities also need to organise across national boundaries to ensure that they are not able to do so.

Instead, the great paradox of modern politics is that we have produced a zeitgeist not of internationalism and cooperation to meet these challenges but instead of nationalism and populism. If Beveridge walked amongst us today I like to think that he would identify populist nationalism as his six giant evil.  Arguably it is one that transcends all the others as you will not deal with the other five while that one remains in the ascendant. 

Populist nationalism has come to dominate the political agenda of both the left and the right in British politics today.

Brexit was the catalyst for its explosion in England but in Scotland we had seen the prototype built in 2014 and since then. 

It is to nationalism that we as liberals require to take the fight.

One of the ironic challenges of facing nationalism in the UK is that liberals have become victims of our own success. Nationalism has become such a dirty word that our opponents never want to admit that the views they hold are nationalist.

I cannot tell you the number of times I have spoken to people who in the same breath will tell you that they are not a nationalist – they just think that Scotland and England have irreconcilably different cultures and values. Not a nationalist – but they think that Scotland is being controlled by England.

For whatever reason the contradiction just never quite occurs to them.

The quasi-English-nationalist strain of Conservatism that has become dominant in the last few years is a perfect foil for Scottish nationalists.   Just as the rise of polarising nationalism in Scotland is a perfect bogeyman for the Conservatives, alongside their other old enemy of Europe.

Boris Johnson has been nationalism’s greatest recruiting sergeant these past three years. A man who purports to be a unionist instead has pursued an agenda that even the DUP’s Ian Paisley identifies as English Nationalism rather than Unionism.  Johnson’s populist nationalism feeds division and his own narcissism comes before the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom.

Identity over ideas

For nationalists – whether the SNP or Boris Johnson’s Conservatives – no idea is too complex to be solved by drawing a new hard border on the map. It is as if they think that people become fundamentally different when they are born on one side of the Tweed – or the English Channel.

Nationalism is a creed that states that identity is more important than ideals.

That is why liberal voices are needed now more than ever. We have to reassert the liberal principle that the diversity of individuals and their individual ideals are far more important than treating everyone in Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland – or indeed any other country – as though they all think and vote the same.

Diversity – pluralism – is a strength. It is an essential part of what makes our liberal democracy work. To deny or ignore that as nationalists do is wrong on the principle – and wrong on the facts.

This is true across our country.

There were many Scots who voted for Brexit, just as there were millions of English people who voted to Remain.

That Wales has a Labour government cannot magic away the many Conservative voters who live there.

The SNP like to point out that Scottish people dislike Boris Johnson’s aristo-populist form of politics, as if this is some kind of surprise.

The problem for the nationalists is that most English, Welsh and Northern Irish people feel the same way.

After all, we liberals know all too well that even the current Conservative majority in the House of Commons was built upon a minority of votes in 2019.

Grievance against Conservative government is less a reason for resorting to nationalism than it is a clarion call for electoral reform and proportional representation to be delivered.

That is why, if the next election again puts our party in a position of influence, then our priority must be reforming our outdated and archaic constitution that continues to concentrate power in the hands of the few.

Labour too must now surely understand the dangers of clinging to an unrepresentative electoral system in the hope that it will be their turn to scoop the pool of political power eventually.

You will never tackle Beveridge’s evils with a model of government that concentrates power in Whitehall (or in Edinburgh or Cardiff or Belfast) and which relies on “men of honour” playing by the rules because they share a belief in the importance of institutions like our courts and concepts such as the rule of law. Events of the past few years have surely shown us that the populist nationalists care little about such things.

The politics of the populist nationalists such as Bannon or Crosby, Trump or Johnson operates more to the rules of cage fighting while liberals adhere to the Marquess of Queensbury rules.   A constitution that relies on a system of checks and balances and nothing more is no longer fit for purpose.  It is open to abuse and now that the abuse has actually started I do not see it ending any time soon.

At its heart nationalism relies on the proposition that people who do not share our identity are somehow an irredeemable monolith.

The SNP will always tell you that the UK will never change and that we shall be forever governed by conservatives and that for that reason we should break up our country.  In doing so the cheerfully ignore the years of non- Conservative government and the significant constitutional change that we have seen even in my lifetime.

The day will come – possibly even quite soon – where Boris Johnson will not be Prime Minister.

As recent electoral results show, there is growing evidence that before long we could see the wheels turn again on progressive change across our country.

We’ve done it before – we can do it again.

 

Europe

The European Union is and remains the most effective example of transnational economic cooperation that the world has yet seen.

That Ukraine with all its current plight is so pleased to have been accorded the status of membership candidate is something on which our own Prime Minister has been curiously silent.

They, of course, understand better than anyone else right now the dangers of nationalism and identity politics and where it can take you in the wrong hands.

That they should knocking on a door through which we have just exited should be giving us all some pause for thought.

Let us not kid ourselves, we are some way away from seeing the UK rejoin the European Union but the case for that must continue to be made.  In making it we must articulate a liberal vision about why that model of cooperation is better than the dangers and division that nationalism brings.

Just as the case for maintaining the United Kingdom as a single state must be rooted in reform and not a defence of the status quo, so must the case for the UK and our engagement with the rest of Europe.

If we allow the case to be made on the basis of Qualified Majority Voting in the Council of Ministers or The Common Agricultural Policy or even, God help us, the Common Fisheries Policy, then we will be doomed to fail – and deservedly so.

For many who want to get back into the family of nations that is the EU the SNP offer a beguiling route. 

Leave the rest of the UK behind they tell us and we can rejoin the EU.  For those who prize their European identity and want to punish the English Nationalists who delivered Brexit it is tempting. 

It is, however, still wrong.  It remains rooted in a politics that forces people to choose between their different identities instead of offering them political structures that reflect them all.

If you think that the problems of a border on Ireland are significant then they would be nothing compared to the problems of having a border between Scotland and England.

The SNP say they are pro-EU, even as they reject the values the EU was founded on.

Remember that back in 1975 the SNP were the only major party that campaigned against joining the European Communities. Over time they saw the political value in pretending to be pro-European – but only as long as it didn’t get in the way of independence above all else.

That is why in the 2014 independence referendum, the only major party in Scotland pushing to leave the EU was the SNP. It is a simple fact and yet it is something that they deny to this day. When the choice was before them, nationalism came ahead of internationalism.

Nationalists pushed independence even though they knew that this would mean Scotland dropping out of the EU.   They tied themselves in knots to defend the indefensible: the madness of crashing out of two political and economic unions at once.   Now, of course, thanks to our English Nationalist Prime Minister, we would only be crashing out of one – even if it illustrates rather well the chaos that such actions bring.

In 2014 the SNP saw that as a fine price to pay for independence. Either that or they spent their time pretending that the stated views of the EU on the matter did not exist or that they could leverage threats to EU citizens to force a change in the rules.

Pro-EU voters have been repeatedly conned by the SNP because they will always hold internationalist values second to the priority of independence.

It is for that reason that the SNP spent more on a by-election in Shetland in 2019 than they did on the entire EU referendum.

It is for that reason that they claim to have a plan for rejoining the EU while refusing to admit the harsh consequences we would face – leading to flailing attempts to gloss over the prospect of a hard border and a currency breakdown with the rest of the UK, sounding every bit like Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson.

It is for that reason that when pressed on these concerns, nationalist policy leaders label EU accession rules as “nonsense” and “economically illiterate”. It tells you something about the real opinions at play.

The SNP have been happy to weaponise pro-European feelings, but only so long as they do not get in the way of independence. Europe, like every other issue people care about – education, healthcare, economic recovery – always comes second. Independence first – and the rest of us get left behind.

Pragmatism and liberalism have always been the best impulses of the EU, but nationalism is not liberalism, even draped in an EU flag instead of a saltire

The SNP’s desire to drive hard borders between people goes against everything the EU – and liberals – stand for.

In 2014, I campaigned against Scotland leaving the UK and the EU, because I believed in the values of community, cooperation and liberalism that make us stronger together.

Brexit and independence are the same idea with a different name.

The reality of our loss with Brexit should be a warning of just how much more Scotland stands to lose if we play the nationalist game and take another step away from the internationalist values that liberals believe in.

 

Liberalism and shared community – nationalism and the absence of progressive principle

 

The point of recognising that there are local, national AND international levels to our connections to one another is that the myth of monolithic national blocs – whether Scottish, British or any other – must be challenged.

No man is an island.

I know - I grew up on an island and represent several island communities.

But our isles have always recognised that we are influenced by and connected to a wider global community. That brings both challenges and opportunities. We do ourselves a disservice, however, if we pretend that we can act unilaterally or truly independently in an interconnected world.

Boris Johnson and Priti Patel may see the English Channel as something which separates us from the rest of Europe.  As a liberal – and as an islander – I understand it is actually something that connects us to it.

Progressive liberal politics means acknowledging and celebrating our connections to one another. Liberalism is the engine of progressive change.   Nationalists drop progressive policies the moment they clash with the nationalist agenda.

 

This idea lies at the heart of a functioning liberal democracy – that we have lasting obligations to one another. We have obligations to those we know and those we do not - to generations older than us and to those who have not yet been born.

We understand that we can be bound by decisions we disagree with and that sometimes we must pay taxes for things we dislike.

The system works because we know that we are better off as a community than we are working alone.

That is why we are liberals and not libertarians.

As a liberal I take as my political counting unit – the individual and my right as an individual to be free.   As long as my freedom does not cause harm to others.

As liberals we have a mature and considered understanding of what freedom means.  That understanding underpinned the thinking of Beveridge.

You are not free if you are not healthy.

You are not free if you are not educated.

You are not free if you are not safe to leave your home.

For that reason we pool our freedom to form communities to provide the tools to tackle the give giant evils – to educate, to care for and to protect all our people.

If we only act on immediate and individual self-interest then, bit by bit, our common good suffers. If we work together and allow for a little compromise, however, then great things are possible.

Important in its own right, however, is what the denial of responsibility by the populist nationalist says about the nationalist vision of democracy.

The whole point of our state pension is that we pool and share resources, geographically and generationally. Your taxes and my taxes do not get stored up in a pot for our pensions years down the line – they are spent in the here and now on the pensions of our fellow citizens, in every corner of the United Kingdom.

We accept that reality on the trust that when the time comes for us to retire, someone else will continue to pay the taxes that will fund our pensions. That chain of trust stretches back in time and can go on into the future – but it relies on a degree of trust in one another to maintain it.

Nationalism is the antithesis of this idea of shared obligation. In place of pooled resources and collective strength we are told to cut ourselves away from the responsibilities and benefits of a common political community. Any compromise is a betrayal of the nation and any concession to others is evidence that we are (as the SNP love to say) “getting shafted”.

It is what makes nationalism so corrosive to a multinational political community like the UK. Every act of shared obligation becomes suspect. That the SNP do not accept such basic tenets of liberal democracy is perhaps to be expected. If they are going to deny any sense of solidarity with our friends and family around the rest of the UK, however, they might at least be consistent about it.

It maybe did not quite have the directness of “It’s Scotland’s Oil”, but I think we got the message from Kirsty Blackman, during a recent Sunday media round.

She made clear the SNP’s outrage that North Sea oil and gas profits might be used to support the wrong sort of family – that is, families who live south of the Tweed – during the cost-of-living crisis. Scotland’s foremost “progressive” party has decided that solidarity with struggling people across the country is a bridge too far.

Not everyone believes in using the government to redistribute wealth. Many people disagree about the exact level of redistribution that is fair or realistic or practical in a modern society.

It is a basic principle of progressive politics, however, that redistributing across the community in order to alleviate poverty and hardship for hard-press families is a Good Thing. It is perfectly fair if you disagree with that progressive principle – but if you disagree with it then you probably should give up the ruse of calling yourself progressive.

There is nothing progressive about saying that families in England, Wales and Northern Ireland should go cold and hungry because nationalism says that we should keep oil money here in Scotland. You cannot conjure up a political principle in defence of that proposition – certainly no left-liberal, compassionate, communitarian principle. The only way that you can justify such an idea is through nationalism. You can only justify it by denying any shared political community with others – by claiming that “we” in Scotland are different from “them” in the rest of the UK.

The truth, of course, is not that the SNP are right wing or left wing. It is that they have no ideology at all.

Much like their supposed foe, Boris Johnson, their position on economic issues depends on what they think people want to hear at any given moment, what will get them closer to their one overriding goal. Like the Brexiteers, they are pro-having cake, and pro-eating it.

The SNP pretend to be a “centre-left”, “socially democratic”, “progressive” party. I have no doubt that many within the party truly believe that they hold those values.

If you can look at the struggles of people across the UK in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis and think that the answer is not more cooperation but less, however, then you have lost sight of what progressive politics is supposed to be about.

 

Beating nationalism with liberalism – Quebec

In a liberal democracy, we have to respect one another enough to make the case for the values of interdependence and shared prosperity, year on year and day by day. When we do that, with a liberal approach, nationalism and populism can be beaten.

Just look at the case of Quebec.

The French-speaking province of Canada first clearly rejected independence in 1980 but the constitutional debate continued to rumble on (sound familiar?). After another vote was called, Quebec voted secession down again – by the narrowest of margins – in 1995.

The shift – a swing of almost 20 points in fifteen years – might have been a sign of the inevitable trend toward the breakup of Canada.

Those of us with a vague grasp of world politics, however, will be aware that Canada has stubbornly refused to dissolve itself.

Instead, support for Quebec sovereignty has drastically declined since the 1995 referendum. Now, the once-dominant Parti Quebecois has been relegated to third place in Quebec regional elections, turfed out by Quebeckers who – rightly – came to see endless debates over sovereignty as a distraction from the issues that matter.

In the aftermath of the 1995 referendum, Liberal leaders and academics alike took on the issues raised by nationalism and independence and responded. They challenged nationalist narratives head-on and reinvigorated discussions on the federal makeup of Canada.

They changed minds – and made the case for a Canadian society of both diversity and shared common interest.

The shift against independence in Quebec, however, did not come about through complacency or conservatism. Where Canada had measured Liberal leadership to mitigate the political risk of secession, our own nationalists have been lucky to face off against a Conservative government that makes antagonism – and their own brand of nationalism – the new status quo.

Across the world, we are awakening to the reality that liberal democracy is not simply something we have “completed” as a society – it is a set of values that we must renew with each new generation. We have to constantly re-learn and reinforce the ideal of a shared society with different values, nationalities and communities, against those who see the liberal democratic compromise as something that gets in the way of their own ideology, whether nationalism, populism or authoritarianism.

The debate over independence – like that over our democratic values as a whole – cannot be reduced to waiting for the old to die off or for the young to “see sense”, to the extremes of SNP or Tory nationalism. It has to be won through hard work, fighting complacency, and the right ideals at the heart of our politics.

In the contest between liberal democracy and nationalism, however, the ideas and values that work are with the liberals.

Conclusion

As long as the Liberal Democrats are around we will be a reminder to people – to the annoyance of nationalists and authoritarians across the UK – that there is a fundamentally different way of doing politics.

An approach based on ideas rather than identity.

Liberal values mean that our responsibility for justice and liberty are not limited by national boundaries, nor are they restricted to one level of government.

When we talk about international cooperation and EU membership these are not just convenient words for electioneering – they are our core values.

When we talk about devolved powers and democracy that grows from the grass roots upwards we don’t see those powers stopping at Westminster, Holyrood or anywhere else.

We want to reverse damaging centralisation which takes powers and funding away from local communities and local authorities.

There are some problems that are best tackled at a national level, but there are others – many others – which are better handled by local communities with local know-how, or have better solutions when we work hand-in-hand with our international neighbours.

If you believe that identity is the only thing that matters then perhaps it makes sense, as nationalists believe, to hoard all the power centrally, no matter if it actually helps individuals and communities.

If you believe in ideas then you want power to be shared locally, nationally and internationally, no matter the party – based on what works and what is right for people.

Our country stands at a cross roads.  For all we may have done to trash our own reputation we are still one of the largest economies in the world, a member of the United Nations Security Council and – despite our current government’s best efforts  - a country where respect for the rule of law and the principles of good governance are respected.

Boris Johnson and his cronies may try to undermine and belittle these institutions but their threat is our opportunity.  Take them on and beat them as both we and the Labour Party did so effectively this week in Devon and in Yorkshire and by modernising them we can strengthen them. 

Make our government representative.  Hold at the centre only those powers that belong at the centre and for the rest allow people and their communities to do what is best for themselves.

Then and only then can we tackle and beat Beveridge’s five giant evils.

We do it with ideas – not with identity.


Share this post on social media:

Sign in with Facebook, Twitter or Email.