This has not been a good year for liberals.
Liberal values have been under attack at home and internationally. In the UK we have seen unprecedented levels of hate crime and anti-Semitism. In the US, the President-elect seems to take pleasure in denigrating Muslims, women and Mexicans. President Putin is pursuing militarism in Ukraine, Syria and in threatening the Baltic States. Isis has unleashed a wave of unrestrained barbarism in the name of religion.
During my lifetime society has moved in a strongly liberal direction. In Europe, we have had historically low levels of conflict and the end of totalitarianism. When I was born, not only were homosexuality and abortion illegal, but a female civil servant was required to resign on marriage. Racism was openly practised. Since then, a raft of reforming social legislation has liberated millions of citizens to live the lives they choose. And this was achieved by a broad coalition of small ‘l’ liberals across the political parties.
In my lifetime, the average income per head in the UK has increased about threefold. This has transformed how people live, and has allowed the government to raise much more money for schools, hospitals, pensions and other benefits.
So what has changed? There are several contributory causes, but for me the most important is that the 2008 financial crash brought to an end year-on-year real wage increases for millions of people. Indeed, for many their incomes fell, whilst costs –particularly housing costs – continued to rise. And for many people economic change has meant a move from secure employment to often short-term insecure jobs. This trend has disproportionately affected the North. It has shattered many people’s plans for the future, and it has led to anger, frustration and a search for scapegoats.
There has been no shortage of those, whether City bankers, Brussels bureaucrats, self-serving politicians or immigrants. This generalised discontent fuelled much of the Ukip and Brexit vote. It has had disturbing consequences. Language used during the referendum, for example, legitimised in many people’s eyes the expression of anti-immigrant views which have brought the almost 50 per cent increase in hate crime.
The response of other parties has not been helpful. The Government’s use of EU nationals living in the UK as a bargaining chip in the Brexit negotiations is repugnant, their lack of humanity in responding to the refugee crisis in Europe – doing as little as possible and then only under extreme political pressure – shameful.
The ambivalent response of the Labour leadership to anti-Semitism and the extreme intolerance shown to internal dissent reflect a deeply illiberal mind-set.
So how should liberals respond?
We must be bold, and self-confident. We must develop policies which are clear and appeal to people’s sense of fairness and common sense. We must show that we can rise to the challenges of a rapidly changing world, not shrink from them.
As Liberal Democrats, we are focusing on three priorities.
First, we must address the imbalance in public spending –particularly in infrastructure – between the Northern cities and London. We must ensure that public services grow in line with changes in population and improve the education system to equip people with the skills they need to fill the jobs where labour is in short supply. And we must redress the chronic housing shortage.
Secondly, we have to find a better way of funding the NHS and social care systems. My colleague, Norman Lamb, has established a commission to look at a dedicated health and social care tax. This will allow everyone to see exactly how much the system costs and how much is needed to pay for it so that it provides the level of service we rightly expect.
Thirdly, we will respond to the challenge of Brexit by holding the Government to account and demonstrating the costs of the type of the hard Brexit they seem to be pursuing. We will campaign for the people to have another vote on the terms of the deal negotiated with Brussels. As the costs of Brexit – higher prices, lower growth, fewer jobs – become clear, people’s views on the merits of Brexit may change. In those circumstances they should not be denied the right to think again.
In short, we must show people how we can become a more tolerant, open and optimistic Britain. And persuade them that this is the kind of country they want to live in.
• Lord Newby of Rothwell is a Lib Dem peer and former minister who gave this year’s Wainwright lecture. This is an edited version.