William Wallace: The fight to maintain our liberal values

Time is running out to defend this country's liberal values.
Time is running out to defend this country's liberal values.
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ONE of the things that has led to a deterioration in our national debate has been the claim by some on the right that English values – or, more precisely, Anglo-Saxon values – are different from and superior to the values of other nations.

I read the MEP Daniel Hannan’s book How We Invented Freedom – a sort of simplified, child’s version of Churchill’s History of the English-Speaking Peoples – which dismisses the French Revolution and all other contributions and assumes that continental countries are naturally authoritarian.

That is not my world, although I remember when I first went to the United States going out briefly with a young Italian-American woman who said to me, “Do you know, you are the first white Anglo-Saxon Protestant I have ever gone out with?”, so I knew where I was coming from.

I also have some hesitation about calling them Christian values, even though I grew up absolutely at the heart of the Church of England, because I am conscious that the history of liberalism, tolerance and dissent is, on the European continent, the history of liberals fighting against the authoritarianism and orthodoxy of the Roman Catholic Church and in Britain has a great deal to do with the Quakers, the Congregationalists and the other nonconformists dissenting from what was then a rather complacent establishment which supported the powers that be.

I remember that in my Church of England primary school, we occasionally sang All Things Bright and Beautiful, with that dreadful verse:

“The rich man in his castle,

The poor man at his gate”.

We have come some way, even within the Church of England, in our understanding of values.

That is also true, of course, of other faiths, such as Judaism and Islam. Some very interesting and enthusiastic young Muslims came to talk to me the other week about developing a liberal approach to Islam.

I know that Lady Warsi has just written a book on aspects of that, which I very much look forward to reading. Of course, these are also humanist values. I strongly agree with her that these are aspirations and ideals as much as settled values, let alone anything one can take for granted. Each generation has to fight to maintain these values, as well as to redefine them. We all recognise that fear, prejudice and setbacks all damage acceptance of these values – that they do not survive unless we go out to defend them, as we have seen in what happened immediately after the referendum.

There are obvious threats to these values: rapid social and economic change most evidently. I do most of my politics in West Yorkshire, and I see the extent to which knocking down the old communities and the establishment of nice, new semi-detached houses, which lack the core of the community and break up the old extended families, has weakened some of the intermediate social institutions.

The disappearance of the mills and factories where you worked together, and their replacement by insecure, lonely work, has also weakened them. The disappearance of nonconformist churches has, sadly, weakened them further. Then immigration, and the expectation of further immigration as a result of the world’s rising population, is another unsettling dimension.

In the middle of the referendum campaign, I spoke in Ripon Cathedral on the issues that we had to consider, and ended a discussion on the question of immigration and population growth by saying that you have to decide, “Who is your neighbour?”

One of the discussion groups came back to me after a brief interval and said, “We have been discussing on our table: who is not my neighbour?” That will be a very difficult question for us all to consider over the next generation, as the poor of Africa, the Middle East and South Asia try to get to a more secure world. Globalisation has swept over those areas, and those who are left behind by the transformation of work, and will be further left behind by its future transformation, have real grievances which we have to address. That is also part of the lesson of the referendum that we all need to learn.

How do we address that? Who should be contributing? Clearly, faith leaders; all of us as public figures and politicians; and local community leaders, in so far as we have them, because globalisation means that local employers and banks – I declare an interest as the son of a local bank manager – have disappeared, which is part of the loosening of local institutions.

Local democracy is much weaker than it used to be. In Bradford and Leeds, each ward has 15,000 voters. That is not terribly local democracy. We all need to do our part, but we also need corporate leadership.

I commend the Archbishop of Canterbury for talking to corporate leaders and saying that they have failed to speak out about the responsibility of the corporate sector to the wider community within which it operates. That is something we need to hear from the banking community and leaders of multinational companies working in Britain and elsewhere.

We need to make sure that they pay their taxes and contributions to the wider community. Then there are the media, old and new. With our traditional media, we have the odd phenomenon of what one has to call offshore nationalism – foreigners who own papers that talk against them.

The Sun did it the other week, attacking foreign elites. It seems to me that Rupert Murdoch is a classic example of a foreign elite interfering in British politics, but the idea of self-parody does not, apparently, occur to The Sun or the Mail, from time to time. Social media is, of course, an additional problem.

We face huge problems in maintaining the liberal values this country has attained. We have to go 
out to fight for, defend and promote them.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire is a Lib Dem peer who spoke in a Lords debate on British values. This is an edited version.