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A return to liberal ideals?

As children’s services face an impending financial crisis, Director of WillisPalmer, Mark Willis argues that a return to liberal ideals is the way to challenge yet more cuts

“The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life; the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”

Hubert H. Humphrey (38th Vice-President of the United States, 1965-1969)

Hubert H. Humphrey was a liberal.  In America he is sometimes referred to as the great ‘forgotten liberal’.  Born in Wallace, South Dakota in 1911 he was elected to the Senate in 1948, the year his proposal for ending racial segregation was included for the first time in the party platform at the Democratic National Convention.  It was here he gave one of his most notable speeches urging the Democratic party to “walk into the sunshine of human rights”.

Humphrey ran two unsuccessful Presidential campaigns in 1952 and 1960 but in 1968 was elected as the Democratic candidate for President - losing to the Republican nominee Richard Nixon; the electorate seemingly punishing him for his previous support for the Vietnam War (although he was later to denounce the conflict and lead the calls for American troops to be removed from Vietnam).

The above extract, taken from one of his last speeches before his death in 1978 is sometimes described as the ‘liberal’s mantra’.  In recent times the word liberal has become pejorative for some, with the term ‘liberal elite’ used frequently in political and media circles as an insult towards those on the political left who, it is claimed, have become part of the managerial elite but who are in fact out of touch with their so-called working class roots and who, it follows, cannot properly identify with the people they claim to support and protect.

But what type of liberal was Herbert H. Humphrey?  Put simply, he believed fundamentally in human rights and creating a society that protected the most vulnerable. In a speech in 1968 during the Presidential election campaign he said:

“We seek an America able to preserve and nurture all the basic rights of free expression, yet able to reach across the divisions that too often separate race from race, region from region, young from old, worker from scholar, rich from poor. We seek an America able to do this in the higher knowledge that our goals and ideals are worthy of conciliation and personal sacrifice.”

Such liberal idealism also used to be the bedrock of British political discourse, with all the main political parties traditionally fighting for the hallowed centre ground.  But the ground appears to be shifting, perhaps as a result of the impact of years of austerity and financial hardship precipitated by the financial crash almost ten years ago and more recently by the divisive Brexit vote.  Populism is clearly on the rise but should liberalism be a dirty word?

Liberalism and Austerity

Liberalism in its broadest sense is about respecting other people and their right to be different. It is about defending the freedoms of those who we might not agree with.  True liberalism is about the foundation of tolerance, the infrastructure of a modern democratic society.  It is, as Humphrey said, about protecting the most vulnerable in our society.  So are we still fundamentally a liberal country?   Do we still pass those tests?

The rise of neoliberalism in the 1980’s might provide a clue as why liberalism is under attack.  Where liberalism promotes equality, tolerance and fairness, neoliberalism promotes fiscal austerity, deregulation and capitalism, often at the expense of individuals.  Are some people simply confused about the difference between the two or do some politicians and elements of the British press deliberately conflate them in a tendentious attempt to promote their own (often) right wing ideology?  Is it not ‘neoliberalism’ that is the more likely cause of the malaise in our country than a ‘liberal’ desire to see people treated with fairness, compassion and respect?

Our Special Report featured in this edition of Children First highlights the extent to which local authority children’s services have been dealt swingeing cuts to services over the past seven years and face a £2bn funding gap by 2020.  It cites reports by the Local Government Association and Action for Children that found vulnerable children are far too often left with no support due to ever higher thresholds and lack of early intervention services.

The Children’s Rights Alliance for England found that children in England are “bearing the brunt of the government’s spending decisions and welfare cuts”.  They cite the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child Report (June 2016) which stated that the UK were not doing enough to prioritise children and the UK government had failed to take any action on their recommendations.

Put simply, there is now overwhelming and objective evidence that as a country we are failing our most vulnerable children.  At a time when councils face a surge in demand for children’s social care many local authorities are facing even more cuts to their budgets.

Whilst the UK government spends billions extricating us from the European Union, and squabbling amongst themselves while they do so, children in need in our society become more and more marginalised.  Under the banner of ‘austerity’ the liberal ideals of protecting the weak have been eroded.

Surely it is time for a new consensus towards investment in children’s services rather than cuts; time to acknowledge that protection and support for young people is not a cost per se but an investment in our future as a country.  Sadly, there is no sign yet that the government is about to change course.

Maybe therefore, there is an opportunity for a British version of Herbert H. Humphrey to appear from the shadows of British politics and stand up for the under-privileged and under-represented.  Maybe it is time for the word ‘liberal’ to be viewed as something to which we can aspire as a country rather than to be casually thrown around as a lazy insult.  Surely this is the moment to once again become a tolerant country proud to support and protect our most vulnerable children.  As Humphrey said, it is a moral test.

Follow Mark Willis on twitter @MarkWillisWP

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