What does being a Liberal Democrat mean?
This is actually one of the easiest questions to answer, though the answer itself leads to more questions. The Preamble to the Federal Constitution details the purpose of the Liberal Democrats, and a section from it is quoted on every party membership card:
The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community and in which no-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance and conformity.
Sounds good, doesn’t it? We’re in favour of people not being poor, or ignorant, or compelled to conform. The rest of the Preamble is worth a read – it’s by far the most accessible part of the Federal Constitution – but that part is important enough that pretty much every party member carries it around in their wallet or purse.
Of course, the devil’s in the details – in this case, the word balance. Liberal Democracy is not an extremist or absolutist position. You can be an extremist about liberty, as some people who describe themselves as libertarians do, and decide that any state intervention in your life is an intolerable imposition akin to sticking a gun in your face. You can be an extremist about equality, which tends towards a kind of communism where every citizen gets an exactly equal share. You can be an extremist about community, which probably leads you to ultra-local consensus anarchism of the kind practised by EZLN in southern Mexico.
However, Liberal Democracy is about finding the balance between the individual as an entity in its own right, and the individual as a member of a wider society; between a free market which encourages competition, and regulation which restricts that competition to efficiency rather than exploitation. Balances are always precarious things to maintain, which is why you often see news headlines about the party leaning towards “the left” or “the right”. It’s worth remembering that those shifts are compared to the party itself, and are relatively minor compared to our positioning relative to the other parties. These shifts are also within the context of the preamble itself.
In theory, every Liberal Democrat policy flows directly from the philosophy expressed in the Preamble. The balance is maintained by the membership, who tend to be more or less personally involved in particular areas of liberty and equality. There are ways to express this balance – a personal favourite is “the market where possible, the state where necessary”.
In summary then, being a Liberal Democrat means being committed to some balance of liberty, equality and community, opposing conformity and poverty, supporting localism, and a sustainable environment and economy. The Liberal Democrat party is a fairly broad church, and there’s plenty of room for differing opinions and debate within that framework.