Reflections on the meaning of liberalism after the death of Charles Kennedy


The Bird of Liberty will be a Pheonix

There is no doubt in my mind that the liberalism that was at the heart of Charles Kennedy’s beliefs and life are the same things that move and motivate me. Charles was an advocate of a robust liberalism which combines an absolute need to help the disadvantaged with an absolute need to ensure that we have the money to pay for it. This has a certain irony to it as Charles was, of course, first elected as an SDP MP. Liberalism and social democracy share many features but are not the same thing. Neither of them are quite the same as Liberal Democracy where inevitably there are some tensions between those slightly differing belief systems.
In politics we talk a lot about policies. But too many of them have, in my view, been shaped by the need to adjust to the needs of biased media and wishy-washy responses to focus groups and polling. I didn’t come into politics because I believed in certain policies. I certainly did not come into power to accept a set of principles dictated by others. I came into politics because I hold certain truths to be self-evident and want to get other people to share those beliefs and to elect governments at all levels which will implement them.
I have often wished for a magic machine that would allow people to touch and feel what the society would be like if my principles could be put into practice. A bit like those visions they create in Time Team where they find a hole here and some stone there and because they know it was built in the 15th Century they can build a computer visualisation of what the building is likely to have looked like. I cannot do that but perhaps I can in a few sentences show what it would feel like to live in a ‘Kemp’ world. I hope that most liberals would feel similar things.
• A ‘Kempian’ citizen would be an empowered citizen. By breaking the power of Whitehall and Westminster far more decisions would be transferred from London to Town Halls and from Town Halls through to communities. Central and local governments would largely become strategic bodies and would let a thousand flowers bloom as far as delivery mechanisms are concerned.
• The conflicts of capital versus labour would be minimised by a massive enhancement of cooperatives, mutuals and social enterprises in which decisions and profits would be retained locally to give more power to citizens and customers.
• Inequality would be lessened. Chief Executives of public bodies would not be able to earn more than 15 times the FTE wage of the most junior, trained member of staff. Similar restrictions would be placed on private companies by active and committed shareholders exercising more control over smaller none monopolistic companies.
• We would live in a clean, safe, well managed environment in which strong laws were available to protect the environment but were rarely used because companies and individuals knew the short-term and long-term advantages of eco-friendly activity.
• We would feel so confident in the values of our own Country that we could embrace the rest of the World rather than cowering from it. We would see no difficulty in being a citizen of Liverpool, the North, England, Great Britain and Europe at the same time. We would embrace different faiths and cultures and recognise our duties and responsibilities to the rest of the World.
• We would live in communities rather than on estates in which we could all do our part in protecting and looking after the elderly and vulnerable.
• We would take greater responsibility for own lives and those of our families rather than waiting for the state or someone else to sort out all our problems.
Does all this sound totally utopian? Absolutely! This is my dream of how society should and could work and incorporates many features which would be unique to a liberal society. But in the first we do need a dream – a vision of a better future. As the song in South Pacific says, “If you don’t have a dream, how you gonna have a dream come true?” Once you have your dream in place you then need to temper that dream with the reality of the current world. The policies and the practices I endorse are in place because of the long-term vision that I have. I promote policies that will enable institutions to change to meet that dream. I work, particularly in the community in a way that shows I will personally do my best to deliver that dream
As I said earlier all this may sound wish-washy to some, just idle dreaming about the future but for 48 years these are the things that I have tried to put into practice and in little ways have succeeded. I believe what it says on my 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 or conformity”
I know that there is nowhere else that I can go but the Liberal Democrats to find the same beliefs as mine. As I have said before they will have to prise my membership card out of my cold, dead hand! Since the election more than 15,000 people have signed up to that dream, that vision of society.
So do you have a dream which is similar to ours? Well stop dreaming and do something about it! Join us now at If you have a different dream tell us what it is so that we know where your policies will take us.

About richardkemp

Leader of the Liberal Democrats in Liverpool. Deputy Chair and Lib Dem Spokesperson on the LGA Community Wellbeing Board. Married to the lovely Cllr Erica Kemp CBE with three children and four grandchildren.
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1 Response to Reflections on the meaning of liberalism after the death of Charles Kennedy

  1. Jeremy Morfey says:

    Charles Kennedy was always a social democrat, and I do think we should think deeper as to the true meaning of liberalism.

    As an activist with the SDP then, I remember the contribution made by Charles Kennedy at the SDP Conference in Torquay in 1985. My impression then was not of the sort of parochial individualist liberalism I appreciated in the other party of the Alliance, despite his obvious and deep attachment to his Highlander roots. He always saw the national picture. I saw in Kennedy, still only in his mid-20s, a safe pair of hands. A thorough understanding of the principles of both parties, sound enough to withstand compromising from the lobbyists and media agenda-setters. He knew his own mind, and had the sort of political judgement to be able to find and announce the right programme to make what he believed in, happen. He was Health Spokesman at the time, and I only wish that it was he, and not Andrew Lansley or Jeremy Hunt that had held this brief during the Coalition.

    One reason I never joined the merged party was that I was uneasy about the blurring of the separate identities and roots of liberals and social democrats. Unlike the media “experts” and much of the public, I understood very well precisely the marriage that was the Alliance, and the sum of its distinct parts was greater than the homogenised unit it became.

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