“I dream of a world where the truth is what shapes people’s politics, rather than politics shaping what people think is true” – Neil deGrasse Tyson
Reading through the first Conservative budget since 1996 I contemplated the consequences it would have on the poor and young. Was this the party I used to believe in?
Back in 2010 I was a Conservative.
Let me start at the beginning so that I can explain. My family came from humble beginnings. My father was the youngest of nine children. After his 18th birthday my grandfather gave him enough money for the bus into town and told him to find a job. My mother was department manager at an insurance company but quit her career to raise me and my brother. Neither of them went to university. However, I was encouraged during my childhood to never settle for anything less than the best. I was told that I could be anything I wanted to be.
During my younger days I measured happiness with success. Success meant making lots of money and collecting worldly possessions. I drove a sports car and played golf on the weekend. These values shaped my political views. I wanted a strong economy and low taxes. Capitalism that rewarded aspiration. The Conservative party with a young budding leader David Cameron was an appealing proposition. They promised to fix the mess left by Labour, cut the deficit and generate a surplus. That’s what I wanted to hear, a country being pulled out of the grips of global recession. What else can you offer me big Dave? Scrapping an increase to national insurance for workers earning less than £35,000. Yes please! This big society vision you have sounds pretty fine for a young ambitious professional like myself. Cheers DC!
In May 2010, David Cameron and Nick Clegg formed a coalition based on my goals in life, I should have been happy. Years passed by yet monetary gain and opportunity was not bringing me the fulfilment that I desired. It is an unsettling juncture when you realise everything you have been working towards is no longer important. One idle afternoon when I was at the office I decided that was it. I quit my job, sold my car, gave most of my clothes to a charity shop, said goodbye to my friends and bought a ticket to China.
“Would you like a sabbatical Ryan?” my boss asked.
The time spent travelling the world by myself gave me the opportunity to meet people from all walks of life with different mind sets and philosophies. Possessions lost their importance. As long as you had enough money for a place in an eight bed dorm and some food in your stomach, nothing else mattered. I had some of the most enlightening conversations, whether it be with a homeless aboriginal man in the park or the skyscraper yuppie at the poker table. Life is merely our interactions with people and what impact you have in other’s lives. My monetary needs subsided and other priorities took precedent.
I worked hard to get where I am! This is what I told myself, this deluded fantasy of self-importance. Of course I worked hard but was this the only force that pushed me to where I was? My family life was stable. I was supported in my studies. I paid low tuition fees. To top it off, I was a straight white male from a Christian background. I hear you say: Ryan, you are a pretty cool cat, that doesn’t matter. Thanks for the vote of confidence but it makes a huge difference. According to a study, men earn 17.5% more than their female equivalent. It is easier to get that job interview because my name is Ryan and not Raheem. Up to 2014 it would have been illegal for me to marry someone of my own gender if I was gay. Also, I can be rest assured I won’t have Dave Cam and Mickey Grove sneaking around my place suspecting me to be an Islamic extremist. It is not a level playing field, if this was a video game I started on easy mode and others defaulted on hard.
The problem with the right is their focus. They focus on making the country the most economically successful and the most defensively secure in the world. But at what cost? Encroaching on people’s freedoms, demonising foreigners and turning a blind eye to the needs of the sick and poor. The wealth inequality in society continues to grow while the Conservative Government focuses on cutting benefits to the most vulnerable while they give tax breaks to powerful corporations and easing up on taxes to the richest. You hear from the rich (and ashamedly, I was guilty of this myself) when they say “look at all these welfare scroungers with nine kids and complaining that the Government is taking away their benefits”. These are rare occurrences that are glorified by the media. The atrocious hypocrisy of the rich that angrily points one hand at the poor for taking free hand outs, while the other hand grabs lightly-taxed, millions of pounds from their parents with no hard work of their own.
There is talk of how the top 1% controls the wealth but it is difficult to fathom. These videos makes it easier to comprehend in visual displays.
So now I was stranded in the political wilderness with no party and the 2015 general election looming. Who would I vote for? The Labour party and Ed “hell yes I’m tough” Miliband? The Greens with their far-left socialist views? The Liberal Democrats first got my attention when Charles Kennedy made a brave stand against the Iraq war. He was ridiculed when in fact he was right. Nick Clegg also had the potential to be a great leader when I heard him in the 2010 debates. In coalition Government is where I was most impressed by the Lib Dems. Many were angry over broken promises on tuition fees but this is not a black and white world where progress can be made without compromise. I would rather look at the positives they did do in power. Introducing the pupil premium to help the most disadvantaged children. Scrapping ID cards. Fighting for equal marriage. Building more homes. Blocking the snooper charter. Stopping the detention of migrant children and granting green power subsidies (that recently got reversed by the Tories).
The Liberal Democrats did not just preach fairness, they implemented it. Living in Bristol West, the seat was targeted by Labour and the Greens so I was happy to give my vote to the Lib Dems. My belief was if they were to get into a coalition again they would continue their good work. On election night I stayed up until the night sky started to get light. To my bitter disappointment I saw the exit polls predicting the collapse. Only 8 Lib Dem MPs remained with 49 losing their seats. What had happened? The Conservatives ran an intelligent campaign of fear. The fear of the SNP nationalists joining Labour to tear this country apart. The fear of the deficit being left in the fiscally irresponsible hands of the previous Labour Government. Fear won that day but though from this desolation, liberalism can and will rise again. Three days after the election, I joined the Liberal Democrats.
Was I a turncoat? Do my views matter any less since I defected from one ideology to another? Over the last few years Carl Sagan, the American astronomer, has been a major influence in my life. He once said, “In science it often happens that scientists say, ‘You know that’s a really good argument; my position is mistaken,’ and then they actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics.”
There is a more important question. Why am I now a liberal? I am a liberal because I believe in social equality and justice. A society that looks after the vulnerable. A capitalist economy that pays its share of tax and does not use international loopholes. To have a responsible Government that takes climate change seriously and not to treat it like a myth. That we do not judge someone by the colour of their skin but by their merits. Freedom of speech. That the country works better as a strong United Kingdom within the EU, not isolated from the rest of the world. To tackle child poverty. That we show tolerance to both religious and secular beliefs. That one day feminism will no longer be a dirty word but the status quo. We must remember that it is a lottery in what circumstances we enter this world and this should not prevent one from fulfilling their potential. Until we are closer to that reality, the Liberal Democrats will not cease to fight.
Tim Farron recently became leader of the Liberal Democrats. He is a symbol of that vision and I believe as a party we can get behind him to deliver that change. It is important not to shoot down others for having different views. Celebrating individuality is a key of liberalism. What we need to do is draw a distinct line in the ground of what we believe in and what we stand for. A vision that we can share with the country. The party’s membership has exploded with over 16,000 joining since the election. How many more would join if they saw the vision I saw? A vision of hope.
I would like to end on a quote from Tim’s first speech as leader:
“If you care about human rights join us.
If you think you shouldn’t have your emails snooped on join us.
If you think everyone deserves a decent home join us.
If you think it is wrong to demonise immigrants, the young, the poor, foreigners, Brussels, the English, the Scots…join us.
If you are fed up of self-satisfied politicians ambitious for themselves and unambitious for their country… then guess what? You are a liberal. Embrace that diagnosis. It is an utterly decent and British condition. So join us, join us today.”