Thursday, April 26, 2012

'(Re)defining Liberal Values' - Stella Duffy, Novelist

I write this from Brixton, the morning after looters smashed in my local shop windows. The morning after ‘Gay’s the Word’ was the only shop in its street to suffer violence. The morning after a weekend of sadness for London. I see young (mostly) men attacking property in their own neighbourhoods. I see our politicians on holiday and not coming home to address the problems. I see that their neighbourhoods are well away from any signs of unrest.

I am a white, living-middle-class, raised-working-class, Labour-voting, feminist, lesbian, woman. And not one of these labels even begins to speak for me.

I want change and an equitable society, and I don’t want a violent revolution to get there. I see no evidence that any revolution anywhere has ever worked.

I believe in dialogue and discussion and hope, and I don’t care if that sounds airy-fairy or hippy, I care that we get on with talking to each other and making a difference. I do that by being out to a group of 100+ fourteen-year-olds in Enfield when I taught writing for my niece’s boyfriend’s school. I do that by working with a local community for a pre-Olympics arts project on the south London council estate where I was born. I do that by speaking out, sometimes to my own detriment, always as honestly as possible.

I don’t have an academic take on liberal values – I do have heartfelt commitment to positive change and hope. I believe they are the same thing.

Stella Duffy's blog

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

'Redefining Liberalism' - Gill McEvoy, Poet

As a poet I know the sustaining and enriching quality of closeness to the natural world. I try to observe nature as it is, cruel but also awe-inspiring in its inter-related balance. Everything depends on everything else, as we do. Take away a plant, you take away an insect, take away an insect you remove a bird, etc. Agricultural practice no longer curates our world but exploits it. In my writing I try, as the poet Charles Tomlinson does, to harvest my observations to create poems that draw the reader into the grace, delight and reality of the natural world. Nature is itself, and in its extraordinary and delicate balance I see the hand of God. For me liberal values towards peace, tolerance and dignity begin with cherishing and respecting our planet.
            We have cut ourselves off from our spiritual roots by damaging in irreparable ways the very earth on which our lives depend. Without a spiritual sense we cannot live in the ‘peace and dignity’ that Gladstone advocated in his 1850 speech on the Don Pacifico affair. Without spiritual depth it is hard for us to be tolerant, to respect the rights of others to be who they are, to live in peace and dignity. In the Big Brother world we now inhabit where phones, computers can be hacked, Google has its satellite eye on us, surveillance cameras are everywhere, it is not surprising that material preoccupations, the least sustaining aspects of life, have taken the place of spiritual reflection.

Poetry Workshops with Poem Catchers
Gill's blog

'Why I am (or am not) liberal...'

This is the question that we want you - whoever you are, whatever your political affiliation, and wherever you're from - to answer. Tell us why and how you are liberal. Tell us why you are not liberal. It's up to you and we'd love to hear from you.

All submissions will be published on this blog. Please send your thoughts to, with either 'Why I am liberal' or 'Why I am not liberal' in the subject line.

Monday, April 23, 2012

'Redefining Liberal Values' - Ian Parks, Poet and Writing Fellow at De Montfort University, Leicester

As a poet, I see myself as embracing liberal values in the broadest sense. I believe that poetry is, in itself, a form of liberal expression, in that it can articulate ideas of freedom, social equality, respect for diversity, and a celebration of the human spirit, in a language that has the potential to be non-political in the narrowest sense. My poems have appeared regularly in The Liberal magazine along with articles dealing with contemporary issues and I feel very strongly that poetry has a social function to perform at the beginning of the twenty-first century. At a time when the language of liberalism is being appropriated by both the marketplace and the political elite, poetry has the qualities that can help restore that language to its proper place, encouraging as it does receptiveness and open-mindedness on the part of the reader. I also feel that poetry appeals with the best in the human spirit. An admirer of the poetry of W. H. Auden, I would, however, strongly disagree with his conclusion that ‘poetry makes nothing happen’. Poetry, I think, has the potential to work powerfully in the political sphere although its trajectory might not be easy to trace. I feel that poetry has a part to play in an ongoing debate about what it means to be human, to participate in a free and open society, to appeal to the generosity of spirit which is so firmly rooted in the Liberal Tradition. It has a part to play also, I believe, in the redefining of liberal values.

'On being a Liberal Writer' - Naomi Alderman, Novelist

What does it mean to be a liberal? There's something about generosity, I think, in the word itself. "Liberal with her praise." "Sprinkle olive oil on liberally." "A liberal application of money." Something about giving more than is strictly required and doing it gladly. That seems to me, when I ask myself, to be what I think of when I call myself a 'liberal'. I believe in being open, not closed. In looking, therefore, forward not back, because a generous attitude is also one which thinks that things certainly could be better in the future, that we will not find the best things only by conserving our meagre stock of ideas and achievements, but by passing them around in the expectation that others will do the same.

And there's something too about being liberal with one's definition of humanity. I have believed for a long time in the expanding "circle of us". When Gladstone was born, his father made money from the slave-trade, and the circle of "real human beings" extended no further than adult Christian white men with property. Slowly we've moved that circle outward, expanding it liberally. Not just men with property, but all men. Not just white men but black men. Not just men but women. Not just Christians but also all faiths and none. Not just able-bodied, but also those who are disabled. Not just straight but also gay. Not just cis-gendered but also transgendered. That is what it means to be liberal. To open up the doors of power and influence. To make sure that we invite people in, because we know that our humanity is damaged when we start seeing other people as less-than-people. 

It makes us weaker than the forces on the other side, of course. If you are a fundamentalist, if you're prepared to threaten people with exclusion from the circle if they don't toe the line, you'll get more loyal troops. But we're still right, and they're still wrong. I hope that the expansion of that circle is irreversible. Once you see someone as a person, maybe you can't go back to seeing them as half-a-person. 

A friend of mine suggested to me recently that in 200 years time the "adult" part of the circle will be expanded. That children will have the same rights of property, self-determination and voting as adults. "Impossible," I thought, "absurd. How would they... they couldn't even..." But the thought is delicious; that we have further yet to go, that we will find greater and broader definitions of "full people" than seems imaginable to us today. That is what being a liberal is too: being willing to change your mind. Being delighted by the idea that you might be proved wrong. 

15th April 2012
(originally published at

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Conservative MP Louise Mensch, interviewed in The Guardian (2011)

As part of the selection process she was asked to write an essay entitled: Why Are You A Conservative? Her first sentence was: "Because conservatism delivers liberal ends." 

Decca Aitkenhead, 'Louise Mensch: 'We're not all ogres', The Guardian, 30 September 2011

'Redefining Liberalism' - Kate Charles, Novelist

The vile person shall no more be called liberal, nor the churl said to be 
For the vile person will speak villainy, and his heart will work iniquity, to practise hypocrisy, and to utter error against the Lord, to make empty the soul of the hungry, and he will cause the drink of the thirsty to fail.
The instruments also of the churl are evil: he deviseth wicked devices to destroy the poor with lying words, even when the needy speaketh right.
But the liberal deviseth liberal things; and by liberal things shall he stand.

Isaiah 32.5-l.8

Recently I took part in a public read-through of the entire King James Bible, and declaimed this passage from Isaiah. I’d been mulling over what I might say in this statement, so it struck me quite forcefully.

My fiction writing is very much in the context of the Church of England, sitting squarely in the middle of the liberal tradition. I’m almost afraid to admit this in the current climate of extremism and dogmatic certainty within the Church. So much of what is happening today – insistence on an Anglican Covenant, defections to the Ordinariate, witch-hunts against those who are ‘different’ – goes against what I stand for, and continue to believe. Perhaps it is time to re-define liberal values in terms of the historic Church of England, before the word became a pejorative inevitably prefaced by ‘woolly-minded’. Liberalism should be something to be proud of, not to demean.

Kate Charle's website 

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

(Re)defining Liberal Values: Sue Vickerman, Poet

I cannot redefine liberal values. By the year 2011 there is so much truth to be had – at the flick of an ‘on’ button, the click of a mouse – that it is over-facing. Engagement with social, moral and spiritual questions has perhaps never been more tricky, because there is no starting point. Or rather, there are many adoptable starting points, but which has credibility? Global credibility? Is the interaction between theology and politics the rarified subject-matter of a special-interest group? A hobby group? Is it a side-alley?

Without a starting point – a fixed frame of reference, the quest for truth (for meaning, for values) is an almost impossible journey, with arbitrary, shifting footholds. We are standing on the globe itself. How wobbly is that? Trying to stand on a sphere. A turning one. Unanchored, we have to somehow define a context – our own context at least – before we can even start to think about how to behave, and what is good. And we need to accept that in other contexts, our moral definitions may not apply.

I am a Quaker attender of Methodist heritage who will claim to have divested myself of all the baggage of my religious upbringing until someone tries to sell me a lottery ticket. This activity I will reject, as though it were inherent in my very genetic make-up to do so, until the end of my days. There are things I was taught. If I had a child, I would be teaching her too. And the teachings would come from somewhere...


NOTE: For a 21st century liberal woman’s discussion of art, poetry, life, love and living alone, see Suki’s blog on

Monday, April 16, 2012

Archibald Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery (Prime Minister from 1894-95)

'BECAUSE I wish to be associated with the BEST  MEN in the BEST WORK'
Published in Reid, Why I am a Liberal (1885)
How tempting to imagine he was thinking of Oscar Wilde...

David Cameron, quoted in Jesse Norman's 'The Big Society' (2010)

You can call it liberalism. You can call it empowerment. You can call it freedom. You can call it responsibility. I call it the Big Society.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Re:defining Liberal Values - Greg Miller - Poet and Janice Trimble Professor of English at Millsaps College, Mississppi.

How do I understand ‘(re)defining liberal values’? An education in the liberal arts is an education in how to live life as a free person, and liberal values are central to the liberal arts: openness and inquisitiveness distrustful of cant and received opinion, not merely a toleration but also a hunger for perspectives different from one’s own, and vigorous support of a civic order that encourages conversation open to discovery and transformation. For John Milton, the very act of deferring blindly to authority – whether that authority be a church, the state, a tradition, a party, a text, or any human ‘assembly’ including schools or universities – can make one what he called a ‘heretick in the truth.’ We have to exercise our minds and spirits just as we must exercise our bodies if we are to be strong, vigorous and free. In our historical moment, to redefine liberal values requires attentiveness to the realities and complexities of national and world economic disparities; educational opportunities – across class, gender, and race – can be instrumental in transforming political, economic and personal realities and possibilities, but education alone cannot make us free. Insecurities, particularly following the attacks of 9/11 on New York and Washington, D.C., have fueled the irrational behavior of individuals and nations. Traditional civil liberties are at risk in many historic democracies. Central to redefining liberal values is a study of how best to promote peace between peoples and nations, defending, through international law, minorities and vulnerable peoples – groups and individuals – throughout the world.

5th July, 2011