Hope not hate says Jo Swinson MP

April 28, 2019 4:00 PM

"Thirty years ago, on a momentous, undoubtedly cold, November day in 1989, the very first Berliners were able to cross the wall that had for 28 years divided their beloved city, " said Liberal Democrat Deputy Leader Jo Swinson MP addressing American students at Wroxton College in the annual Lord North Commemorative Lecture.

"I don't think that in modern history, there is any more powerful symbol of division and coming together than the day the Berlin Wall was brought down. Families, friends and lovers reunited.

"I was only nine years old when this happened. And like many others my age I hadn't given much thought to the perils of the Cold War we were living through. In my home in Milngavie, a lovely suburb of Glasgow, with my sister and my parents, it all seemed rather far away.

"But I do remember one Saturday morning quite well. I was in our living room, watching a classic of British children's television - a show called Going Live!

"I suspect none of you have heard of it - it was your traditional children's weekend show. Celebrities being gunged with green goo. Formulaic kids' cartoons. And attempts at breaking down the week's news for children.

"And that particular morning, there was an amazing competition. The prize was to win a piece of the Berlin Wall.

"Now for those of you who don't know me, I should tell you I am rather competitive and my dad must have sensed my disappointment at not winning the competition.

"Later on, he visited Berlin and brought me back a little piece of that history. It is one of my most prized possessions.

"And that moment thirty years ago was so much bigger than what it meant for the city of Berlin.

"The whole world breathed a sigh of relief.

"The wall was going, and with it, the anxiety of two superpowers constantly on the brink of war.

"It would make the world a little safer as the threat of nuclear warfare was diminished.

"It would make the world a little more prosperous as more and more nations worked together.

"And it would pave the way for liberal internationalism to expand across the globe.

"The institutions that the US helped build in those years immediately after the Second World War were now dominant.

"And, for the most part, they were built on a foundation of liberal values. Openness. Multilateralism. Cooperation. On the belief that we needed a set of international rules to help countries engage with each other properly, safely and fairly.

"The belief that by working together, by limiting our self-interest, we could build a better, safer and more prosperous world and banish the ghosts of world wars that haunted us. These were the values that underpinned this order, even if we all know that they were not always adhered to.

"This was about changing the fundamental tenet of pre-war international relations: that for one country to succeed, another must fail.

"We were now saying that together we are safer. Together we are richer. Together the future is always brighter. And, as a liberal, I believe that all those things are still true today. We have just lost our way.

"We should wake up and realise that so many of our compatriots are voting for strongmen who spout hate and division, who stoke fears about foreigners and who are blatantly taking advantage of the situation to realise their own selfish dreams of power and influence.

"We might not like the fact that they are voting for people like Donald Trump or Nigel Farage or Viktor Orbán. And we might not like that people like Steve Bannon and Tommy Robinson are given platforms and are advising our political leaders.

"But our response cannot just be to tell our compatriots that they're wrong, that they should know better, that they should ignore these men.

"And I'd go as far as saying that we have lost the art of disagreeing well. Instead of trying to change the hearts and minds of those who disagree with us, we are far too quick to dismiss them entirely instead of properly engaging with them.

"And to win the argument, we have to offer an alternative because just saying no isn't enough.

"It's the failure to offer that alternative that has brought us to where we are.

"Yes, the liberal values we believe in are on life-support.

"But there's life in them yet.

"Because if there is one thing liberalism can do it is that it can adapt, change, reform and reinvent itself. That's how it has survived the last two centuries and that's how it faced down bigger challenges than we face today.

"In the UK, Brexit has been a huge distraction for the government, the civil service and all political parties.

"It has sucked all the oxygen out of the political debate.

"Instead of focusing time and energy on fixing the underlying problems that led to the vote to leave the European Union, the Prime Minister has pursued a dogged and doomed Brexit strategy that has repeatedly put her party's interest ahead of the national interest.

"I said earlier that the 2008 financial crisis presented us with a huge opportunity to fundamentally change the system, but we fluffed it.

"I see a similar opportunity today with the rapid advances in new technologies.

"Advances in robotics, artificial intelligence, and genetics have the potential to change our lives for the better, in ways we can't even imagine today.

"The opportunities for improvements in healthcare, decarbonising our economy and spreading the benefits of education are huge.

"But it would be naïve for me to wax lyrical about how technology is changing our lives, work and relationships without acknowledging that the way in which these technologies are being used by both companies and states pose a real danger to us too.

"Problems such as state actors influencing what should be fair and free democratic elections in other countries.

"Or problems such as feeding the rise of the far right and the spread of fake news.

"Or playing fast and loose with employment rights, taking advantage of flexible labour markets to sustain unsustainable business models.

"The technological revolution ahead of us is a second chance to reset the system and make up for our failure to fix the problems a decade ago.

"It's the opportunity to think whether as a society we are measuring the right things. Is it right to obsess over GDP growth when our planet is already at breaking point?

"And are we valuing what really matters? I don't think we are.

"We have an ageing population on our hands, yet we underpay and undervalue the people who are caring for our elderly and most vulnerable in society.

"Technology can and will help. But while we might get comfortable with the idea of a robot reminding us to take our medicine, surely we will still want someone there with us to have a cup of tea and hold our hand.

"There are unique human skills that no robot or algorithm can imitate - skills such as love, empathy and care - and we just don't value them in the way we should.

"This technological revolution in front of us is the opportunity to open up the discussion again on whether businesses are free-riding on the societies in which they operate and on which they depend for the rule of law, property rights, talent, natural resources and financial investment.

"In my view, they should take much greater responsibility for how their activities affect their employees, their consumers and the environment - none of these things should be second order to fulfilling the needs of shareholders. And frankly, if you're in it for the long-term, it's just good business sense.

"Because at a time when the world feels less stable, we need our friends the most.

"At a time when the very institutions that have kept us safe for so long are constantly under threat and undermined, we must work with our closest allies to protect them.

"And at a time when populists are spouting hatred and vitriol, we need to unite our voices with those who see the world like we do, and believe in the values we have.

"More than ever people in the UK, in the US, in Europe and in so many other places in the world need to hear a different story to the one being told by the likes of Trump, Farage and the rest.

"A story that champions openness, cooperation and multilateralism.

"A hopeful story, not a hateful one."