Ideas are great, but don’t be trapped by ideology

As published on Lib Dem Voice earlier today.

As though I have regressed to a version of myself more than two decades in the past, a question I often get asked these days is “why did you do it?”

People are interested to discover that despite having a well paid and relatively secure job with the Liberal Democrats in Scotland at a crucial time in our country’s history, and having just bought my first home, I decided to leave it all behind and move to Africa to work for Volunteer Uganda, a charity which strives to alleviate poverty through education.

As a mischievous child, impulsive, some would say reckless, behaviour comes with the toddler tool kit.

But as we get older, there is more pressure to conform, more opportunities to settle – not settle down but settle for our lot in life – and more people who try to squeeze you into an increasingly narrow pigeon hole.

This is especially true in politics. It was American commentator Morris Berman who said: “an idea is something you have; an ideology is something that has you.”

I have always been a subscriber to this bumper-sticker philosophy and have strived to pull myself onto the right side of this tug of war. I am not comfortable with a single ideology, much as I am not comfortable with a single religion, a single theory of economics or a single washing powder.

No one person, and certainly no one party, has a monopoly on wisdom. But it is part and parcel of being involved, at any level, in a political party that your own ideas get pushed, pulled and prodded so that the edges of your own belief system are no longer sharp but blurred through a haze of ideology.

Have I briefed policies to journalists, friends and unsuspecting voters to which I personally do not subscribe? Yes. Was this the reason I decided to leave it all behind? No. It was my job to promote policies to the best of my ability and, on the whole, I enjoyed the game of political chess, always trying to keep opponents in check.

But that is the key; it is not a game to most, most are not political animals, the vast majority would prefer that childcare was affordable, that work always pays enough to make ends meet, and that they can retire with dignity rather than be subjected to endless rounds of point scoring.

Living “outside the bubble”, as many of us who spend far too much time inside the bubble like to refer to the real world, has given me more perspective and a far greater sense of the dangers of being trapped by a single ideology.

There are pitfalls to be avoided on the immediate horizon. In the twelve months leading up to my swapping the heated climate of Scottish politics to the hot climate of Uganda, the debate over Scotland’s future within the UK reached fever pitch.

The independence referendum in 2014 was the prism through which every other issue was seen. The debate has been fuelled by two single, opposing ideologies – that Scotland is better off as an independent country, or that Scotland’s best interests are served remaining part of the United Kingdom.

In the process, policies were proposed and countered, assertions were made and rejected, and complex issues affecting real people had to pass the #indyref test before they could be considered, let alone resolved.

It is imperative that in the run up to the referendum that we are not dominated by no single ideology, save one – that the complex issues that exist today will exist tomorrow and everyday leading up to the vote, and that people who are already increasingly disillusioned by politics will not thank this generation of politicians for adopting a post-2014 approach.

We must remember that most people do not identify themselves by the party they work for, the issue they campaign for or who they voted for in the last election.

Looking from the outside in, it is clearer than ever that, come what may at the ballot box, we must come together, work together and stand together to better the lives of people who have bigger problems than who is up or down in the polls over the next 18 months.

Ideas can change lives. That much I have seen living in working in rural Uganda on development projects. What is true in Uganda is also true across the UK. Keep on having ideas, but don’t let the ideas be trapped by a prison of ideology.

Graeme is the former Director of Communications for the Scottish Liberal Democrats. You can find out more about the work that he is doing in Uganda by following him on Twitter at @littlegrumpyG and @volunteeruganda, or visit the Volunteer Uganda website at


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