In light of the KCL Annual Politics debate held in October 2020 with representatives of KCL’s different political societies, Roar speaks to Louis Triggs, president of the KCL Liberal Democrats Society, to expand upon some of the main points raised during the debate concerning foreign policy, Covid-19 and immigration.
Roar: During the debate, Liberal Democrats highlighted the importance for the UK to stand up for human rights across the world. How would you achieve this in foreign countries without appearing too controlling and predominant?
Louis: There is a balance to be struck between, on the one hand, making sure that we respect other countries’ sovereignty and rights to self-determination and, on the other hand, standing up for what is right and pursuing global justice. There are a number of groups, especially in China, whether it is the Hong Kong protesters or the Uighur Muslims, and recently in Belarus, that require the support of liberal democracies across the world. I would say there are maybe three ways that we can provide this. The first would be by putting pressure on the countries politically that is, for example, by refusing to recognise their governments. Secondly, economically, by refusing to trade with them and finally, in terms of immigration. I think we can take a lot of refugees from these countries and give them a new home.
R: Liberal Democrats argued that the Conservative party have not managed Brexit properly. What would you have done differently?
L: Theresa May triggered article 50 without a plan, and subsequently adopted a set of red lines that made negotiating with the EU almost a contradiction in terms. There are solutions to this that could have been pursued, even if you accept the project of Brexit as a good idea. One thing would be to discard the red lines altogether or to severely limit them and say, well, ‘we give effect to the referendum, but it is important that we have a customs union or that we stay in the single market like other countries such as Norway or Switzerland.’ This obviously includes making concessions on things like immigration but, as I said elsewhere, immigration is a positive thing for our country. Secondly, just avoid the culture of irresponsibility and going headfirst without a plan. Triggering article 50 without a plan is perhaps the biggest mistake of all.
R: Mental health. What are your thoughts on the way the government deals mental health during Covid-19?
L: I think Covid-19 obviously has massively exacerbated the mental health crisis in this country. However, I think it is important to stress that mental health is an issue that has been playing the UK since before Covid-19. The infrastructure in this country is not there, the awareness in this country is not there and the funding in this country is not there. Mental health is treated as less important and less real than physical health and we need to treat it and fund it seriously if we are going to get people the help they need and be the caring and inclusive society that we claim to be. This is at the root of our NHS.
R: Do you think fines for not wearing a face mask should be higher? Should police be trained to make sure that everyone, excluding those who need an exemption, wears a face covering?
L: Especially at a time like this, when everybody has already had that circle of freedom severely limited, I do not think the fines for not wearing a face mask should be higher. I think they should be enforced more and I think there should be some form of documentation produced by the government and sent to people’s houses to ensure that those who are exempt can attest their exemption and there is no risk of those without exemption being able to falsely claim one.
R: Tuition fees and Covid-19. Do you think tuition fees should be reduced?
L: I sympathise both with the students and with the universities here. Despite severe restrictions, universities are still trying to provide qualifications to students and they have had to adjust and develop an online teaching infrastructure incredibly quickly. There are good reasons for fees not being cut down from that perspective. However, the burden that students are facing, especially in these times, has not been adequately addressed and I think this is a perfect example of the kind of conflict between interests that the government can step in and try to ameliorate. The only way that can be done is by investing more in both the universities and students and there are good reasons for having tuition fees; regardless of Covid-19. At the same time, however, I think much more onerous on students and the tuition fees are the costs of living. Back in the days in the UK students could access public funds and get maintenance grants from the government to help with their costs of living, while they were going to university. It is a Liberal Democrats policy to bring maintenance grants back.
R: What are your thoughts on the UK’s points-based immigration system?
L: The points-based system, that is designed to exclude so-called unskilled immigrants, is just a massive shot in the foot to the British society and economy. It is the humane thing to do to enable some degree of movement between countries. But, once more, it is our interest to have people come into our country and take jobs, whether that be a nurse, a surgeon, a professor or a custodian. All of these jobs are essential to our existence in our society and more people taking them means more consumers, which means more jobs. We need to grow our economy because that is the only way that we can get people in jobs and get them that steady source of income. It is also the only way we have to get money into the welfare system and protect those who are struggling.
R: From January 2021, skilled immigrants need to possess a minimum salary of £25,000 in order to enter the UK. What are your thoughts?
L: The more the merrier is pretty true when it comes to immigration and by tightening borders controls, this government is not only denying opportunities to those who would come to us but are also denying the opportunity to the country to grow up and become a more diverse and dynamic society. So whether the limit is 25,000 pounds a year or slightly less or more is really irrelevant. All this illustrates the thoughtless exclusion that this government is imposing and how we are becoming an inward looking island, not just geographically but also politically and in a humanitarian sense.
R: Is there anything else you would like to say or clarify from the debate?
L: Our priorities as young people have become probably clearer than ever in the light of this pandemic. We need a strong health care system, a strong mental health care system. We need a strong social care system. We also need a strong welfare state that can protect those who are down and out for whatever reason, whether it is a pandemic or simply bad luck. We need this investment in people more than ever and the Liberal Democrats are promising that.
[10.12.2020] Update: The answer to the “Do you think tuition fees should be reduced?” question earlier had the line “good reasons for having tuition fees a full stop, regardless of Covid-19”. Upon clarification, the interviewee had said “full stop” meaning the end of the discussion. This has been updated in the article.
[10.12.2020] Update: The answer to the “What are your thoughts on the UK’s points-based immigration system?” question earlier had the line “a nurse, a surgeon, a professor or a cleaner”. Upon clarification, the interviewee had said “a custodian” which was misheard. This has been updated in the article.