Monday, 1 July 2019

Liberals attacked from all sides

In a Tweet, former leader of the Liberals and Democrats in the European Parliament Guy Verhofstadt has responded to President Putin's declaration that liberalism is obsolete: "Mr Putin and his far-right friends want Europe to become more unfree, because our tolerant, open, prosperous societies are a threat to their autocratic dreams and oligarchic interests. Motivation for all us to expand rights, freedoms and diversity in Europe."

Lib Dem leadership contender Jo Swinson rather dismisses Putin's significance: “Liberalism has faced down bigger challenges than Vladimir Putin, Boris Johnson or Viktor Orban. It’s survived and thrived on our continent for more than two centuries and through two World Wars. It’s not about to lay down to let nationalists and populists take over."

On the other side of the Atlantic, "liberal" has often been a term of abuse, never more so than in the conformist 1950s. Michael Goldfarb went further in 2010 in a historical analysis for the BBC News web-site.

On either side of the Atlantic - for that matter, wherever English is spoken - liberal means whatever the speaker says it means, although that is often not what the hearer thinks it means. Confusion reigns.

In America, neo-conservatives call themselves neo-liberals when it comes to economic theory. They advocate liberal interventionism in foreign policy.

It must befuddle Rush Limbaugh's fans to think that Britain's Conservative Party is in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. [...] A couple of years ago, if you told an American that the Liberal Party was in power in Australia, the last thing he would have thought was that Liberal leader John Howard was a conservative slightly to the right of Ronald Reagan.

[...]  And if you remind them that their other true British hero, Winston Churchill, started out a Conservative MP and then became a Liberal MP before returning to the Conservative fold, it absolutely makes their head spin.

The reason for Churchill's change of allegiance was trade policy. He was a free trader, but his Conservative colleagues believed in protective tariffs, so he crossed over to the Liberal benches in the House of Commons.

That happened around a century ago, and if you go back another century you get to the origins of the liberal confusion. According to most scholars, the word liberalism was first used in 1815 in English. It comes from the Latin word liber, meaning free. That part is easy to understand. Of course, what it means to be free is hard to pin down, and the methods for ensuring that governments allow their citizens to be free is equally muddy.

(I would add that Churchill, while solidly nationalistic to the point of being racist, was in many ways a social liberal when it came to the British people and remained so. As a Liberal colleague of Lloyd George he had introduced the wages councils, later to be abolished by Mrs Thatcher. One of his last contributions as war-time prime minister was to give RA Butler a free hand over the ground-breaking Education Act.)

Two years ago, Phillip Collins in the New Statesman added to the  confusion:

In the US, the ideas of John Locke and Baron de Montesquieu are doing battle with Donald Trump’s, and we should all be thankful that, thus far, those of Locke and Montesquieu are winning. 

Before asking who should speak for liberalism, we should note that liberalism is doing very well on its own account. Almost everyone is a liberal, although nobody likes the label. This is largely because no matter what sort of liberal you are, there is another sort of liberal that you are not. Any term that encompasses figures from Milton Friedman to Bernie Sanders, or from Nick Clegg to Daniel Hannan, runs the risk of including too much. For our present purposes, let us define a British liberal as someone who still believes that market capitalism delivers many more benefits than problems, who thinks that Britain is less prejudiced than it used to be and is glad of that, who is comfortable with recent levels of immigration, but who also believes that inequalities of power in Britain are too stark. It is immediately obvious from this description that, with credible leadership, this is a set of propositions that could command a majority of the British people. To this extent, the notion that Britain is somehow beyond liberalism is ridiculous.

He goes on:
It would be a disaster for the idea of liberalism for it to be bound up in the separate question of Britain’s membership of the EU. It is perfectly possible to be on opposing sides of that divide and remain a liberal, yet the demand for a second referendum is becoming, by default, the defining “liberal” cause.

Indeed, I know good Liberals who believe that the EU is an undemocratic organisation and that leaving it is a liberal act. For that, I blame the BBC.

No comments: