Liberalism is under threat from the coalition, the economic crisis and inequalityby David Marquand / July 19, 2012 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2012 issue of Prospect Magazine
In many ways, Britain is a more tolerant society today than 50 years ago—but liberalism is under threat
The Oxford political theorist Michael Freeden has called Britain “a beacon of liberalism.” TS Eliot thought it was “rotten with liberalism.” Friedrich Hayek insisted that it had jettisoned the liberal values of its great days and taken the “road to serfdom.” As these diverse verdicts show, liberalism has many dimensions. Three stand out. The most obvious is the political liberalism embodied in the Liberal party from the 1860s to the 1980s and then in today’s Liberal Democrat party. But liberalism is also a creed; and, not least, it is a way of life as well. These three dimensions overlap in puzzling and sometimes contradictory ways, but on all fronts, Britain’s liberal tradition is under threat.
In its Victorian heyday, political liberalism was a rather leaky umbrella, covering a vast and disputatious caravanserai of the grand, the high-minded and the excluded. The party that embodied it was a motley agglomeration of Whig noblemen, small traders, dissenters, successful professionals, teetotallers, trade unionists, radical intellectuals and leasehold tenants, as well as the occasional business magnate. It was the child of an unlikely liaison between aristocratic Whigs and popular radicals. Yet William Gladstone, the iconic champion of political liberalism, started his parliamentary career as a high Tory and served his ministerial apprenticeship under Robert Peel, the chief architect of the Conservative party.
As he aged, Gladstone moved left. He came to believe that the masses were more virtuous than the classes, sought to mobilise mass support with a fervent public moralism and outraged the respectable in doing so. The great cause of his old age was Irish home rule: “devolution” in modern parlance. He pursued what he saw as justice for Ireland with the driven intensity of an Old Testament prophet scarifying the unregenerate. He led from the front at great personal cost, and appealed to the better angels of British natures. He fought to reconstruct the British state and identity on generous, pluralistic lines and, in doing so, challenged the fundamentally illiberal doctrine of absolute Westminster sovereignty. Had he won, the bloodletting that accompanied southern Ireland’s secession from the United Kingdom would never have taken place. All four nations of the Britannic isles might now be members of a federation in which multiple identities and shared sovereignty are taken for granted.