In his new book Liberalism: The Life of an Idea, the writer and journalist Edmund Fawcett makes the rather startling claim that “liberty is the wrong place to begin” when telling the story of liberalism. This will no doubt strike some readers as eccentric, especially if they’re political philosophers working self-consciously in the “liberal” tradition and are used to deriving conclusions about the legitimate activity of the state from a set of assumptions about liberty, consent and individual rights. But Fawcett’s book is not a work of political philosophy. And for him, liberalism is not a set of timeless principles susceptible of rational justification but a “modern practice of politics” with a distinctive history. It’s this history that is the focus of his book.
“”The idea that liberalism can be exhausted or fully accounted for by liberal philosophy in a set of timeless principles seems to me a mistake,” Fawcett told me when I met him at his home in London recently. “They are part of liberalism, but I don’t think we can really understand liberalism as a political practice if we think of it in purely academic, philosophical terms.”