Liberty Leading the People is a painting by Eugène Delacroix commemorates the 1830 French revolution

Liberalism—fighting for a beautiful, world-changing idea

Ian Dunt offers a whirlwind tour of free-thinking
November 10, 2020

Ian Dunt’s ambitious new book, How To Be a Liberal, takes the reader on a whirlwind tour of the historical movements, ideas and philosophies that make up this venerable political tradition. From René Descartes to John Stuart Mill and Isaiah Berlin, from the English Civil War to the American Revolution and modern globalisation, Dunt comments on what he argues are the key moments in the development of that “beautiful and world-changing idea, of individual freedom.”

At times, there appears to be a disconnect in the book between its ostensible subject matter—“liberalism”—and, for example, Dunt’s lengthy explanation of the origins of the 2008 banking crash and the subprime mortgage crisis. That sometimes makes for an incongruous mix. The most compelling chapters are those that step away from the chronological narrative, charting the dawn of the age of science through to Trump and Brexit, and analyse particular aspects of liberalism. The chapter on current battles over identity offers a brilliant overview of tricky turf for liberals.

A journalist who has come to prominence on Twitter as a staunch critic of Brexit, Dunt has delved into heavy academic theory and interpreted it in an accessible manner for the ordinary reader. He describes liberalism as “an enormous, boisterous, confounding bloody thing,” and writes passionately in its favour, as a counterweight to ignorance and populism. This book is required reading for anyone interested in politics and philosophy.

However, aspects of liberalism, including the prioritisation of the individual within our society and economy, get off too lightly. There is an inherent tension between individual freedom and social progress that Dunt does not fully confront. Still, his manifesto and call for action in the closing pages are as good a starting point as any for those who despair at the nationalist politics resurgent in much of the world.

How to Be a Liberal: The Story of Liberalism and the Fight for its Life by Ian Dunt (Canbury Press, £25)