Supporters of an open society can be found on all sides of British politics. But they are declining in number, and on the retreatby Richard Reeves / July 23, 2009 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2009 issue of Prospect Magazine
Tony Blair suggested three years ago that the big distinction in politics was between open societies and those which were closed. How far Blair meant to endorse Karl Popper’s view in The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945) is not clear—Blair, for his many virtues, is no philosopher. But in the early years of New Labour the direction was open markets, a more open democracy and a freer, more liberal society.
Blair removed the difference between the age of consent for gay and straight sex, introduced civil partnerships and tougher anti-discrimination laws. Popperian or not, he shared a liberal conviction that people should be able to construct lives according to their own notion of the good. Labour also presided over the biggest wave of immigration ever, adding more than a million to Britain’s population. And a halting start was made to open up democracy, with what historian Tristram Hunt calls “a magnificent devolution of power” to Scotland, Wales and London. There are entries on the other side of the ledger, too: centralisation in Whitehall; civil liberties damaged by Asbos and detention without trial; and the retreat from thorough-going reform of parliament or rejuvenation of tired party politics. But, on the whole, Blair justifiably claimed to have made Britain a more open nation.
Such openness matters, Popper thought, because the search for a utopian social end-point was doomed. Historicism, the view shared by Marx and Plato that societies evolved to an ideal state, led only to totalitarianism. Nostalgia for a golden age was just political cover: “We can never return to the alleged innocence and beauty of the closed society,” Popper concluded. “If we wish to remain human, then there is only one way, the way into the open society. We must go on into the unknown, the uncertain and the insecure, using what reason we have to plan as well as we can.”
But Popperian liberals are now in short supply. Or at least, they are keeping their heads down…