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…