"I want to say we need a liberalism worthy of the name. But before that, we need a name worthy of the concept"by Sam Leith / February 14, 2017 / Leave a comment
What’s a liberal? The question is coming to seem, as liberals like to say, “problematic.” Now being a liberal myself—a “wishy-washy liberal,” a “member of the metropolitan liberal elite”—I’m ever more concerned as to what the word means. It’s a political problem wrapped in a linguistic one.
My late grandfather, for instance, stood twice for parliament in the 1940s as an “old-style Liberal.” The old style, be it said, would not be completely recognisable to the new style. He loved Margaret Thatcher, abhorred homosexuals, claimed to admire Jewish people but resisted letting them into his golf club, and described himself as a “racialist, rather than a racist.” I don’t imagine he’d have seen eye to eye on all that much with Tim Farron.
Nick Clegg, a former occupant of Farron’s unenviable chair, recently wrote of a global pushback against liberalism:
“The rush to condemn liberalism is everywhere,” he complained. “‘Liberal’ has long been a term of abuse rather than praise in the US, especially so in the era of Tea Party Trumpism. Then Theresa May declared herself against ‘laissez-faire liberalism’. Shadow chancellor John McDonnell, like many on the Left, fulminates against the ‘neo-liberal straitjacket’ and the Brexit press never misses a chance to give ‘liberal luvvies’ a good kicking […] Perhaps the most alarming condemnation was the recent outburst from Alexander Dugin, Vladimir Putin’s ideological mentor: ‘We need a Nuremburg trial for liberalism, the last totalitarian political ideology.’”
If we’ve got to the stage where liberalism and totalitarianism are regarded as the same thing—the former, at least notionally, being in some way associated with freedom and the latter, um, not—isn’t the word in need of some sort of reboot? Indeed, if the former leader of the actual Liberal Democrats can conflate neoliberalism, laissez-faire liberalism and luvvie liberalism in the same paragraph, I’d suggest the term is in strong danger of becoming meaningless. Certainly, Clegg’s own list of liberal values—“individual rights, internationalism, democracy, fair treatment and equality before the law”—seems, to put it charitably, a little general.
As Clegg rightly points out, in a country where “liberty” comes right between “life” and “the pursuit of happiness” on the national shopping list, the word “liberal” is now uniformly used as a term of abuse.…