Published in August 2014 issue of Prospect Magazine
Political philosophers may find Edmund Fawcett’s assertion that “liberty is the wrong place to begin” when telling the story of liberalism rather startling. They tend to be in the business of deriving conclusions about the legitimate activity of the state from a set of assumptions about liberty, consent and individual rights. In Fawcett’s account, by contrast, liberalism is not a settled doctrine arrived at through rational argument but a “political practice” with a history. As for liberty, it’s certainly something liberals believe in, Fawcett writes, but then so too do “most non-liberals.”
In place of the tattered standard of liberty, he puts four key ideas—tolerance of conflict, resistance to power, belief in progress and civic respect. And taking these as his guiding thread through a long history that starts in the first half of the 19th century, Fawcett is able to find family resemblances between thinkers and statesmen otherwise as diverse as François Guizot and William Gladstone, John Stuart Mill and Pierre Mendès France.
Fawcett tells his story with such brio that one is inclined to overlook the occasional oddity, such as his inclusion of the conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott in a chapter on the idea of “negative” liberty. Yet even here you can see his logic: for Oakeshott, conservatism was a “disposition” rather than a doctrine. The same might be said of Fawcett’s liberalism, which is “cautious,” to use his own word, rather than “expansive”—less interested in universal truths and the “meta…