David Cameron used to call himself a liberal Conservative. In his recent multiculturalism speech, he promoted himself to something sexier: a ‘muscular liberal.’ For all the complaints about his efforts in Munich, I have yet to meet anyone who doesn’t claim that they, too, are a muscular liberal. But what exactly does it mean? The Prime Minister thinks it is someone who actively promotes liberal values of tolerance, freedom, and democracy.
I am not sure his government deserves such a flattering title. Theirs is a rather illiberal defence of liberal values—more cowardly than muscular. Most notably, Cameron and others have made it clear they will not share platforms with extremists. Late last year for example, Number 10 arm-twisted Baroness Warsi into refusing to speak at the Global Peace and Unity conference, which was attended by 50,000 Muslims. Last week’s Grant Review of university radicalization defended free speech on campus, to groans from the Tories, who favour ‘no platforming’ extremists at university. And Theresa May has repeatedly refused entry into the UK to radical Islamic figures, such as the influential Muslim scholar Dr Zakir Naik.
Cameron and his clique might argue that they flex their liberal muscles in a different way: standing up for liberalism by being strong on extremists. This is not an unreasonable defence. But it is certainly not liberal. The liberal welcomes—in fact encourages—dissent and disagreement. The ultimate muscular liberal, John Stuart Mill, believed that no idea was good enough to exist unopposed. If we shut down debate, argued Mill, everyone loses: “If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth. If wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by the collision with error.” Liberals need devil’s advocates.
In fact, Mill understated the case, because censoring radical ideas merely adds to their glamour and appeal. And in a 21st century democracy, such censorship has become almost impossible. Last week, the banned Dr Zakir Naik was beamed in from India to the Peace Channel, via the Oxford Students Union. He was now in the comfortable position of spewing nonsense from 5000 miles away, while accusing the British government of jettisoning its commitment to free speech.
Cameron’s chest beating is to compensate for the last government’s unwillingness to condemn extremism in Britain. Labour’s fear of upsetting and offending was the natural but enfeebling consequence of Blair’s strategy of ‘triangulation’ (i.e. pleasing as many people as much of the time as possible).
Cameron was right to be bolder. But the muscular liberal should not feverishly seek to deny extreme voices a platform, clamp down on free speech at universities, or refuse preachers entry to the UK. Instead the coalition should embrace free speech—and then take it into the lion’s den. Extremists, including groups like the English Defence League, must speak. The rest of us—government included—must be vigorous and aggressive in counterargument. Judging by the ever-diminishing art of rhetoric on Question Time, our politicians would benefit from a bit of tough intellectual sparring.
So, muscular liberals, what are you afraid of? Liberal values of tolerance, freedom and democracy can confidently square off against extremist nonsense. If we can’t be bothered to take on and win the argument about why these values are the best there are, perhaps we don’t deserve them.