Editorial: Liberal crisis

Bronwen Maddox introduces the latest issue of Prospect
August 24, 2011

It has not been a good month for liberals. Britain’s riots brought calls for tougher policing and challenged tolerance of immigration. The stock markets’ plunge, almost three years after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, provoked new criticism of “unbridled” capitalism. The tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks has prompted familiar claims that civil liberties must continue to give way to security concerns—not least, to the CCTV cameras which were of such use in the riots.

Those questions run through this issue of Prospect. John Kay describes the confusion on left and right about regulating the financial markets. The national debts of the countries of the “rich world” (The Age of Debt) have made it hard for them to urge their values on others. Martin Innes argues that two centuries have shown how hard it is to build an effective police force that is not overbearing or corrupt. Philip Zelikow, in an new chapter of the 9/11 Commission report, argues that liberal democracies are now confused about when to sacrifice their citizens’ freedom.

In a sense, the defence of liberal values seems unnecessary. They extend to the core of Britain’s politics regardless of party: a commitment to individual rights, to the eradication of poverty, and to the pursuit of a fairer, freer society. That current has run so deep for so long that liberals often take for granted that they have won the battle of ideas. But the defence still needs making. These freedoms have been good for us: for our wealth, sure, but for our imagination and humanity as well. The opening of markets has transformed many poor countries. Globalisation has brought an exchange of ideas and an explosion of opportunity. You do not need to invoke the drama of the Arab Spring to assert that people want freedom.

Those principles are often challenged by parody: the claim that liberalism means freedom without limits. Yet the great liberal tradition in political thought acknowledged the need for the state to limit individual rights. Martin Innes puts his recommendation for modern policing in terms almost straight from Locke: that the state should have a monopoly on the use of force but its powers should be subject to the consent of the people.

As the conference season kicks off, these issues shape the most bitter party debates. The riots brought out David Cameron’s natural conservatism. Labour has failed to rebut the charge that it is cowed by its fear of the financial industry; it is also, as Mark Malloch Brown suggests, unsure whether it really wants local communities, or individuals, to have more freedom. Even the Lib Dems seem lost on liberal questions: in a mess on markets, and muted since 9/11 on civil liberties. They may be on the outside flank of British politics, but they represent in their tradition—and name—the ideas at its heart. They should defend them.