Political notes

Supporters of an open society can be found on all sides of British politics. But they are declining in number, and on the retreat
July 22, 2009

Tony Blair suggested three years ago that the big distinction in politics was between open societies and those which were closed. How far Blair meant to endorse Karl Popper's view in The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945) is not clear—Blair, for his many virtues, is no philosopher. But in the early years of New Labour the direction was open markets, a more open democracy and a freer, more liberal society.

Blair removed the difference between the age of consent for gay and straight sex, introduced civil partnerships and tougher anti-discrimination laws. Popperian or not, he shared a liberal conviction that people should be able to construct lives according to their own notion of the good. Labour also presided over the biggest wave of immigration ever, adding more than a million to Britain's population. And a halting start was made to open up democracy, with what historian Tristram Hunt calls "a magnificent devolution of power" to Scotland, Wales and London. There are entries on the other side of the ledger, too: centralisation in Whitehall; civil liberties damaged by Asbos and detention without trial; and the retreat from thorough-going reform of parliament or rejuvenation of tired party politics. But, on the whole, Blair justifiably claimed to have made Britain a more open nation.

Such openness matters, Popper thought, because the search for a utopian social end-point was doomed. Historicism, the view shared by Marx and Plato that societies evolved to an ideal state, led only to totalitarianism. Nostalgia for a golden age was just political cover: "We can never return to the alleged innocence and beauty of the closed society," Popper concluded. "If we wish to remain human, then there is only one way, the way into the open society. We must go on into the unknown, the uncertain and the insecure, using what reason we have to plan as well as we can."

But Popperian liberals are now in short supply. Or at least, they are keeping their heads down. Arguments for free trade, for a liberal approach to immigration, for social liberalism in general, are difficult to make. The presumption in favour of free international markets has been tested by the collapse in the financial system. Immigration, which has been a net economic benefit to Britain, is accused of eroding the consensus that sustains a welfare state and putting pressure on public services—especially in housing.

In mid-July the communitarian theorist Amitai Etzioni was in London, chatting to admiring politicians. He was following on the heels of Robert Putnam, an American political scientist, who performed an influential autopsy of community in his essay "Bowling Alone" (1995). If you think you've heard these names before, you're right. Etzioni and Putnam were big in the mid-1990s. Perhaps dying administrations give off an odour that attracts communitarian critics, replaying their old hits like James Taylor at the O2. But the intellectual who should be dominating political debate is Amartya Sen, and his new book, The Idea of Justice. In Sen's view there can be neither perfectly just institutions (the aim of thinkers like John Rawls and Robert Nozick) nor the perfectly fair rules sought by many communitarians. Instead the animating force of social justice should be the expansion of capability, or "the power to do things." Progress then becomes the messy business of giving more freedom to more people—from the abolition of slavery to the laws against sex discrimination.

But today's politics blows wind in the sails of those who fear an open approach. The government spun the line "local homes for local people" around its unsuccessful relaunch attempt, reflecting the injustice felt by British-born low-income people at the apparent preference given to immigrants. Never mind evidence from the Equality and Human Rights Commission that this preference is largely a fiction; raw politics was the name of the game.

There are some liberals, of course. James Purnell, who is launching a project called "open left" at Demos, is one. Alan Milburn, who announced his retirement in June, is another. On the other side Michael Gove and David Willetts both recognise that "progressive conservatism" must not retreat to 1950s social values. There are even a handful in the Liberal Democrats. But open society advocates are on the defensive. A survey this month revealed that new Tory candidates are far to the right of Cameron—part of an illiberal right who seize on their leader's "broken Britain" rhetoric to rail against divorce, gay rights and women's economic power. The illiberal left, meanwhile, use the financial crisis to attack open markets, individual choice and public service reform. Many of the more considered Labour liberals are either standing down, or likely to lose their seats.

The retreat from openness does not depend on the next election result: the politics of insularity, familiarity and paternalism are seductive to all parties. But openness is a demanding philosophy, needing nerveless political leadership. Last year Cameron gave his MPs a summer reading list. This year Popper should be on the list.