Is "liberal" becoming a dirty word again?

Part I: Champions of the liberal agenda are scarcely to be found

In the 1988 US presidential election, George Bush senior relentlessly caricatured his Democrat opponent, Governor Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts, as a weak, out-of-touch, soft-touch liberal, a word he used to convey spinelessness, lack of conviction and a disregard for the safety of the people he would serve, most notably and disgracefully by raising the example of Willie Horton, a murderer who, released from a Massachusetts prison on furlough, failed to return and went on to commit assault, armed robbery and rape.

Only when his campaign was faltering did Dukakis, who had been pandering to the right in an effort to win over the conservative, blue-collar "Reagan Democrats", attempt to reclaim the term, declaring: "Yes, I'm a liberal in the tradition of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman and John Kennedy." But it was a late and desperate move. Nine days before the election was not the time to reinvest the word with pride. He and his team had allowed their opponents to make it a term of abuse.

Glancing at today's headlines, "liberal" (or at least what we traditionally understand liberal politics to mean) seems to have become a dirty word again. The Observer carries the news that not just a Republican senator but now a Republican contender in New York's gubernatorial race have said that gay people should not be allowed to teach in schools. In the ongoing mid-term elections, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, is according to another report "being portrayed as extreme, out-of-touch and elitist; a sort of uncaring liberal ogre forcing unwanted legislation down the throats of ordinary Americans. 'She is the featured devil this year,' said Republican pollster and political consultant Adam Probolsky."

The BBC's news website, meanwhile, leads with the story that the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has announced that attempts to build a multicultural society in her country have "utterly failed" and that 30 per cent of the German population think they are being "overrun by foreigners". Back in Britain, with even Ed Miliband admitting that immigration was a "massive issue" in this year's general election, there appears to be a cross-party consensus that, while individually many of them may be utterly delightful, thoroughly decent chaps etc, in general foreigners coming to stay in the country is a cause for grave concern.

Perhaps the l-word isn't being raised in all these cases. But sexual equality and welcoming those from different countries and cultures are two issues that liberals used to stand up for. While I would not try to argue that the stories above are all on the same page, they do seem to me to belong at least in the same chapter - the one about tolerance of people who are different. That most certainly is a liberal position, and one that appears to have too few unequivocally stout-hearted defenders.

The immigration question is one that makes me instantly think of my family tree, and ask: just which of my relatives and ancestors would you rather hadn't come here - or would you keep out today? Perhaps to those keen to shut the gates I am part of the problem, a modern incarnation of the "rootless cosmopolitan" with kith and kin hailing from Ireland in the West to the Malay Archipelago in the East (and many countries in between), as well as representing all three of the Abrahamic faiths. So take heed, instead, of the NS's former editor Peter Wilby, who not only has argued that "there is too much legitimate movement of people and goods across borders for any state to have much hope of restricting what is deemed to be illegitimate", but also made the moral case for immigration in the same article in 2007:

In principle, the left ought to favour it. Millions of people across the world - in Africa, eastern Europe, the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent - own nothing of marketable value except their labour. Why should they be prohibited from selling it freely?

No matter how much we give to Oxfam, the most effective way of helping poor people in developing countries is to welcome them here. The life expectancy of a Ugandan baby who moves to London rises instantly by some 45 years. Remittances from migrant workers are worth far more to many developing countries than foreign aid or investment, with the bonus that the money reaches ordinary families rather than corrupt rulers. In Moldova, remittances account for 38 per cent of the economy.

Most proposals for controlling immigration are based on keeping out the riff-raff, but exempting those with valuable skills in, say, medicine. This leaves poorer countries with the expense of educating professionals but none of the benefits. According to the World Bank, Grenada has to train 22 doctors to keep just one. This policy, if successful, would trap the global poor in countries that would become more economically and socially impoverished than ever.

Peter's is an isolated voice, though. And while gay rights may have advanced enormously in the UK, aided by persuasive and sensible advocates like Stonewall's Ben Summerskill, few are now prepared to argue for the idea of multiculturalism. As I have already written at length, I am going to close here for now. Later in the week, however, I will return to the question of whether the proponents of liberalism undermined their own case: by not speaking up as civilised tolerance degenerated into an amoral and indifferent libertarianism; and betraying their vision of a good, liberal society through their aversion to judgement.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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Hannan Fodder: This week, Daniel Hannan gets his excuses in early

I didn't do it. 

Since Daniel Hannan, a formerly obscure MEP, has emerged as the anointed intellectual of the Brexit elite, The Staggers is charting his ascendancy...

When I started this column, there were some nay-sayers talking Britain down by doubting that I was seriously going to write about Daniel Hannan every week. Surely no one could be that obsessed with the activities of one obscure MEP? And surely no politician could say enough ludicrous things to be worthy of such an obsession?

They were wrong, on both counts. Daniel and I are as one on this: Leave and Remain, working hand in glove to deliver on our shared national mission. There’s a lesson there for my fellow Remoaners, I’m sure.

Anyway. It’s week three, and just as I was worrying what I might write this week, Dan has ridden to the rescue by writing not one but two columns making the same argument – using, indeed, many of the exact same phrases (“not a club, but a protection racket”). Like all the most effective political campaigns, Dan has a message of the week.

First up, on Monday, there was this headline, in the conservative American journal, the Washington Examiner:

“Why Brexit should work out for everyone”

And yesterday, there was his column on Conservative Home:

“We will get a good deal – because rational self-interest will overcome the Eurocrats’ fury”

The message of the two columns is straightforward: cooler heads will prevail. Britain wants an amicable separation. The EU needs Britain’s military strength and budget contributions, and both sides want to keep the single market intact.

The Con Home piece makes the further argument that it’s only the Eurocrats who want to be hardline about this. National governments – who have to answer to actual electorates – will be more willing to negotiate.

And so, for all the bluster now, Theresa May and Donald Tusk will be skipping through a meadow, arm in arm, before the year is out.

Before we go any further, I have a confession: I found myself nodding along with some of this. Yes, of course it’s in nobody’s interests to create unnecessary enmity between Britain and the continent. Of course no one will want to crash the economy. Of course.

I’ve been told by friends on the centre-right that Hannan has a compelling, faintly hypnotic quality when he speaks and, in retrospect, this brief moment of finding myself half-agreeing with him scares the living shit out of me. So from this point on, I’d like everyone to keep an eye on me in case I start going weird, and to give me a sharp whack round the back of the head if you ever catch me starting a tweet with the word, “Friends-”.

Anyway. Shortly after reading things, reality began to dawn for me in a way it apparently hasn’t for Daniel Hannan, and I began cataloguing the ways in which his argument is stupid.

Problem number one: Remarkably for a man who’s been in the European Parliament for nearly two decades, he’s misunderstood the EU. He notes that “deeper integration can be more like a religious dogma than a political creed”, but entirely misses the reason for this. For many Europeans, especially those from countries which didn’t have as much fun in the Second World War as Britain did, the EU, for all its myriad flaws, is something to which they feel an emotional attachment: not their country, but not something entirely separate from it either.

Consequently, it’s neither a club, nor a “protection racket”: it’s more akin to a family. A rational and sensible Brexit will be difficult for the exact same reasons that so few divorcing couples rationally agree not to bother wasting money on lawyers: because the very act of leaving feels like a betrayal.

Or, to put it more concisely, courtesy of Buzzfeed’s Marie Le Conte:

Problem number two: even if everyone was to negotiate purely in terms of rational interest, our interests are not the same. The over-riding goal of German policy for decades has been to hold the EU together, even if that creates other problems. (Exhibit A: Greece.) So there’s at least a chance that the German leadership will genuinely see deterring more departures as more important than mutual prosperity or a good relationship with Britain.

And France, whose presidential candidates are lining up to give Britain a kicking, is mysteriously not mentioned anywhere in either of Daniel’s columns, presumably because doing so would undermine his argument.

So – the list of priorities Hannan describes may look rational from a British perspective. Unfortunately, though, the people on the other side of the negotiating table won’t have a British perspective.

Problem number three is this line from the Con Home piece:

“Might it truly be more interested in deterring states from leaving than in promoting the welfare of its peoples? If so, there surely can be no further doubt that we were right to opt out.”

If there any rhetorical technique more skin-crawlingly horrible, than, “Your response to my behaviour justifies my behaviour”?

I could go on, about how there’s no reason to think that Daniel’s relatively gentle vision of Brexit is shared by Nigel Farage, UKIP, or a significant number of those who voted Leave. Or about the polls which show that, far from the EU’s response to the referendum pushing more European nations towards the door, support for the union has actually spiked since the referendum – that Britain has become not a beacon of hope but a cautionary tale.

But I’m running out of words, and there’ll be other chances to explore such things. So instead I’m going to end on this:

Hannan’s argument – that only an irrational Europe would not deliver a good Brexit – is remarkably, parodically self-serving. It allows him to believe that, if Brexit goes horribly wrong, well, it must all be the fault of those inflexible Eurocrats, mustn’t it? It can’t possibly be because Brexit was a bad idea in the first place, or because liberal Leavers used nasty, populist ones to achieve their goals.

Read today, there are elements of Hannan’s columns that are compelling, even persuasive. From the perspective of 2020, I fear, they might simply read like one long explanation of why nothing that has happened since will have been his fault.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.