Fade to Gray

The Two Faces of Liberalism

John Gray <em>Polity Press, 168pp, £35</em>

ISBN 0745622585

Some of the most liberal people I know are also some of the most intolerant. John Gray explores this commonplace in philosophical language. Many of us have suffered at the hands of those who are so tolerant that they shout down your opinion or feeling as intolerant and unacceptable. They insist that we tolerate gays and greens - which I do happily - but shout that we should not tolerate Conservatives, or even conservatives. Liberals often have problems tolerating those with views they do not like.

True toleration has to be extended widely. You are truly tolerant only if you put up with views and ways of life that you find distasteful or worse. Anyone can tolerate views and people he or she likes. Liberal democracy finds it difficult to tolerate everyone and every view, because some people and some views are hostile to liberal democracy itself. Should liberal democracy tolerate communists or fascists who want to pull down the system and replace it with something they think will be fairer and stronger? The usual liberal answer is that we should tolerate them as long as they live by the rule of law and the conventions of our democratic system. If they start throwing bombs, or exercising intolerance of other people's views, then they have to be dealt with by the authorities.

Gray wrestles with this paradox in a different way. He asserts that there are two types of liberalism. There is the type that Locke argued for: the progressive evolution of civil society until all shared the premise that toleration was right. He suggests that Locke and others were not true liberals, in so far as they sought an ideal based "on a rational consensus on the best way of life". The second type of liberalism, which Gray sees in the work of Hobbes, is based on accepting that there are many different ways of life, and that people have reason to want to live differently. True liberalism, to Gray, is based on accepting modus vivendi, the idea that different societies and people can be organised in different ways for different reasons, and should be tolerated.

While Gray says that "no useful purpose is served by seeking to separate 'false' from 'true' liberalism", he is, in practice, doing exactly that. He does not really believe that Locke's liberalism is ultimately liberal. Gray tells us it is, in fact, like any other system that thinks there is a correct or moral answer and system. It is not tolerant of people and views that refuse to share the basic premises of liberalism.

Gray's attempt to found true liberalism on modus vivendi has its problems. It is easy to be tolerant of societies that live by other standards and values if they do not impinge too much on our own. A western liberal democracy can live quite easily alongside a Muslim fundamentalist or communist state and be very understanding of it, as long as that Muslim or communist state is peace-loving, or if the western democracy has a preponderance of firepower to act as a deterrent. If, however, the Muslim or communist state is committed to aggressive expansion, or is trying to subvert liberal democracy, toleration may be overwhelmed by fear.

Gray acknowledges this problem in terms of individual lifestyles within a liberal state. Although he is preaching modus vivendi, he states: "We can judge the life of a crack addict to be poorer than both the carer in the leprosarium and a skilful bon viveur without being able to rank the carer's against the hedonist's." This statement seems to undermine much of the rest of the case. If we can be sure of this value judgement, then the liberal state is invited to be intolerant of crack addicts - as liberal democracies often are. If we can rank the worthiness of one life to this extent, why can't we rank all lives on a scale of worthiness? Once we have accepted any ranking, we have deviated from true toleration, from complete modus vivendi.

In his philosophical wanderings, Gray has discovered that "conservatism has ceased to be a coherent social philosophy. It is a conceit of conservative thought that we can reduce moral dilemmas by pursuing the intimations of tradition. Which tradition?" This sweeping statement could apply more appropriately to Gray's book. Conservatives eschew logical models: we rely on the guidance of the past to inform our journey to the future. We root our views on social and political matters in the circumstances of the time and place, seeking improvements and changes where we think they are warranted and can build on tradition. John Gray seems to have lost any remaining sympathy with those who try to work with the weft and warp of society.

John Redwood is Conservative MP for Wokingham, Berkshire