Misunderstanding liberalism

Although Melanie Phillips still claims to be a liberal ("Why I am really a progressive", 14 February), her arguments conflict with liberalism's first principle.

At the heart of liberalism lies an optimistic view of human nature - a belief that men and women are intrinsically virtuous, altruistic and co-operative. By contrast, Phillips now shows a wary and pessimistic view of human nature - hence her defence of a restrictive moral code enforced by a sagacious establishment. As she points out, this belief finds some echo in the work of John Stuart Mill. Yet it is much more consonant with the fearful doctrines of Hobbes, Burke and Oakeshott - all of whom saw "freedom" as subordinate to, and contingent upon, public order and elite-based morality. Contra Phillips, the historic function of liberalism has been to check and question this belief, exposing its tendency towards tyranny and repression.

Phillips's critique of society may be valid, but it derives from classical conservatism rather than liberal progressivism. She should not be coy about admitting this: liberal optimism is often zapped by the cynicism/wisdom of middle age.

Richard Kelly

This article first appeared in the 21 February 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Just wait for the gold rush to end