The power of progress: Paul Delaroche’s The Conquerors of the Bastille Before the Hôtel de Ville in 1789 (1839). Photo: Musée de la Ville de Paris, Musée du Petit-Palais, France/Bridgeman Images
Show Hide image

How liberalism lost its way

What happened to a defining world-view? David Marquand examines the religious roots of an ideology.

Inventing the Individual: the Origins of Western Liberalism 
Larry Siedentop
Allen Lane, 448pp, £20

Liberalism: the Life of an Idea 
Edmund Fawcett
Princeton University Press, 488pp, £24.95

All over the Atlantic world, political liberalism has fallen on evil days. In the US, the creed of Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D Roosevelt and John F Kennedy has become a sin that dare not speak its name. In last year’s German election, the Free Democratic Party – the embodiment of the country’s liberal tradition and the second party in coalition governments for most of the postwar period – won less than 5 per cent of the popular vote and is no longer represented in the federal parliament. In the 2011 Canadian election, the Liberal Party – for decades a dominant force – suffered a catastrophic defeat. The Radical Party of the Left, today the closest approximation to a liberal party in France, is little more than a pimple on the body politic. In Britain, the Liberal Democrats, heirs of the Liberal Party of Lloyd George, Keynes and Beveridge, have clambered into bed with a market-fundamentalist Conservative Party and endured a huge slump in the opinion polls.

As Edmund Fawcett and Larry Siedentop show in different ways, the travails of political liberalism reflect a profound crisis of the liberal world-view. To put it crudely, it is no longer clear what liberalism means. Its core value is freedom – freedom for unconstrained individuals to choose for themselves. Freedom, however, is a notoriously slippery word. Freedom as a source of human flourishing is one thing; freedom to ignore the common good and exploit others is quite another. Positive freedom, or freedom “to”, is not the same as negative freedom, or freedom “from”. The great Liberal government of 1905-15 curbed the negative freedom of the privileged in order to enhance the positive freedom of the dispossessed.

Much the same is true of choice and the individual. Choices can be bad as well as good. There is a world of difference between individuals of flesh and blood, shaped by lived traditions and shared histories, and the abstract, egocentric, disembodied individual posited by the neoliberal orthodoxy of our day. Yet today’s liberals seem strangely reluctant to distinguish between good and bad choices, to make clear how they envisage the individual, or to define the proper relationship between individual freedom and the public good.

At an early stage in the French Revolution, the great Whig statesman and thinker Edmund Burke declared that he was for the “splendid flame of liberty” but not for “solitary, unconnected, individual, selfish liberty, as if every man were to regulate the whole of his conduct by his own will”. The liberty he sought, he added in a pregnant phrase, was “social freedom”.

In a similar vein, 70 years later, John Stuart Mill argued that individuality – the quality that made human beings “noble” – could grow only through arduous activity in the public sphere. Fawcett’s workmanlike history of the bundle of ideas and practices that liberals have espoused since the Spanish liberales coined the term after the Napoleonic wars is an excellent guide to liberalism’s rise and fall.

In its 19th-century heyday, as Fawcett’s history reminds us, liberalism was optimistic, passionate and imbued with strongly held moral convictions. Without using the terms, its proponents were for Burke’s social freedom and for Mill’s vision of human nobility. In France, radicals such as Clemenceau took on the army, an exceptionally reactionary Catholic Church and an ugly wave of anti-Semitism in defence of the unjustly imprisoned Captain Dreyfus, an Alsatian Jew by origin. In Britain, Gladstone made his extraordinary transformation from High Tory to Liberal messiah because he came to believe that the masses were nobler and more virtuous than the classes.

Twenty-first-century liberalism is a pale shadow of its 19th-century ancestor. Albeit with some honourable exceptions, the passion and optimism have gone. Latter-day Clemenceaus and Gladstones are nowhere to be seen. Burke’s vision of social freedom has virtually disappeared from the liberal repertoire; few now echo Mill’s call for strenuous self-improvement. For the most part, today’s liberals see individuals as free-floating, history-less and untethered social atoms, quite unlike the rooted, flesh-and-blood individuals presupposed by their counterparts of yesteryear. The most obvious result is that, all too often, the robust moral convictions of the past have withered into a querulous self-righteousness, strongly tinged with moral relativism.

Why should this be? Siedentop’s study is best seen as an attempt to answer that question. It is a magnificent work of intellectual, psychological and spiritual history. It is hard to decide which is more remarkable: the breadth of learning displayed on almost every page, the infectious enthusiasm that suffuses the whole book, the riveting originality of the central argument or the emotional power and force with which it is deployed.

Siedentop takes us on a 2,000-year journey that starts with the almost inconceivably remote city states of the ancient world and ends with the Renaissance. In the course of this journey, he explodes many (perhaps even most) of the preconceptions that run through the public culture of our day – and that I took for granted before reading his book. Inventing the Individual is not an exercise in dry-as-dust antiquarianism, still less in pop-historical fun and games. Siedentop’s aim has a breathtaking grandeur about it: to persuade us to ask ourselves who we are and where we are going by showing us where we have come from. A challenging epilogue suggests that the answers are not very flattering.

The most insidious preconception on which Siedentop trains his guns derives from the imperious rationalism of the 18th-century Enlightenment. For the likes of Voltaire, Diderot, David Hume and Edward Gibbon, the long centuries between the fall of the western Roman empire and the Renaissance were a slough of superstition, ignorance, credulity, clericalism and bigotry. “Monk” and “monkish” were terms of abuse; the theological speculation that had occupied many of the best minds in Europe in the Middle Ages was dismissed as hot air. Not all Enlightenment thinkers echoed Voltaire’s call to “écraser l’infâme” (“crush the infamous one” – that is, the Church) but the mood it encapsulated was widely shared and it was expressed with bloodthirsty savagery in the later stages of the French Revolution.

Yet the Enlightenment’s picture of the past was not all black. Before the darkness of the Middle Ages, Enlightenment thinkers imagined, the pre-Christian ancient world had spawned glittering examples of rationality and freedom. The statues depicting 18th-century statesmen in Roman togas and the classical themes that figured in the paintings of Jacques-Louis David, the iconic French painter during the revolutionary period, all testified to the lure of pre-Christian antiquity. Enlightenment thinkers saw the Middle Ages as a break in humanity’s upward progress – but only as break, not as a dead end. As they envisioned it, the task for their generation was to resume the journey that the ancients had begun.

Siedentop believes that the essence of this mindset still survives, to ruinous effect. Thanks to it, he argues, our understanding of modernity is deeply flawed. We see ourselves as children of the Enlightenment and, by way of the Enlightenment, as great-grandchildren of ancient Greece and Rome. We talk of the Judaeo-Christian tradition and fail to realise that in certain crucially important respects Judaism and Christianity are polar opposites. Above all, we misunderstand the true nature of the ancient world and of the slow but profound revolution in its social and ideological assumptions that the rise of Christianity procured. The result is that we have lost touch with the moral traditions that lie beneath the surface of our culture – that we no longer know who we are and therefore can’t help to shape what Siedentop calls “the conversation of mankind”.

In truth, as Siedentop shows, the ancient world was not in the least like the Enlightenment’s understanding of it. Far from nurturing freedom, whether positive or negative, its cultures were shot through with hereditary inequalities of status, opportunity and expectation. Social roles were rigidly prescribed and, in effect, inescapable. Escape would be self-exclusion from the city and that was a kind of living death.

Patriarchy was fundamental to the social order. This was ordained by the household gods; it was the patriarch’s duty to serve them and he derived his authority from this role. The city was an association of families, each with its own cult, not of individuals. The family heads, who were by definition men, were priests as well as citizens. Women, slaves and the foreign-born, on the other hand, were not citizens and could not aspire to citizenship; the public realm of argument and debate that set the city’s course was not for them. In Athens, arguably the ancient world’s most famous city state, full citizens comprised only about a tenth of the population.

The next stage in Siedentop’s argument is the most explosive. He shows that the gravedigger of antiquity’s implacable nexus of practices and beliefs was precisely the Christian revelation that Enlightenment thinkers scorned. What the historical Jesus believed and taught is uncertain, though he patently thought that the world was about to end and that the marginalised poor had at least as good a chance of entering the Kingdom of Heaven as the rich and powerful. The real significance of his life lay in his death and its aftermath. For his followers, as Siedentop puts it, Christ’s crucifixion and the Resurrection that they believed had followed it were “a moral earthquake”, a “dramatic intervention in history”. For St Paul, the true architect of the Christian religion, that intervention was inherently egalitarian and individualistic. The fatherhood of God implied the brotherhood of man and (an even more revolutionary implication) the sisterhood of woman.

Irrespective of their social roles, all individuals – slaves as well as the free, women as well as men – were equal in the sight of God. The inegalitarian integument of ritual, heredity and prescription that had held the ancient city together was replaced by an egalitarian union of all in the “body of Christ”. God’s grace was available to everyone, sinners included: souls were equal.

In a striking passage, Siedentop suggests that the scenes of Christ’s Passion and Resurrection painted on the walls of medieval churches “testified that the immortal soul, rather than the immortal family, was the primary constituent of reality”. The doctrine of the incarnation lay at the heart of Christian egalitarianism. The deity was no longer remote and awe-inspiring, like the Jewish Yahweh was. God was within us and “us” meant all of us.

To followers of this world-view, the elaborate, God-given taboos that governed daily life among the Jewish people were not just pointless; they were also offensive. God was no longer tribal. He was universal. The multiple, local gods of pagan Greece and Rome – and, for that matter, the similarly multiple gods of the barbarian invaders who overwhelmed the increasingly decrepit western Roman empire in the 5th century – were swallowed up in that universality.

The “moral earthquake” that Siedentop depicts with elegant economy was a long-drawn-out affair. The egalitarian individualism that lay at the heart of the Christian revelation did not prevail all at once. (Indeed, it has not prevailed completely even now: inequalities proliferate and patriarchy survives.) Pagan habits and customs also survived, sometimes in Christian garb. The festival of the winter solstice was reprogrammed as Christmas; the practice of praying to local saints and their relics mimicked local pagan cults.

After the emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in the 4th century, bishops were often drawn from the ranks of urban notables, reminiscent of the notables who had dominated city life in pagan times. Later, bishops and abbots were apt to see themselves as secular lords, occasionally even leading armies into battle. Sometimes, Church offices were bought and sold; in Rome, the papacy became “the plaything of aristocratic families”. A huge gulf separated the princes of the Church, such as powerful bishops and the abbots of rich monasteries, from ordinary laymen.

Yet, all this said, Siedentop’s “moral earthquake” transformed mentalities and sentiments – the deep-seated habits of the heart that make cultures what they are – across Europe. In the hands of medieval canon lawyers, by definition churchmen, the static, pre-Christian notion of natural law gave birth to the still evolving (and still revolutionary) notion of natural rights. The centralisation of the medieval Church, carried out by a series of reforming lawyer popes, helped to spawn the nation state. The creation of universities, in many ways medieval Europe’s most astonishing achievement, led to the emergence of “a new social role, the intellectual”, and created protected spaces for transformative thinking, argument and debate.

Appropriately, John Wycliffe, the “morning star” of the English Reformation, was for a time master of Balliol College, Oxford. By the early 15th century, philosophers and canon lawyers, Siedentop writes, had established the “roots of liberalism”:

. . . belief in a fundamental equality of status as the proper basis for a legal system; belief that enforcing moral conduct is a contradiction in terms; a defence of individual liberty, through the assertion of fundamental or “natural” rights; and, finally, the conclusion that only a representative form of government is appropriate for a society resting on the assumption of moral equality. 

These roots were planted and watered by churchmen, imbued with the egalitarian moral intuitions that had been fundamental to the Christian message since the days of St Paul. The great question is whether these intuitions can flourish in the secular societies of the 21st century.

Siedentop thinks that they can but only if  we are willing to recognise that secularism and Christianity share a common ancestry: that they can and should be allies instead of enemies. Failing that, liberalism will have no defences against the double threat it now faces: a morally empty utilitarianism on the one hand and an asocial individualism on the other. To put it at its lowest, its capacity to meet that challenge is far from self-evident. 

David Marquand’s latest book is “Mammon’s Kingdom: an Essay on Britain, Now” (Allen Lane, £20)

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Britain in meltdown

Picture: David Parkin
Show Hide image

The humbling of Theresa May

The Prime Minister has lost all authority. The Tories will remove her as soon as they feel the time is right.

Being politicians of unsentimental, ruthless realism, the Conservatives did not linger in the grief stage of their collective disaster after the general election. Disbelief, too, was commendably brief.

Currently, their priority is to impose some sort of order on themselves. This is the necessary prelude to the wholesale change that most see as the next phase in their attempt at recovery, which they all know is essential to their career prospects – and believe is vital to a country whose alternative prime minister is Jeremy Corbyn.

For that reason, talk of Theresa May enduring as Prime Minister until the end of the Brexit negotiations in two years’ time is the preserve of just a few wishful thinkers. Some sort of calm is being established but the party is far from settled or united; there is a widespread conviction that it cannot be so under the present leader.

Elements of the great change have been executed, as Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, May’s former advisers, will testify.

However, this is only beginning, as shown by the debate in the media about how long May can survive in Downing Street. There is dissatisfaction about elements of her recent reshuffle, but it is quieted because few believe that some of the more contentious appointments or reappointments will last more than a matter of months. Her colleagues are also alarmed by the meal she has made of doing what was supposed to be a straightforward deal with the DUP.

The climate in the party at the moment is one in which everything – jobs, policies and, of course, the leadership – will soon be up for grabs. Debate over “hard” and “soft” Brexits is illusory: anyone who wants to be Conservative leader will need to respect the view of the party in the country, which is that Britain must leave the single market and the customs union to regain control of trade policy and borders. That is one reason why the prospects of David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, are being talked up.

Some of May’s MPs, for all their hard-mindedness about the future, speak of feeling “poleaxed” since the general election. Even before the result changed everything, there was dismay about the bad national campaign; but that, it was felt, could be discussed in a leisurely post-mortem.

Now, instead, it has undermined faith in May’s leadership and credibility. “The social care disaster was key to our defeat,” an MP told me. “It wasn’t just that the policy damaged our core vote, it was the amateurishness of the U-turn.” A more seasoned colleague noted that “it was the first election I’ve fought where we succeeded in pissing off every section of our core vote”.

The limited ministerial reshuffle was inevitable given May’s lack of authority, and summed up her untenability beyond the short term. Most of her few important changes were deeply ill judged: notably the sacking of the skills and apprenticeships minister Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow in Essex, and a rare Tory with a direct line to the working class; and the Brexit minister David Jones, whose job had hardly begun and whose boss, Davis, was not consulted.

George Bridges, another Brexit minister, who resigned, apparently did so because he felt May had undermined the government’s position in the negotiations so badly, by failing to win the election comprehensively, that he could not face going on.

Much has been made of how Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, was marginalised and briefed against, yet reappointed. Patrick McLoughlin, the party chairman, suffered similarly. Conservative Central Office was largely shut out from the catastrophic campaign, though no one got round to briefing against McLoughlin, who kept his head down – unheard-of conduct by a party chairman in an election.

As a political force, Central Office is for now more or less impotent. It has lost the knack of arguing the case for Conservatism. MPs are increasingly worried that their party is so introspective that it just can’t deal with the way Corbyn is spinning his defeat. “An ugly mood is growing,” one said, “because militant leftism is going unchallenged.” That cannot change until May has gone and the party machine is revived and re-inspired.

***

Nobody in the party wants a general election: but most want a leadership election, and minds are concentrated on how to achieve the latter without precipitating the former. One angry and disillusioned ex-minister told me that “if there were an obvious candidate she’d be shitting herself. But most of us have realised Boris is a wanker, DD isn’t a great communicator and is a bit up himself, Hammond has no charisma, and Amber [Rudd] has a majority of 346.”

On Monday a group of senior ex-ministers met at Westminster to discuss next steps. It was agreed that, with the Brexit talks under way, the most important thing in the interests of restoring order was securing the vote on the Queen’s Speech. Then, May having done her duty and steadied the proverbial ship, the party would manage her dignified and calm evacuation from Downing Street.

Those who agree on this do not always agree on the timing. However, few can make the leap of imagination required to see her addressing the party conference in October, unless to say “Thank you and goodnight” and to initiate a leadership contest. Many would like her out long before then. The only reason they don’t want it this side of securing the Queen’s Speech is that the result, as one put it, would be “chaos”, with a leadership contest resembling “a circular firing squad”.

That metaphor is popular among Tories these days. Others use it to describe the ­apportioning of blame after the election. As well as Timothy and Hill, Lynton Crosby has sustained severe wounds that may prevent the Tories from automatically requesting his services again.

Following the Brexit referendum and Zac Goldsmith’s nasty campaign for the London mayoralty, Crosby has acquired the habit of losing. And then there was Ben Gummer, blamed not only for the social care debacle, but also for upsetting fishermen with a vaguely couched fisheries policy. These failings are becoming ancient history – and the future, not the past, is now the urgent matter – yet some Conservatives still seethe about them despite trying to move on.

“I haven’t heard anyone say she should stay – except Damian Green,” a former minister observed, referring to the new First Secretary of State. Green was at Oxford with May and seems to have earned his job because he is one of her rare friends in high politics. He is regarded as sharing her general lack of conviction.

Older activists recall how the party, in 1974, clung loyally to Ted Heath after he lost one election, and even after he lost a second. Now, deference is over. Most Tory activists, appalled by the handling of the campaign, want change. They would, however, like a contest: annoyed at not having been consulted last time, they intend not to be left silent again.

That view is largely reflected at Westminster, though a few MPs believe a coronation wouldn’t be a problem, “as we don’t want a public examination of the entrails for weeks on end when we need to be shown to be running the country effectively”. Most MPs disagree with that, seeing where a coronation got them last time.

With the summer recess coming up, at least the public’s attention would not be on Westminster if the contest took place mostly during that time: hence the feeling that, once the Queen’s Speech is dealt with, May should announce her intention to leave, in order to have a successor in place before the conference season. It is then up to the party to design a timetable that compresses the hustings between the final two candidates into as short a time as compatible with the democratic process, to get the new leader in place swiftly.

Some letters requesting a contest are said to have reached Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers. One MP told me with great authority that there were eight; another, with equal certainty, said 12. Forty-eight are needed to trigger the procedure. However, engineering such a contest is not how most Tories would like to proceed. “She has had an international humiliation,” a former cabinet minister said, “and it is transparently ghastly for her. Then came the [Grenfell Tower] fire. There is no sense our rubbing it in. I suspect she knows she has to go. We admire her for staying around and clearing up the mess in a way Cameron didn’t. But she is a stopgap.”

MPs believe, with some justification, that the last thing most voters want is another general election, so caution is paramount. None doubts that the best outcome for all concerned would be for May to leave without being pushed.

Her tin-eared response to the Grenfell disaster shocked colleagues with its amateurishness and disconnection. “I’m sure she’s very upset by Grenfell,” someone who has known her since Oxford said. “But she is incapable of showing empathy. She has no bridge to the rest of the world other than Philip.” Another, referring to the controversial remark that torpedoed Andrea Leadsom’s leadership ambitions last year, said: “You would get shot for saying it, but not having had children hasn’t helped her when it comes to relating to people. Leadsom was right.”

***

May was quicker off the mark on Monday, issuing a statement condemning the appalling attack at Finsbury Park Mosque swiftly after it occurred, and going there shortly afterwards to meet community leaders. No one could fault her assurance that Muslims must enjoy the same protection under the law as everyone else, or the speed and sincerity with which it was made. She is learning what leadership entails, but too late.

Her administration has become unlucky. This happened to John Major, but, as in his case, the bad luck is partly down to bad decisions; and the bad luck that comes out of the blue simply piles in on top of everything else. Grenfell Tower, lethal and heartbreaking for its victims and their families, was merely more bad luck for the Prime Minister because of her slow-witted response and failure – presumably because shorn of her closest advisers – to do the right thing, and to do it quickly.

But then it turned out that her new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, had in his previous incarnation as a housing minister received a report on improving fire safety in tower blocks and done nothing about it. That is either more bad luck, or it shows May has dismal judgement in the quality of people she appoints to her close circle. Form suggests the latter.

The idea aired last weekend, that May had “ten days to prove herself”, was a minority view. For most of her colleagues it is too late. It was typical of Boris Johnson’s dwindling band of cheerleaders that they should broadcast a story supporting Davis as an “interim” leader: “interim” until Johnson’s credibility has recovered sufficiently for him to have another pop at the job he covets so much.

They also sought to create the impression that Davis is on manoeuvres, which he resolutely is not. Davis has been around long enough to know that if he wants to succeed May – and his friends believe he does – he cannot be seen to do anything to destabilise her further. It is a lesson lost on Johnson’s camp, whose tactics have damaged their man even more than he was already.

Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary and a close ally of Davis, told the Guardian: “. . . it is simply untrue that he is doing anything other
than focusing on his incredibly important brief and giving loyal support to the Prime Minister. Anyone suggesting otherwise is freelancing.” That summed up the contempt Davis’s camp has for Johnson, and it will last long beyond any leadership race.

There is a sense that, in the present febrile climate, whoever is the next leader must be highly experienced. Davis qualifies; so does Hammond, who before his present job was foreign secretary and defence secretary, and who has belatedly displayed a mind of his own since May was hobbled. Hugo Swire, a minister of state under Hammond in the Foreign Office, said of him: “He’s got bottom. He was very good to work for. He is an homme sérieux. I liked him very much and he would calm things down.”

But, as yet, there is no contest. Calls for calm have prevailed, not least thanks to Graham Brady’s steady stewardship of the 1922 Committee, and his success in convincing the more hot-headed of his colleagues to hold their fire. Yet MPs say the 1922 is not what it was 20 years ago: ministers have become used to taking it less seriously.

However, many MPs expect Brady, at a time of their choosing, to go to Downing Street and deliver the poison pill to Theresa May if she is slow to go. Some who know her fear she might take no notice. If she were to play it that way, her end would be unpleasant. As the old saying goes, there is the easy way, and there is the hard way. Remarkably few of her colleagues want to go the hard way but, like everything else in the Tory party at the moment, that could change.

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

0800 7318496