All liberal societies have some common features, but each of them declines and dies in its own way. In Ireland, riots in Dublin inflamed by extremists have strengthened the resolve of the government to bring in draconian legislation limiting freedom of expression. In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders has won a dramatic victory that represents a rejection of the established political classes throughout Europe.
Just how liberal Britain will pass into history is uncertain, but it will be in a different trajectory. The UK is a hyper-liberal anomaly in an illiberal continent. Far-right parties are integral parts of the political system in Austria, Italy, Belgium, Spain, Poland, Hungary and Slovakia. The AfD commands more than 20 per cent of the vote in Germany. There is a growing prospect of mounting civil disorder in France and Marine Le Pen becoming president in 2027. The centre right is following the path of the centre left, and disappearing in many countries as a formative force in politics.
A move to the right is strongest among young university graduates with liberal views on sexuality and lifestyle. Like his precursor Pim Fortuyn, assassinated in 2002, Wilders is a partisan of same-sex marriage, gender equality, abortion choice and assisted dying. Many women and gay people vote for European far-right parties as they see these freedoms as threatened by the advance of Islamism. It is chiefly in the Anglosphere that large numbers of young people, schooled in progressive orthodoxies, support movements that openly despise them and their values.
In the pervasive power of hyper-liberal ideology throughout its institutions, Ireland resembles Britain more than continental Europe. Unlike earlier varieties that aimed to maintain a regime of toleration, this brand of liberalism aims at reshaping society in conformity with a particular idea of progress. If what were once core freedoms stand in the way, they must be curbed or eliminated.
Here the peculiar history of the Irish state, for generations an integralist Catholic regime not unlike António de Oliveira Salazar’s – which ruled Portugal for over 30 years – sets the country apart from other formerly liberal societies.
A Committee on Evil Literature was established in 1926 by the Irish Free State’s department of justice, and its work continued through a censorship board that prohibited publications on contraception and abortion until the Nineties. Leo Varadkar’s Criminal Justice (Incitement to Violence or Hatred and Hate Offences) Bill renews this tradition, giving his government unlimited authority to silence dissent from the ruling creed. “Hate” is left undefined, but merely possessing material deemed to promote it could result in a prison sentence. The goal is repression of beliefs and values judged intrinsically evil. Only the catechism has changed.
Politics in the Netherlands is much more fragmented. Despite toning down his intemperate attacks on Muslims, Wilders will find forming a lasting coalition difficult. But the centrism embodied in Mark Rutte’s 13-year premiership has plainly lost control, and the picture is the same throughout much of Europe. The borderless union that bewitched so many British liberals is mutating into a bloc of closed nation-states.
This is not solely a story of the far right. Nordic democracies – Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway and Iceland – are cooperating on schemes to deport irregular migrants. In Germany, Sahra Wagenknecht’s new party will combine strict immigration control with a traditional left agenda on redistribution and welfare (together with opposition to involvement in the war in Ukraine). Whether as part of a rightwards shift or an attempt to revive social democracy, Europe has turned its back on open borders.
One might think news of this metamorphosis would have percolated into British politics, but that would underestimate the inertia of our ruling class. The default position of all mainstream parties is propping up a flawed model – a combustible mixture of imported cheap labour with progressive identity politics. Keir Starmer has made Labour electable by giving his rhetoric a post-liberal turn. If he has a project beyond party management, however, it is to stabilise a failing liberal capitalism.
Sunak’s restoration of Cameroon spiv-patrician “conservatism” is a dead end as final as that of Rutte’s centrism in the Netherlands. But the defeat of the Tories also opens up the possibility of another of their party’s periodic metamorphoses. A slide to Faragism of the kind feared by so-called One Nation Tories is not the most likely outcome. The Reform UK party that Nigel Farage presides over may dent the Tory vote by focusing on immigration and anti-net-zero politics, but with an electorate yearning for shelter from upheaval, his unreconstructed free-market agenda is a fast track to irrelevance.
If Britain is to achieve a durable new settlement, it can only be by using the state to reconcile the anarchic energy of the market with social cohesion. Whether this is feasible after decades in which government has become weaker as it has grown larger is an open question. Yet, unless the state is renovated, liberal Britain will remain stuck in unending decline, unable even to die.
[See also: Progressives dream of tyranny]
This article appears in the 07 Dec 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special