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17 October 2010updated 27 Sep 2015 2:11am

Is “liberal“ becoming a dirty word again?

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

By Sholto Byrnes

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.

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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.