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3 April 2017updated 13 Sep 2021 5:09am

How did the word “liberal“ become a political insult?

No matter what sort of liberal you are, there is another sort of liberal that you are not.

By Philip Collins

Britain is a land made by liberals in which nobody wants to be called a liberal. A common practice in the US is slowly being imported into Britain. Liberal is becoming a political insult. Used in such a fashion, it has little or no determinate meaning. Instead, it denotes that the liberal in question is wealthy and, precisely because he or she is doing well, out of touch with people who are not. It’s a stupid usage, and it is time to speak for liberal Britain, or at least to ask who can do so.

The benefits of liberal political thought are everywhere in British life. The welfare state was devised by a liberal, William Beveridge. The animal spirits of market capitalism, which is a common cause in mainstream British politics, are an inheritance from liberals. The rightfully intolerant position in British law against prejudice on the grounds of gender, sexuality or personal origin was the work of a liberal home secretary, Roy Jenkins. For all the noise after the referendum on the European Union and all the talk of a world beyond liberalism, nobody is seriously suggesting that any of this should be repealed.

We can go further back and deeper. The institutions of a democracy, which Khalid Masood attacked in Westminster on 22 March and Keith Palmer died defending, are the bequest of liberal political thought. In the US, the ideas of John Locke and Baron de Montesquieu are doing battle with Donald Trump’s, and we should all be thankful that, thus far, those of Locke and Montesquieu are winning. Before asking who should speak for liberalism, we should note that liberalism is doing very well on its own account. Almost everyone is a liberal, although nobody likes the label.

This is largely because no matter what sort of liberal you are, there is another sort of liberal that you are not. Any term that encompasses figures from Milton Friedman to Bernie Sanders, or from Nick Clegg to Daniel Hannan, runs the risk of including too much. For our present purposes, let us define a British liberal as someone who still believes that market capitalism delivers many more benefits than problems, who thinks that Britain is less prejudiced than it used to be and is glad of that, who is comfortable with recent levels of immigration, but who also believes that inequalities of power in Britain are too stark. It is immediately obvious from this description that, with credible leadership, this is a set of propositions that could command a majority of the British people. To this extent, the notion that Britain is somehow beyond liberalism is ridiculous.

Liberals are not exactly helping themselves, however. The question of who should speak for liberals in Britain is preceded by the question of how liberals should speak. It would be a disaster for the idea of liberalism for it to be bound up in the separate question of Britain’s membership of the EU. It is perfectly possible to be on opposing sides of that divide and remain a liberal, yet the demand for a second referendum is becoming, by default, the defining “liberal” cause. It is past time to give up. Article 50 is being triggered and Britain is leaving the EU. Even if there is any remorse among the people for the decision that they took, that remorse will come too late.

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In due course, the old axiom of British politics that held that nobody is interested in the EU will be reinstated. In the meantime, there is no way of conducting a campaign to change the decision that does not look and sound like an arrogant attempt to thwart it. Liberals have to widen their conversation. What is the liberal view on education, health, welfare and crime? It is not a question that anyone is asking, let alone answering.

Who can conduct this liberal conversation in British politics? There is a party with “liberal” in its name, though not always in its philosophy. The Liberal Democrats are recovering from the bruising experience of coalition government, though this is, for
the moment, largely based on an unequivocal Remain position on which time is running out. It is an understandable short-term tactic but, as the salience of the issue declines over time, and as the Liberal Democrats define themselves as the pro-EU party, that will quicken the shrinking of liberal Britain, rather than ensure its recovery.

The Labour Party is hardly in a fit state to speak for anyone. On the few issues on which the Labour leadership takes a liberal line – such as immigration – the advocacy of Jeremy Corbyn does active harm. If he thinks it, then it must be a bad idea. The economic liberals in Labour are in retreat and the party is in great confusion about the EU, on which its vote is split. Whatever Corbyn may or may not say, there is a larger problem: nobody is listening to him.

The narrowness of the Liberal Democrats and the hopelessness of the Labour Party make the idea of a new party tempting. In a world of clean and rational philosophical divisions, British politics would contain a conservative party, a social-democratic party and a liberal party, whose members would run intellectually from the George Osborne wing of the Tories to the Tony Blair wing of Labour, stopping off along the way to pick up the Liberal Democrats.

There is, as yet, no appetite for such a venture, because none of those who should find it attractive can begin to see how it could work. The British electoral system makes it so difficult for a new party to break through, and the example of the SDP between 1981 and 1987 hangs over every discussion. Labour MPs are convinced that taking back control of their party is a more reliable route to success than starting afresh.

They are probably right and that downbeat assessment leads to the thought that liberal Britain will remain thinly spread between the three political parties. Theresa May’s tenure at the Home Office was hardly a display of liberal credentials, but there are still plenty of liberals – mostly but not exclusively of an economic stamp – in the Conservative Party. The Liberal Democrats can speak for the section of liberal Britain that is excessively angry about the departure from the EU. Meanwhile, Labour left-liberals have to continue their siege warfare in the boring committees of their party to regain control. If and when they do, there will once again be a voice on social justice questions that is worth hearing.

In political terms, liberals are citizens of anywhere and therefore citizens of nowhere. They are the Ishmaels of political life, the wandering spirits, an influence in all tribes but a dominant force in none. There is a consolation for this lost status: when the liberal wing of the Tory party is in charge, the Tories win handsomely, and the same is true for the Labour Party. Both parties have always disputed this, yet it has always been true. The consensus is that this analysis is no longer true. Liberals should sit tight and prove it wrong.

Philip Collins writes for the Times

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This article appears in the 29 Mar 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition