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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.

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European Union and all the talk of a world beyond liberalism, nobody is seriously suggesting that any of this should be repealed.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.

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

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition

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Why Jeremy Corbyn’s evolution on Brexit matters for the Scottish Labour party

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard, an ideological ally of Corbyn, backs staying in the customs union. 

Evolution. A long, slow, almost imperceptible process driven by brutal competition in a desperate attempt to adapt to survive. An accurate description then by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, of Labour’s shifting, chimera of a Brexit policy. After an away day that didn’t decamp very far at all, there seems to have been a mutation in Labour’s policy on customs union. Even McDonnell, a long-term Eurosceptic, indicated that Labour may support Tory amendments when the report stages of the customs and trade bills are finally timetabled by the government (currently delayed) to remain in either “The” or “A” customs union.

This is a victory of sorts for Europhiles in the Shadow Cabinet like Emily Thornberry and Keir Starmer. But it is particularly a victory for Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard. A strong ally of Jeremy Corbyn who comes from the same Bennite tradition, Leonard broke cover last month to call for exactly such a change to policy on customs union.

Scotland has a swathe of marginal Labour-SNP seats. Its voters opted voted by a majority in every constituency to Remain. While the Scottish National Party has a tendency to trumpet this as evidence of exceptionalism – Scotland as a kind-of Rivendell to England’s xenophobic Mordor – it’s clear that a more Eurocentric, liberal hegemony dominates Scottish politics. Scotland’s population is also declining and it has greater need of inward labour through migration than England. It is for these reasons that the SNP has mounted a fierce assault on Labour’s ephemeral EU position.

At first glance, the need for Labour to shift its Brexit position is not as obvious as Remainers might have it. As the Liberal Democrat experience in last year’s general election demonstrates, if you want to choose opposing Brexit as your hill to die on… then die you well may. This was to some extent replicated in the recent Scottish Labour Leadership race. Anas Sarwar, the centrist challenger, lost after making Brexit an explicit dividing line between himself and the eventual winner, Leonard. The hope that a juggernaut of Remainer fury might coalesce as nationalist resentment did in 2015 turned out to be a dud. This is likely because for many Remainers, Europe is not as high on their list of concerns as other matters like the NHS crisis. They may, however, care about it however when the question is forced upon them.

And it very well might be forced. One day later this year, the shape of a deal on phase two of the negotiations will emerge and Parliament will have to vote, once and for all, to accept or reject a deal. This is both a test and an incredible political opportunity. Leonard, a Scottish Labour old-timer, believes a deal will be rejected and lead to a general election.

If Labour is to win such an election resulting from a parliamentary rejection of the Brexit deal, it will need many of those marginal seats in Scotland. The SNP is preparing by trying to box Labour in. Last month its Westminster representatives laid a trap. They invited Corbyn to take part in anti-Brexit talks of opposition parties he had no choice but to reject. In Holyrood, Nicola Sturgeon has been ripping into the same flank that Sarwar opened against Richard Leonard in the leadership contest, branding Labour’s Brexit position “feeble”. At the same time the Scottish government revealed a devastating impact assessment to accompany the negative forecasts leaked from the UK government. If Labour is leading a case against a “bad deal”,  it cannot afford to be seen to be SNP-lite.

The issue will likely come to a head at the Scottish Labour Conference early next month, since local constituency parties have already sent a number of pro-EU and single market motions to be debated there. They could be seen as a possible challenge to the leadership’s opposition to the single market or a second referendum. That is, If these motions make it to debate, unlike at national Labour Conference in 2017, where there seemed to be an organised attempt to prevent division.

When Leonard became leader, he stressed co-operation with the Westminster leadership. Still, unlike the dark “Branch Office” days of the recent past, Scottish Labour seems to be wielding some influence in the wider party again. And Scottish Labour figures will find allies down south. In January, Thornberry used a Fabian Society speech in Edinburgh, that Enlightenment city, to call for a dose of Scottish internationalism in foreign policy. With a twinkle in her eye, she fielded question after question about Brexit. “Ah…Brexit,” she joked. “I knew we’d get there eventually”. Such was Thornberry’s enthusiasm that she made the revealing aside that: “If I was not in the Leadership, then I’d probably be campaigning to remain in the European Union.”