The Appropriation of Liberality by the Left

The mainstream media would do well to reflect more accurately the realities of contemporary British and European politics. A good start would be the dismantling of socialism’s bogus claim to liberality.

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Richard Cashman
On 22 September 2011 10:31

In their profiles, Facebook users were once given the option of declaring their political views. It was the same with other social media and I was always struck by the frequency amongst my own 20s age group of announcements by people that they were either ‘liberal’ or ‘very liberal’.

The chances are, too, that a broader sweep up and down Britain today would return a survey of much the same substance. Young people of voting age are, it seems, generally rather liberal.

And why not be?  Liberalism is an admirable political meme both in practice and aspiration, especially if taken at its most essential as a commitment to openness in ideas, speech and action, and assuming at least the possibility and desirability, if not inevitability, of progress.

Yet reduction to these simpler dimensions begs the question of why political comment in the Western mainstream media is imbued with the acceptance that liberality is the preserve of the Left – in other words, granting the Left a claim to these young voters.

Moreover, question many of these people more carefully about their views on the issues of the day and we find that, as often as not, they turn out to be either socialists masquerading as liberals or liberals planning to vote for illiberal parties. Either way, there is evidently widespread confusion about the ideological coinage of political parties and their contemporary practice.

In the Telegraph recently, Graeme Archer pointed out what many of us have wryly noticed for some time: that the Liberal Democrat Party is neither especially liberal nor even democratic. It was a point well made, but was essentially a restatement of the philosopher and economist, Friedrich Hayek’s, critique of socialism’s appropriation of the name liberal.

Writing in 1973, Hayek argued that no European party describing itself as liberal then had continued to adhere to the associated principles of liberalism’s emergence as a distinct political approach in the nineteenth century. In fact, most had quite clearly moved to socialist platforms in their policy making, where they remain today.

The problem with socialists holding themselves out as liberals is that socialist parties are notoriously illiberal.

To take the British example, there was nothing particularly liberal and much that was distinctly authoritarian in the previous Labour government’s curtailment of freedom of speech, bonanza of legislation that practically rendered irrelevant the general understanding that what the law does not prohibit it permits, and mildly tyrannical approach to power and control – the latter recently lambasted by Nick Clegg in his ‘backroom boys’ critique of Labour’s leadership.   

Europe wide, it is the imposition of a very definite value set – no matter how vegetarian in character – by an elite minority that jars with the idea of the Left as liberal.

The shrinkage in acceptable latitude of opinion has become so acute that we might soberly draw a parallel with Orwell’s world of newspeak – again, at its most basic, the parsing down of language into antonymous blocs of black and white to denote right and wrong; good and bad, with all shades and nuances in between gradually expunged.

The language of anti-discrimination is suffused with this dichotomising to the detriment of all rational debate. Yet still the socialists peddling it cling to the mantle of liberalism, ably abetted by the mainstream media whose job it is supposed to be to generate that debate.

And there is a reverse side to this irony, because it is, in fact, the old conservative parties of Europe that are best practicing and advancing liberalism’s tenets today. Free markets, free thinking and free speech are at the heart of modern conservatism - evolutionary reform with a Burkean belief in the worth of tradition.

The situation in the US, as Hayek noted, is slightly different, because the US constitution itself is an inherently liberal document, designed as it was against the constraints in European political life.

There is therefore less of a need to explain why Americans conservatively loyal to the constitution might plausibly hold themselves out as liberals. And it is in this way that libertarianism is able to parade as essentially a purer form of conservatism.

Of course, in some ways the Conservative Party in Britain has simply done what all wily political contenders do and move to snatch some of its opponent’s more winnable ground. Such was the key to New Labour’s middle class-focused success in 1997 and even the West’s victory over communism when most of its members adopted limited welfare apparatus early in the Cold War.

Over a longer period, the Conservative Party caught the zeitgeist of modernity and began to eulogise openness and progress.

Yet we must not ignore the very real practical reasons that the Liberal Democrats were able in May 2010 to go into coalition with the Conservatives but not Labour. Although it was anathema to many of the Liberal Democrat Party’s most ardent followers, and cannot be understood by them except in the basest terms of power lust, the simple truth is that there was more common ground between blue and yellow than red and yellow.

The mainstream media would do well to reflect more accurately the realities of contemporary British and European politics and discern more carefully those shades of detail that distinguish our political tradition and influence voters.

A good start would be the dismantling of socialism’s bogus claim to liberality. 

Richard Cashman is an Associate Fellow at the Henry Jackson Society and barrister of the Middle Temple, London

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