How modern liberals created Nigel Farage

Contemporary liberalism has disdained the loyalties that work as society’s glue. Its failure has allowed populism to dominate politics, and Nigel Farage is the big winner

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Clegg's brand of left-liberalism has opened the door to Farage
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David Goodhart
On 12 June 2014 21:11

I have just read a book so good I want to read it again. But I also want to read (or write) a more complete version of it that is less solicitous of its subject and more concerned with the failures of modern liberalism — as evidenced by the recent success of UKIP and other populists across Europe.

Edmund Fawcett's Liberalism: The Life of an Idea (Princeton, £24.95) is an attempt to give form and shape to the elusive political idea that has dominated the Western world for almost two centuries. And to someone like me, half-familiar with many of the ideas in it, it is an intellectual page-turner made even more readable by its personal, sometimes quirky, style and its seamless mix of philosophy, history, biography and history of ideas.

There is an unresolved tension that runs through the book between liberalism's restless refusal to be fixed and Fawcett's aim to do just that. But although there is something unavoidably arbitrary about the author's definitions he gets away with it, thanks in part to the subtlety and looseness of his framework. 

Liberalism is currently the most elastic and confusing word in the political lexicon. There are four uses in common circulation, at least partly in conflict with one another (and that does not include the dictionary definition of liberal as an adjective meaning generous or broad-minded).

First, there is probably the most technically correct, but least used, form of the word referring to the long history of political struggle to apply checks and balances to monarchical and propertied centres of power. Second, with the prefix economic it refers to the small-state, free-market economics of the 19th century revived in very different circumstances in the 1980s. Third, there is the "new" liberalism associated with state intervention to tame economic liberalism associated with the New Deal in the US. And finally there is the liberalism associated with the 1960s rights revolution and the gradual spread of the idea of equality of treatment and opportunity for those previously excluded from power — in particular women and ethnic minorities.

By chance the book is also structured around three "foursomes". Fawcett selects four ideas to constitute the fluid core of the liberal idea: the permanence of conflict in a society, distrust of power, faith in human progress and respect for people whatever they think and whoever they are.

He then discusses the evolution of the liberal idea in four countries (the US, Britain, France and Germany) in four different time periods: 1830 to 1880, emergence and rise to power; 1880 to 1945, coming to terms with democracy and almost imploding; 1945 to 1989, a second chance; and post-1989 reflections on contemporary liberalism. 

The four core ideas are held together by one bigger liberal intuition: liberalism is the cheerleader of restless change whereas its two main rivals — conservatism and socialism — desire more fixed social orders. This is a source of great strength for liberalism but also condemns it to travelling light, to going with the flow and to being — in the caricature — no more than the agreement to disagree. 

Fawcett tends to shy away from such judgments and claims to be merely identifying the contours of the idea rather than examining it. But his own bias is pretty clear. The son of a President of the European Commission for Human Rights, and himself a long-standing Economist journalist (where he was way to the left of the newspaper's free-market consensus), he does not subject his own left-liberal values to critical scrutiny. 

This is clear in the book's final section which fails to grapple with the mixed legacy of the Sixties or notice the emergence of a pervasive but barely visible liberal ideology that reflects the interests and lives of a mobile, graduate, upper professional elite (to which I will return). That Fawcett is part of that club is evident from his belief that the EU should become a more powerful organisation for a post-national world. 

Nevertheless, the book's impressive historical sweep introduced me to several key figures in the history of liberal thought I had been barely aware of, especially in the French tradition. (I also understand better why liberals and socialists are more hostile to each other in France than in Britain, thanks to the "reactionary liberalism" of Guizot, Thiers and others.)

Fawcett shows how long-running many liberal disputes are, between, for example, Humboldt's desire to mould better citizens and Constant's desire to let people alone, between positive and negative liberty, between the national and the universal. And he is also good at pointing up how many of the great left v. right conflicts of the modern world — Keynes v. Hayek, Hoover v. Roosevelt — are actually arguments within liberalism.

His bird's-eye view illuminates many unexpected things too:  the extent, for example, to which the 1914-1945 crisis was a liberal one — the First World War was in part the outcome of decisions by Liberal governments (including in Britain and France) and the economic crisis was a crisis of liberal economics.

And there is early-20th-century liberalism's continuing reservations about democracy and enthusiasm for colonialism. As Fawcett points out, they have the same root: "The liberal-imperial attitude to ‘backward' peoples was little different from their attitude to unlettered, propertyless voters in their own countries . . . The ‘capacity' of both needed bettering and it fell to liberals to conduct the reform."

The book is scattered with useful pen portraits of Samuel Smiles (who turns out to have been a Chartist supporter), Abraham Lincoln, David Lloyd George (he could not see a belt without wanting to hit below it, according to Margot Asquith), Leonard Hobhouse, Gustav Stresemann, Michael Oakeshott and Lyndon Johnson ("probably smarter than John Kennedy") to name just a random few. 

And I lost count of the striking observations: high wages are the Keynesian equivalent of universal suffrage; Europe is Roman law, Christian inwardness and German equality; in between pre-modern unity and modern diversity came a bridge of toleration; with modernity "suffocating coherence" vanished.

There were two surprising absences. First, there was hardly any mention of Rousseau's "general will" which fed into Jacobin and later Soviet notions of popular democracy, and against which liberal democracy has in part defined itself. Second, there was no mention of Europe's luck in developing a state, initially above all in England, that was neither too strong nor too weak. Another definition of liberalism might be the politics found in such fortunate places; places that have allowed the evolution from "sociocentric" societies, which subordinate the individual to group and tradition, to more individualistic ones.

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