What Liberalism Means to Me

One thing half my twitter timeline seems absolutely certain of at the moment is that the real problem in the world today isn’t the fascists, so much as the liberals. These liberals are perpetuating white supremacy and anyone who doesn’t support Jeremy Corbyn is exactly as bad as Donald Trump and objectively part of the problem.

(For those who don’t follow Politics Twitter, there’s a *lot* of line-blurring going on at the moment as to where US political issues end and UK ones start, so a discussion about the cancellation of the electrification of the railway between Manchester and Leeds is liable to veer off into one about bringing down Confederate statues, largely because the latter is sexier.)

Now, blaming everything on liberals is their right, though personally if I was supporting someone who said we have to stop freedom of movement to stop foreigners coming over here taking our jobs, and who appointed as shadow equalities minister someone who wrote a column in the Sun saying that Pakistani men rape white women, I’d at least be considering my own side’s culpability in appeasing racists. But the odd thing is that most of the people they’re talking about are not liberals. They’re generally Labour moderates or soft-leftists, or even Tories.

See this, for example, from Laurie Penny (not singling Laurie out, it’s just one I saw today):

So stand up if you have ever dismissed the words and deeds of organized racists and violent misogynist movements as simply examples of freedom of speech and therefore by some arcane metric acceptable; stay standing if you have ever argued that the center-left needs to court anti-immigrant and anti-Black sentiment to win power.

That’s from a piece called “A Letter to my Liberal Friends“. And yet the people I know who have fought hardest against that kind of attitude are liberals. To quote a friend’s locked Twitter account “I follow a lot of big L Liberals and despite continued assertions otherwise, we pretty much all like the idea of punching Nazis. So if you could find another epithet for the guardianistas you’re on about (most of whom vote Labour, not Liberal), that’d be great.”

The problem with all this is that many on the left use “liberal” interchangeably with “centrist”, when the two are in fact very different. It is possible to be a moderate liberal *and* a centrist, just as it’s possible to be a moderate Tory or social democrat and be a centrist, but in the same way one wouldn’t define socialism by Ed Miliband standing in front of the Ed Stone, it makes no sense to define liberalism by its most moderate adherents.

So when I defend liberalism, I am *not* defending centrism. Which isn’t to say one can’t put together a perfectly good defence of centrism, but that I am a *radical* Liberal. Centrists can fight their own battles, or send drones to fight them for them (I’m kidding). I think many of the more vicious attacks on centrists at the moment are incorrect, but that’s not what this is about.

But be aware that I am NOT speaking for all liberals here, and I *am* more radical than many.

I know the political compass test is hugely flawed, but it’s useful in that it’s widely known. Here’s my own current score after taking the test a few minutes ago:

That is not an uncommon position *at all* for Liberals in the UK. Most of the Lib Dem activists I know get scores in that rough area. Not especially centrist or moderate. And certainly not very “let’s not make a fuss about oppression”.

So what *is* it that liberals believe, if it’s not “fascists have a point”? Well, I wouldn’t like to speak for anyone other than myself, but I’ve recently been rereading a few great Liberal writers — Mill, Popper, and so forth — and especially rereading Conrad Russell’s utterly masterful An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Liberalism, which traces the intellectual threads that have animated British Liberalism since the 17th century.

And while it’s not at all possible to summarise four hundred years of thought and the consequences of that in a few paragraphs, I think I can give the gist.

Liberalism is, in essence, about power, consent, and boundaries. It is about making sure that everyone has the chance to be the version of themselves that they want to be, and to live the life they want to live, without anyone else being able to stop them. It’s about removing all unjust power relations, whether they be imposed by society, government, or employers, and ensuring that any power one individual has over another is by consent, revokable, and the minimum necessary.

It’s about dismantling all oppressive systems of power, getting rid of all privilege, whether the inherited privilege of rich people owning houses and poor people having to pay rent to them (“why should we work hard and let the landlords take the best?” asks the party song), or the privilege of white over black, male over female, Christian over Muslim, British over foreign, abled over disabled, cis over trans, monogamous over poly, shareholder over employee, boomer over millenial, straight over LGB+.

It’s about decisions being made by the people they affect.

It’s about the harm principle: “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others” (Mill’s wording, I wouldn’t use “his”, but he was writing in the 19th century). Note that this does *not* mean the kind of fundamentalist free-speech frothing you get from some quarters — Nazi speech causes harm to others, and indeed that’s its entire intent, so it’s *entirely* acceptable to exercise power to prevent Nazi speech.

It’s about celebrating people’s identities, whatever those identities are, but also about ensuring people don’t have those identities imposed on them by others, whether legally or through social pressure. Whether someone wants to transition and have a different gender recognised by society, or they want to cross a national border and live somewhere else, or convert to a different religion, there should be no barriers in place to stop them doing so, and their decision should be celebrated as allowing them to live the life they are best suited to.

And it’s about taking those principles and constantly reexamining one’s ideas in light of new information, and applying the same principles to new situations. (Hence the joke “a liberal can become a conservative in twenty years, without changing a single idea!” — and most Lib Dems could name quite a few people they know who that one applies to…)

I’d urge anyone who wants to know what liberals actually think to read Russell’s book. The Amazon link above should work, but it’s out of print so copies may become unavailable. However Nick Barlow did an excellent series of blog posts reviewing the book’s major arguments, linked here. But also look at what liberals themselves are saying, people like Nick, or Jennie or Richard or Alix or Sarah or Richard or any of dozens of others.

You’ll find they disagree with me, and with each other, a lot of the time. But what you won’t find is any of them defending fascism as freedom of speech, or arguing for a stronger anti-immigrant stance to appease racists.

There are many words for those stances, but “liberal” is not one of them.

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7 Responses to What Liberalism Means to Me

  1. glyncoch says:

    This is a very theoretical piece.
    Theory has to be put into practice, and it is the practical aspects that worry many non-Liberals.
    I would think that my political focus score would be similar to yours, and I am a life long Liberal – , but I have been horrified by the rise in Food-bank use during the Coalition period, and yet the Liberal Ministers did not think that the fact that the Government had left so many people to starve (had the charities not organised food-banks) was a resigning matter.
    Were they following Liberal principles, or is my horror and disgust at the abandonment of so many, closer to Russell’s ideal? (OK I did fail to cure the problem, but I did write many times to Ministers, and to our local (sadly Tory) MP, and to members on whatever forums I could find. )
    If I am nearer to the Liberal ideal, what should we make of the fact that the Party has chosen a former Minister as leader?
    I suspect that voters may find it very difficult to see how our actions relate to our principles

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      I agree with most of that. I’d disagree with the statement that “the party has chosen a former minister” though. The party wasn’t given any choice in the matter, which I for one am frankly blood-boilingly furious about.

      However, I’m not talking about people who have entirely justified complaints about the coalition’s policies, I’m talking about people who say that liberalism itself is equivalent to fascism. Justifying that by the fact that the Lib Dem front bench often failed to live up to liberal ideals when in joint power with the Tories would be to my mind exactly as absurd as saying socialism must also be the equivalent of Nazism because of the many heinous acts of the Blair and Brown governments.

      I accept that there are socialists who have progressive goals and decent principles but believe that working in the hugely flawed institution that is the Labour Party will be the best way to accomplish those goals. I think they’re wrong, but I don’t think they’re evil or fascists.

      What I’m asking is that they extend the same courtesy to liberals who (in their view wrongly) believe that working in the hugely flawed institution that is the Liberal Democrats is the best way to accomplish our progressive goals. (And indeed to liberals who believe working in other parties or none is the best way, but who are still liberals).

  2. glyncoch says:

    Andrew, I agree with you absolutely

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  4. jenyockney says:

    I think it’d help if political compass coloured its quadrants in line with the broad political lumpings of debate in the UK like this.

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