Liberal Values?

Nick Clegg was grief-stricken as he delivered his valedictory statement. It was both personal and burningly political. His leadership had been bullwhipped, the party roundly thrashed; voter fears and grievances had been encouraged and exploited, ‘liberalism’ was waning, possibly expiring here and across Europe. A worthy speech, I thought, genuine, and, as ever, well enunciated. But his views on liberalism are, frankly, bunkum. 

This weekend, Tories and their many journalist chums, gloated and sneered at ‘leftie liberals’ who do not understand the needs of ‘the people’. So are the Tory leaders and their supporters illiberal? No, No, they would say. Old and new conservatives fought ( and would fight) wars for liberty, for the right to live as one chooses, not to have an interfering, domineering state. These days they even tolerate gays, don’t you know.

Liberalism is like a beige scarf which can be worn with any colour or outfit, to make different, sometimes contradictory statements. I put it to you readers, that one version of liberalism, ardently supported by the LibDems, gave the Tories their victory. That far from dying away, it has been renewed in this savage election, polished up, and sold to millions. Britons were told over and over that under the Tories they would have fewer rules and laws stopping or tempering what they wish to do. The exit from the EU that so many seem to want comes from this desire. No more planning permission, no more industrial tribunals, no more political correctness, no more anti-discrimination laws, no more human rights laws, down with health and safety. What bliss awaits them. The rewards for all this deregulation would be piles of cash. Think of Mr Cameron, pumped up and full of puff, promising low taxes, more money in all our pockets, so we can spend, spend, spend. Mr Osborne, similarly, enabling pensioners to cash in their pensions instead of buying annuities, so they too can spend, spend,  spend. In Toryland, there is no such thing as society and citizenship has become obsolete. Economic liberalism casts Britons as consumers, money-makers or losers and scroungers. 

One online business dictionary provides this useful definition of liberalism: ‘ A concept that government should not try to control prices, rents or wages, but instead let open competition and the forces of supply and demand create an equilibrium between them, that benefits the vast majority of citizens’. So when the hapless Ed Miliband announced rent controls and mansion taxes, it was spun by the Tories into an assault on essential, nay, defining British rights and liberties. Liberty has tremendous resonance for most Britons. It is their identity, a deep folk memory of the Magna Carta, resistance to tyranny, the small person against the big state. Modern Tories cleverly use liberty and liberalism to justify unbridled capitalism:Go aspire, make profits, the government will not bother you, it is your birthright in this free and liberal nation. 

Some aspects of social liberalism are also alive and doing rather too well. Society has become more permissive. Sex toys and underwear are sold on high streets and nobody cares or minds. Commuters read Fifty Shades of Grey without any embarrassment and the objectification of females is now seen as smart, cool advertising. Young feminists are skilfully using online networks to protest and stop such adverts. In the last fortnight they got a company to withdraw pernicious billboards showing the perfect ‘beach body’ . Those enraged by the campaign accused the feminists of Stalinist tactics and crimes against a liberal society. Voters who abandoned Labour and the LibDems included millions of such economic and social liberals.

These same liberals, I reckon, are wary of an entirely different brand of liberals who emphasise the greater good and campaign to protect equality and civil rights, a tradition that arguably goes back to the anti-slavery movement and is based on sound political and  philosophical theories. This liberalism is an optimistic creed. It enhances human generosity, virtues and tolerance, tempers Darwinian behaviours, expects the state to protect vulnerable citizens and to respect autonomy. Our anti-discrimination laws would not have been passed were it not for that greatest of liberal politicians, Roy Jenkins, a committed, true egalitarian, an ardent European and human rights champion.  That benign, corrective, caring, sharing liberalism may indeed be dying. If that was Clegg’s warning, it wasn’t clear and, in the end not persuasive. He is partly responsible for what has happened.

Edmund Burke – philosopher of ethical conservatism- warned that when the fabric of a state is ripped, society soon gets disconnected ‘into the dust and powder of individuality’. Selfishness has been embedded now in British society; the rich live by their own rules while the poor are reduced to subhuman status. The revolution started by Thatcher was completed by the coalition. LibDem figures who had been in government, viciously attacked Tory policies during the election, policies that were patently unfair. We saw this turnabout and laughed bitterly. Vince Cable confessed it bothered him that new regulations and charges made it much harder for workers to take up cases against bad employers. Why did he not speak up earlier? Nick Clegg similarly could have but didn’t leave the government when Tories decreed the state could spy on us all, have secret trials and stick innocent migrants into detention centres. Liberalism for Nick and Co was a flexi loan.

This election showed something precious has ( ITLA PREV WD) gone or may be going from our now atomised and volatile nation. Not liberalism- some species of which are overactive- but social democracy which had moral purpose and was, for decades, the basis of the state’s obligations to the citizen. It tamed the market, strove for equality and a just society. Even Adam Smith, guru of the free market, saw the need to offset self interest with benevolent instinct which would ‘produce among mankind that harmony of sentiments and passions in which consists their whole race and propriety’.  There is no harmony of sentiments any more. Divided we are and divided we will fall.

The Independent, 11/5/2015