W.H. Auden, sitting in a New York bar on ‘1 September 1939,’ was angry. He was frightened as well, as many around the world were on that fateful day of the illegal Nazi Invasion of Poland. Having been chastised as a member of the liberal intellectual elite, a label he found repellent, Auden had fled England for America. As he looked around the bar at the sullen faces, he lamented that:
Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them of
Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.
Unfortunately, Auden’s polemic against an effete and defeatist intellectual gentry still rings true about many supposedly liberal people around the world.
I am a liberal in all of what I see of the word. That means I value individual responsibility and freedom and universal representative democracy. It means I value taking to heart the essential ideals of freedom of speech and expression. It means I believe in separation of Church and State, free market capitalism, internationalism and equality of opportunity.
It means that I affirm Henry Campbell-Bannerman’s universal message, that Liberalism is ‘the acknowledgement… that men are best governed who govern themselves; that the general sense of mankind, if left alone, will make for righteousness.’ This call for radical reform, social progress and freedom is one of the most popular political credos in the world.
The term ‘liberal’ today is often far removed from the concept of liberalism I have described. It is regularly used by those on the right to describe those who actually go against the core principles of liberalism. It is used as part of the discourse of ‘culture wars’ which propel some to the heights of their intellectual game and most to the nadir. While right-wing commentators display their obvious ire at anything they deem to be politically correct, the lobby labelled as liberal give them plenty of ammunition.
While issues made out to be binary divide left from right, old from young, the over-sensitive from the bigoted, the real meaning of what liberalism is is being ignored. It is the ability to speak one’s mind, and not be restricted by ‘safe spaces’ or blocked off by aggressive ‘freedom fighters’ who proclaim their version of emancipation, encompassing only their monotonous viewpoint. Liberalism is not the acceptance of dangerous theocracies or despotic regimes, it promotes a secular society with the freedom to practice any religion or none.
Liberalism is the political movement which celebrates and promotes the social freedoms that parts of our world enjoy today, along with the widespread economic success of capitalism that has alleviated so much of of our world’s poverty. There is still significant work to be done in these areas, and standing around debating about the latest ‘triggerer’ with armchair commentators in Britain is not going to help the peoples of South Sudan, Venezuela or Yemen, fighting for their freedom.
And that is another loss to be mourned in modern liberal movements. Their radical spirit has dissipated into a debauched collection of student protests and tedious Twitter spats. The reforming and energetic ‘68 and ‘89 generations pushed through and encouraged the reforms of the Civil Rights Movement in America and the fall of the Berlin Wall respectively.
What results do we see from the student movements today? A dogged insistence the disappearance of offence and therefore any form of proper debate. A movement that cries for peace, love and freedom and yet is silent when the dictators of their allegiance commit crimes they would otherwise decry. The picture before us is bleak. The road ahead for reclaiming liberalism is treacherous and difficult.
In many ways, a veiled form of liberalism has ruled the British establishment and therefore the rest of government for over a century. The post-war consensus was built upon largely Keynesian economics, which changed in the late 70s when Margaret Thatcher reached for power and saved the British economy from the zealous trade unions. The opposition of neoliberalism to the economic model espoused by Clement Attlee has brought large prosperity and security to the British financial sector, which, despite the consequences of Brexit, is healthy.
The ideas popularised by figures such as Adam Smith, Frederic Bastiat and David Ricardo are in operation throughout the economy, but without recognition. There is very little coverage in school curricula of these liberal advances. A resurgence in the celebration of the values of the Enlightenment and their social impacts is needed for the ideals of the radical centrists who transformed the world is vital in restoring trust in liberal democracy.
George Orwell once said that Britain is a ‘family with the wrong members in control.’ Well, today those relatives don’t even seem to know what is they stand for. Liberalism has been lamentably corrupted, almost beyond recognition by those who wish to either use or slander its doctrine to their own ends. We must restore it to a more true state or else we risk losing its impacts and importance in all.