When Liberalism isn’t liberal

By David

14 July 2010

The euphoria that has broken out amongst many liberal commentators following the formation of the new coalition government exposes the extent to which liberalism can often overlap quite comfortably and accommodate itself with the unambiguously right-wing. Witness Julian Glover’s casually callous dismissal of concerns over the government’s violently regressive economic policies, or Martin Kettle’s comical sycophancy towards David Cameron (picking up where he left off with the man Cameron cloned himself from, Tony Blair).

Why would liberals, who supposedly buy into progressive values, be so ready to support a Conservative led government? The welcome that liberals such as Henry Porter have given to the government’s apparent reforming approach to civil liberties gives us an opportunity to explore the answer to that question. Porter is very quick to lavish praise on the government for taking our “ancient liberties” seriously, (on the basis of very little of substance so far, one might add). It is here that the inadequacy of the modern liberal’s understanding of the very values he claims to believe in reveals itself most clearly.

Essentially, the classic error of modern liberalism is to ignore the role that economics has in defining people’s liberties.

Fundamental to the condition of poverty is a lack of liberty; a lack of freedom to participate in society and to fulfill one’s potential. Inequality of wealth is therefore inequality of freedom, which directly contradicts the basic principles of democracy.

When the poorest and most vulnerable in society are forced to pay the costs of a crisis created by the richest and most powerful, that is not simply unjust; it is also a form of authoritarianism (which civil libertarians claim to despise on principle).

The reason that the costs of the bankers greed is now being socialised, with the bill being handed to people on incapacity benefit, on housing benefit, disproportionally reliant on public services, and so on, is - in the final analysis - because bankers have more political power than poor people.

That is to say, power is centralised amongst concentrations of socio-economic power, liberty is allocated proportionately according to wealth, and “ancient rights” (to be able to feed and clothe your kids properly, or earn a decent living) are subject to the diktats of a narrow elite. The recent coalition budget is the purest expression of this.

The “emergency budget” made it abundantly clear that the right-wing retains its historic commitment to maintaining the privileges of the few at the expense of the livelihoods, and the liberties, of the many. The coalition’s approach to the economy makes it quite clear that it is committed to the authoritarianism of big business and the super-rich.

This is underlined by the substantive continuation of long-established foreign policies under the new administration. In the interests of maintaining an international system conducive to the interests of British economic elites, the government will continue to support and arm some of the most vicious tyrants and torturers in the world, in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, in Pakistan, and so on. The “ancient liberties” of the victims of those regimes will continue to be savagely violated, with the support of the coalition government upon whom Glover, Kettle, Porter et al are so keen to lavish their praise.

In short, civil-libertarians in particular and liberals more generally need to acknowledge the plain fact that the coalition government, which many of them are currently falling over themselves to offer their admiration for, has no principled commitment to liberty or genuinely liberal values whatsoever. In demonstrable fact, it holds the liberties of those people it deems to be irrelevant in undisguised contempt.

It is of course possible that the coalition’s current “review” of domestic civil liberties may result in some welcome advances in that particular area, correcting for New Labour’s odious record. This is what Porter seems to believe will happen (he speaks of keeping up the “pressure”, but his cheerleading tone doesn’t suggest that to be a likely prospect). However, it is also possible - I would guess, rather more possible - that the review is a device to kick all this into the long-grass, after which minimal tweaks to the law will be made to blunt criticism, while the substance is quietly retained. This is the view taken by more sensible liberals, such as Conor Gearty, professor of human rights law at the LSE.

But fundamentally, the idea that, overall, this government can be praised for its principled commitment to liberty is simply not credible. Instead, what is demonstrated by the surge of support from many liberals for the ConDem administration is that all too often, those in the political class who call themselves liberals have a decidedly incomplete understanding of what liberty actually means.

David Wearing is a PhD researcher in Political Science at the School of Public Policy, University College, London. He writes for the Guardian’s Comment Is Free website and is a co-editor of the New Left Project

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4 Comments on "When Liberalism isn’t liberal"

By Jamie, on 14 July 2010 - 19:44 |

Great post. More evidence of the Coalition’s commitment to liberty from Defence Equipment Minister Peter Luff, who is reported to have said:

“There will be a very, very, very heavy ministerial commitment to the process [of promoting arms exports]. There is a sense that in the past we were rather embarrassed about exporting defence products. There is no such embarrassment in this Government.”

As CAAT comments, ‘this brazen support for the arms trade by the new Coalition Government will result in even more suffering as a result of military sales and arms companies gaining ever greater influence over government.’

Oh, but I’m sure the Coalition is only planning to sell arms to regimes thoroughly committed to upholding ‘ancient liberties’, so nothing to worry about here.

By Ben Jeffrey, on 16 July 2010 - 02:42 |

Time will tell whether or not rolling back some of Labour’s more odious legislation happens in any meaningful way. I have some faith that the restoration of some of our liberties is more than a cynical attempt to appear reforming while continuing to be authoritarian. We’ll see.

The right to trial by jury, not to be spied on while off work when ill and particularly the expectation that you will not stopped and searched for no good reason (if this actually comes to pass) are all reforms that will benefit the poor more than the rich. There are other examples.

While I agree with your argument that inequality of wealth is inequality of freedom this seems to me to be a separate argument from the one about civil liberties, the restoration of which benefits us all.

You say that the modern liberal fails to understand the values he claims to believe in. Is it not possible in the case of your example of a modern liberal, Henry Porter, that he is simply celebrating the welcome developments on a cause he’s fought long and hard for? Does this really make him a “cheerleader”? I’d imagine Porter will be pretty vigilant on the issue and will speak out if the actions fail to match the rhetoric.

It’s also entirely plausible that Henry Porter agrees with your economic arguments, but is at the same time happy to welcome an apparent step away from the sinister authoritarianism of the last government.

By Jamie, on 17 July 2010 - 14:26 |

Ben: just so you know, David’s off on holiday, which is why he hasn’t responded to your comment.

I have no problem with someone like Porter celebrating apparent moves by the government to scale back New Labour’s authoritarianism (although I agree with Dave that it’s a bit premature, to put it mildly, to declare that the Home Secretary is “moving judiciously in favour of freedom”, for example). And to be fair to him, he probably didn’t write that awful headline. But as he points out, liberty requires “constant vigilance”, and I think Dave is right to point to a failure of many modern liberals on this point, who have an overly narrow understanding of what “liberty” means.

By David, on 04 August 2010 - 19:30 |

Ben - thanks for your response.

Porter’s view of ConDem economic policies - particularly the deficit fetishism - is clear from this particularly wretched article

I don’t dismiss the value of the work Porter’s done in keeping civil liberties high on the agenda while Labour was in office. That was important and necessary. But the way the man - like Glover and Kettle - is creaming himself over the new government is frankly absurd.

Put aside the economic aspects of liberty, which are vital and which Porter shows no understanding of. The fact that - as Jamie points out - arms sales to the world’s worst tyrannies are being stepped up by the ConDems demonstrates that they have no principled commitment to civil liberties. Given that, and the Tories’ solidly authoritarian past, you would expect Porter to watch their efforts on the domestic, civil liberties front with a critical, sceptical eye. In fact, Porter wound up his “Liberty Central” blog and declared victory within days of the coalition taking office.

Labour’s most telling critics on liberty have been those on its left - such as Diane Abbott - who, unlike many modern liberals, appreciate the full range of rights and freedoms that constitute the true nature of human liberty.

A little nugget from this week says it all. While the major banks announce large profits made as a direct result of being bailed out by public money - profits that will go untaxed to an obscene degree - Theresa May announced that the ConDem’s will be scrapping a scheme set up to protect women from domestic violence, on grounds of cost. I wonder if this was what the Guardian’s Julian Glover was referring to when, after the Queen’s Speech, he hailed a “liberal revolution” for “individual rights”.

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