LibLink: Richard Reeves – Have yourself a merry liberal Christmas

Over at the CentreForum blog, the liberal think-tank’s associate director, Richard Reeves, takes a look at the “communitarian dream” that is Christmas through a liberal lens:

Christmas combines in one package a number of elements that make us bristle. Religion, especially of an organised variety. Tradition for the sake of itself. The insanity of present buying. And semi-tyrannical familial expectations. … One liberal reaction to all this is to simply grin and bear it. … But bristling and bearing won’t really do. Liberal hostility to faith, family, community and tradition is well founded; they can all inhibit individual freedom. But the truth is that the communitarians are right to say that this is also where many of us draw our sense of identity. Social institutions provide the framework in which individuals are formed, and lead their lives.

Liberals, Richard argues, have to engage with life as it is lived, rather than try and tear it down to start afresh with our own preferred paradigm:

… liberalism cannot retreat to the defence of abstract institutions like the rule of law, markets and human rights. Liberalism needs a liberal culture, as well as liberal institutions. And culture is generated by families, communities, religions: in the thick of everyday life. … For [Jo Grimond], the great mistake of liberals in the middle of the century had been to “forget that man is a social animal” and veer off towards a stark individualism that was out of step with the founders of British liberalism. But unlike his Labour colleagues, he did not believe that the “state knows what it right and will pursue it and the individual will not … If we must have high-sounding phrases I prefer liberty and fraternity to equality”.

Like Grimond, he says, we must show how liberalism can be promoted through existing institutions which have meaning to people’s lives:

Grimond wrestled with an ancient liberal dilemma: how to support social and community institutions, while protecting the right of individuals to determine their own ends. These institutions can oppress. But they can also liberate. Liberal families will demonstrate gender equality in action and promote the opportunities of the next generation through successful parenting. .. Liberal faith groups will fight – like the Quakers and Reform Jews – for gay marriage and global justice. Liberal communities will deter crime, look our for each others’ kids and welcome individuals and families of every colour, faith and sexuality.

You can read Richard Reeves’ article in full here.

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  • Well, thanks a bundle, cursed website. A carefully-written comment has been lost because it wanted me to log in again.

    I find a lot to like in Richard Reeves’ comments. He has said some things that I consider both vacuous and dangerous, but not here. His point about Jo Grimond’s critique of Liberal individualism is particularly valuable. It’s Grimond’s sensitivity to communal effort and humans being social animals that I find tragically lacking in some economic liberals.

    However, like others I find Richard Reeves’ picture of the typical Liberal surprising. Plenty of us seem to belong to organised religious groups and to be involved in charities and community groups; and there used to be something called community politics. It’s not only Orange Book Liberals who can call on the party’s history, and a Liberal of Gladstone’s time would have been bewildered by the assumption that Liberals were anti-religion and anti-community co-operation. As late as the seventies it used to be said, “If you’re Cornish and Methodist you must be a Liberal”. Liberals founded the co-operative movement and while many were suspicious of trade unions to start with, they were converted when the realised the unions were a means of workers co-operating for mutual support and self-advancement, for example through education. Before that, I would argue that the party’s roots can be found in radicals like Levellers in Cromwellian times, and it is clear that with few exceptions they were inspired by religion though rebelling against traditional religious structures and believed in free co-operation.

  • Matthew Huntbach 2nd Jan '13 - 3:23pm

    Further to simon7banks and Stephen W, yes, while continental liberalism did have its roots in the anti-clerical movement, British liberalism had its roots in non-conformist Christianity. As a result, British liberalism had some of the support for local-level community organisation which on the continent tended to come out on the left-wing of Christian democracy. Richard Reeves again demonstrates his cloth-eared failure to understand the movement of which he aspires to be a guru when he starts off with the casual assumption that Liberal by their very nature would be opposed to all forms of religion.

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