A dirty word


There has been an upswing in certain sections of the press of the condemnation of a particular demographic: the ‘liberal, metropolitan elite’.

When did ‘liberal’ become a dirty word? Why is it being used as a word to mock, or incite loathing? It is defined by the OED as a willingness “to respect or accept behaviour or opinions different to one’s own…” and as someone who is “open to new ideas“. That all sounds great. Perfectly reasonable.

It’s concerning, then, that the word is being twisted to suit an agenda that runs on stoking fear and hatred. When it becomes disgraceful to show empathy with those who are suffering, just because those people are not from your country of origin, that is scary. When people who have gained positions of responsibility are told that it is because they are part of the ‘system’ (alright, sometimes that’s correct!) rather than because of their own merits and work ethic, that’s disturbing. And when a politics of scaremongering, scapegoating and ‘other-ing’ becomes acceptable, and electable, rather than a politics of understanding, rationality and inclusivity, then I worry for the future of the world.

Politics aside, I would say that most of my friends, acquaintances and family members would identify with the OED definition of the term ‘liberal’; believing in equality, and willing to respect other people’s views, opinions, lifestyle choices, religions, etc.

So when, and why, did having a liberal outlook become something that others believe we ought to be ashamed of? When did a pluralistic, optimistic, inclusive agenda become something to be vilified, and an insular, nationalistic, blinkered view become the accepted norm? That people who hold liberal views are somehow not ‘normal’, or have led privileged or sheltered lives, or don’t understand how ‘ordinary’ people live, and think, and work, and worry.

It’s wrong, it’s deeply troubling, and something that needs to be countered at every turn.


* Dani Tougher joined the Liberal Democrats in 2016 and blogs at More Than Nothing.

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  • Unfortunately it is two things, Americanization (misusing the word Liberal) and the behaviour of many who self-identify as Liberal.

    As the US use of the term to refer to anything they deem to be “left” and as the many in the US left have become more authoritarian (i.e illiberal) and intolerant of others they seem to have warped the perception of the term here too. It is the same with the word literally which now appears most commonly used to mean figuratively, which has the horrible side effect of making communication less clear.

    Then there is the behaviour of liberals here where there have been more and more authoritarian.

    If anyone calls me or my views “metropolitan liberal elite” I tend to say that my views are metropolitan liberal, though thanks for the compliment but I don’t think I qualify as being “elite” but I think aspiration to excellence is a good idea.

  • Psi is right to highlight ” the behaviour of liberals” becoming more and more authoritarian as a factor. Why is our first reaction to so many issues to tax, ban, restrict or marginalise behaviours that only offend – rather than damage or impose upon the freedoms of – ourselves?

  • Richard Easter 10th Nov '16 - 10:32am

    I suspect because the views of liberals are perceived to be a mixture of anti-patriotism, heavily supportive of identity politics and “positive” discrimination, elitist and snooty, pro foreign wars – but anti military, pro corporations, pro offshoring / privatisation / outsourcing, pro mass immigration, anti-nation state, anti-trade union, soft on crime, anti-religion, anti-traditon, pro IMF / WTO / UN / EU Commission, pro de-industrialisation, pro NAFTA / TTP / TTIP, pro banker, pro globalisation, and pro market liberalisation.

    Obviously the above is a massive generalisation and in many cases complete untrue or misunderstood, but whether it is Brexiters, Trump voters or Corbyn and Sanders voters, some or all of the positions above are extremely unpopular with vast tracts of the electorate.

    There are a large number of voters who generally take the opposite views to Vince Cable / Nick Clegg / Danny Alexander on most issues – they are anti EU, socially conservative, strongly pro military, pro nation state, pro civic nationalism, pro socialist / nation state solutions rather than market provision in terms of health, education, railways, postal service and defence, anti globalisation and anti bankers.

  • I suspect it’s because those on the left hate ‘neoliberal’ economics and think ‘liberal’ means ‘right-wing’
    Those on the right hate social liberalism and think ‘liberal’ means political correctness and luvvies and banning Christmas.
    Beyond that, the phrase is a handy cliché/meme to repeat to take the ‘moral’ high ground and sneer at people, and as a scapegoat to rally ‘ordinary people’ to a cause.
    Tell everyone that politicians are out of touch, create a persona of ‘man of the people,’ find a scapegoat or two, and watch the votes roll in from those let down by the world.

    Inequality is reigniting them/us divisions and it’s handy shorthand for ‘them’.
    It’s then a small step for ALL liberals to be assumed to be part of the ‘elite,’ just as that paediatrician was driven out of Newport some years back by those who thought the word made her part of something else.

  • Bill le Breton 10th Nov '16 - 11:36am

    There is a very informative paragraph in David Goodhart’s “The British Dream”. I wish I cd quote it here but it is long and I can’t find an electronic copy to cut and paste. You can find it by Googling “This goes to the heart of one of the main arguments of this book” and reading it on Google books.

    He also wrote an interesting piece for the FT in 2012 – There’s a paywall but you can get through that by indulging them in some market research here: https://www.ft.com/content/a992778e-9aa4-11e1-9c98-00144feabdc0 It is titled ‘Welcome to the Post Liberal Majority’

    In the book he suggests that Liberalism … or the present combination economic and social liberalism sees people coming together as if on a cruise liner voyage but who have no longer term relationship.

    He writes, ‘With their emphasis on freedom from constraint the two liberalisms (economic and social) have had too little to say about our dependence on each another. They have taken for granted the glue that holds society together and have preferred regulations and targets to tending to the institutions that help to shape us. As the philosopher Michael Sandel puts it: “In our public life we are more entangled, but less attached, than ever before.”’

  • Richard Underhill 10th Nov '16 - 11:37am

    The Japanese Liberal Democratic Party is the result of a merger of two parties, hence the name, but has not been accepted as a member party of the Liberal International. It has often won elections with a majority, sometimes a plurality, but its policies are right-wing by our standards. There have been corruption scandals.
    An Austrian party was pushed out of the Liberal International, as David Steel explained on “Have I got News for You”. This was before Tim Farron’s advice in the Commons not to go on this programme unless you were Charles Kennedy.
    It would be an understatement to refer to a post-soviet party of the same name as racist, xenophobic and sexist.
    “Tory” was a word of abuse originating from a person from Tory Island in Ireland. It still is in some quarters, depending on their actions.
    “Quaker” was originally a term of abuse. I am not a Quaker, although an old boy of the Church of England secondary school I attended founded Pennsylvania. During the Vietnam war President Nixon described himself as a “fighting Quaker” which is unusual for a Quaker. He also said that “The American people want to know whether their President is a crook.” Yes they did. The last laugh went to the Young Republicans “He’s tanned, rested and ready. NIXON FOR 88!!”

  • Not so long ago there was a lot of support for the Liberals and opinion polls seemed to indicate that about 50% of the voters would vote for them if they thought they could win. That is no longer the case. Only about 20% now say they would vote Liberal Democrat.

    There now seems to be an upsurge in support for quasi fascist views reminiscent of the period after the First World War when many thought that parliamentary democracy had failed and people put their trust in charlatans such as Mussolini and Hitler. Even in Britain there was a lot of support for the wealthy aristocrat Oswald Mosely among all classes as he sounded very convincing like some of the Brexiteers and Trump. They have discovered that the way to power is to tell bare faced lies but once they win someone else will have to clear up the mess. Many of them seem to have disappeared after the vote or modified their views by claiming they never said the things they did say.

  • Bill le Breton 10th Nov '16 - 12:07pm

    For a lot of people what they get from the two liberalisms is enough – using Goodhart’s cruise liner analogy – they are in the top deck, 1st class suites with the better dining options. They are also those who control … what they want as ‘community’ is this liner community, no deeper than that, and they have the political power to ensure it persists. These are the people for whom ‘freedom to’ is really all that is essential. Policies that deliver ‘freedoms from’ for others necessarily erode their ‘freedoms to’.

    They have a moralistic view of ‘community’ and of ‘identity’. liking the notion of community superficially but appalled at the exclusion that they think goes with it.

    The tragic thing is that the young Liberals of the 60s and 70s understood the problems and came forward with a Liberalism that was based on community and helping people take and use power in their communities – communities of all kinds. Two of them, Bernard Greaves and Gordon Lishman, wrote a pamphlet. The YLs persuaded the old Liberal Party to adopt its ideas.

    Somewhere over the last dozen years the Party’s commitment to those ideas was lost – perhaps because the really break through in thinking of this new form of Liberalism initially found it hard to take the ideas forward. This coincided with the rise of Thatcher and then Blair.

    Goodhart argues for a Post Liberalism. I’d argue that there is no need for that. It just requires that the Liberal Democrats go back to Community Politics – by which I do not mean ‘pavement politics’. If it did it would have something new to say, especially relevant to today’s world of Trump and May, of Putin and le Pen, of gross inequality within and between nations and of stagnation. It would have the inspiration to build a Liberal Movement that challenges the new order but not by seeking to go back to the ideology of the last thirty years.

    You can read Bernard and Gordon’s extension of the Liberalism of TH Green, Hobhouse and the New Liberals here: http://www.rosenstiel.co.uk/aldc/commpol.htm

  • Words change, liberal has become a term of abuse, as the rabid right fail perhaps its time will come again. He or she who lives will see.

  • It’s just an ad hominem term of abuse like “cybernat” aimed at othering and in the latter case dehumanising, people with opposing views. Use of these terms is a sign that the person using them thinks their own argument is too weak to stand up without making an ad hominem attack on their opponent. They use them with the aim of silencing you and shutting down debate.

    A way to respond is to refuse to be silenced. Pick up these terms and wear them as a badge of honour, like cybernat has been, and try to refrain from using words in a similar way yourself. It is all too easy to fall to the temptation of responding in kind.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 10th Nov '16 - 1:04pm


    When you wrote your first article on here, you did not return for comments , and I welcomed you and what you said in strong enthusiastic words of my own , I think you are a very thoughtful new member ! And your own blog is very readable and reflective.

    As someone like you , also in the creative fields , it needs that mindset to get your head and heart , both , around this topic. Psi and Bill le Breton are correct in identification of different reasons , but do not get to the nub of it fully . Although I cannot fault psi in his analysis at all, I can with Bill at least a little .It is not good enough to be a nostalgist for a liberalism of the sixties and seventies, as if then there was one thing , and a critic of a recent liberalism as if there is only one then ! I get fed up with the view that if only Clegg was not a traitor ! He is a Liberal !

    The fact is there have always been strands of thought within thought traditions . Socialists at the time of Gaitskill , were social democrats ,at the same time as socialists like Stalin were not !

    We need to make Liberalism be part of the mainstream and embrace the mainstream views that are it’s core . That means being very much more prepared to recognise that if Liberal governments could in an era of social Liberalism , conscript in the first world war, why the namby pamby criticsm of Hillary Clinton from the left for , no fly zones !

    Blair in his first term and before , and now again , is in the social Liberal tradition. He lost his way embracing a neo con agenda that shares much with socialism and conservatism, but his openmindedness and flexibility are , politically liberal.

    We need to relate to the gut of most people , who are not bigots , but not bleeding hearts either ! I get a lot of rousing support when at meetings , I say several warm and compassionate things , and one or two harsh policies go down a treat with it !For example , it is Liberal to love liberty so much that you recognise that those who smoke dope should not be in jail , nor those who are not able to pay the tv licence , but that the rapists and murders should be there and far more ! That love of liberty that sympathises , and protects , is what is missing.

    Tim , our leader gets it ,I think , but so few do fully , that he does not get to do much about getting to it !

  • I genuinely thought that this sort of introspective line of questions would have been asked by liberals, a few days after the EU referendum (Brexit), result.? In fairness, having read some of the thread comments since June, I do recognise that a good many liberals have begun to shift their thinking towards a ‘better fit’ of what they observe around themselves.

    That said, it was a shock that a group of otherwise intelligent liberals, residing in the ivory towers of Westminster, the BBC,.. Channel 4,.. etc.,.. whether metropolitan,.. elite,.. or otherwise, could have got the ‘memo’, on 23rd June,.. read it,.. and either purposely ignored it, or totally misunderstood it.?
    But,.. The even bigger shock for me right now,..is that some very clever folk, in the theatre of a much wider Western politics and media, have had that very same ‘memo’ *twice*, in the space of 6 months and are still gawping slack-jawed, into outer space and wondering why they keep getting Wack-a-moled by the voters.? For them, they have concluded, it is not they [liberals], who are in error, but instead, it’s the uneducated public who keep straying, like knuckle dragging buffoons, off the liberal message.?

    Author of Black Swan, Nassim Taleb, has recently re-branded this ‘liberal metropolitan elite’, into what he dubs the,.. ‘Intellectual Yet Idiot’ class. On first seeing his re-brand, I thought it was a tad cruel. But then again , I’m beginning to see why maybe being cruel to be kind, is perhaps the only way to get a sub-group of apparently ‘impenetrable’,..intellectual-yet-idiot, liberals to actually,…READ the damn ‘memo’.?

  • Pick up the term cybernat and wear it as a badge of honour; you have a strange idea of honour Al, least we forget


  • Liberal- Peace, Reform, and Economy with some temperance.

  • Peter Bancroft 10th Nov '16 - 2:35pm

    This article makes a good point: Somehow “liberals” have ended up being accountable for bad government on the part of Conservative and Social Democrat governments and institutions all over the world. We contribute to this ourselves every time someone in our party uses some form of liberal as an insult, or confuses it with something it is not. Here are some basic primers:
    Stop using the term neo-liberalism. There is no consensus as to what neo-liberal means, but it is certainly nothing to do with liberalism. People tilting at neo-liberalism tend to either be complaining that a market is not adequately regulated to ensure fair competition (something at the core of liberalism) or that the market is run in the interests of large corporations (specifically a behaviour you see from Conservatives and Social Democrats – never liberal)
    Embrace free markets. Free markets are regulated so that the market is free, and free markets do not have companies abusing their power of monopoly (or again, they would not be free). Resist the temptation to accept the left-wing attack line that free markets are unfair and laissez-faire
    “Too much liberalism” is never a bad thing. When people say “too much liberalism” they mean broken institutions, or markets which are not free. More liberalism does not equal more laissez-faire. More liberalism means more rule of law, more competition and less corporatism and consumer abuse
    Before using the term “fair”, stop and ask yourself what you mean. Fair is a subjective word which is loaded with ideological baggage. You’re going to want to be clear whether it’s fair for a man with a large family to be made unemployed because his company (making rifles for Africa) is fair, or whether it’s fair that a man in a deprived North England town can continue to donate to his local school because we’ve put up tariff barriers to Mozambique which meant the only child of a single woman died in childbirth. Fairness is really complicated, and if you’re using it as a synonym for “good”, you’re probably doing it wrong.

  • Frankie, you make my point for me. A tiny minority do something they shouldn’t so you coin a term of abuse and apply it to a whole group of people who disagree with you. The vast majority of online abuse comes from the unionist side. This is from the Daily Record which is not exactly a pro-indy paper…
    http://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/politics/unionists-need-tough-trolls-its-8878858 That isn’t an excuse. It doesn’t make it right for either side to resort to abuse. Nor does it make it right to try to tar the majority of good humoured and well behaved people who just disagree with you with a term of abuse either.

    We sometimes take the badge of honour thing literally…

    You could make your own line of Metropolitan liberal 1337 badges. Just an idea.

  • Al,

    You are defined by the people you associate with and unless the majority make it clear they are not associated with Rev Stu and his ilk, the term cybernat can never be anything other than a very tarnished moniker.

  • Sue Sutherland 10th Nov '16 - 3:11pm

    Of course our response should be to show what true Liberalism is. Unfortunately it seems as if it’s human nature to classify people especially if you disagree with them. On Facebook I’ve joined We are the 48% and there’s nearly always a reference to Leave voters as unintelligent. Unfortunately our party has a bit of a reputation for not listening when people disagree with us, instead trying to explain all over again why we are right and they are wrong. I think we should consider this criticism seriously because it may be part of the reason we languish at our present low point in terms of the polls and numbers of MPs.
    I think the word metropolitan is also significant because it links into a much more ancient division between country and city. Cities are often portrayed as dens of iniquity, where no one sees their neighbour or cares what happens to them, whereas the country consists of people looking out for each other and maintaining decent values. It always surprises me that in the Bible heaven is portrayed as the new Jerusalem, a city.
    When I lived in the country for a few years I was labelled as an intellectual because I had been to university, this was before I became a member of the SDP, and I did feel like the proverbial fish out of water. I think the problem we have at the moment is that our country is divided into two groups, Leavers and Remainers and both are trying to dismiss and deride the other over an issue that is very deeply felt and very important to our well being. I think it truly is like the Civil War in the seventeenth century which divided families and friends. In this situation I believe we must maintain our belief in the essential goodness of most of our fellow citizens and try to prevent and overcome confrontation.

  • Peter Watson 10th Nov '16 - 4:47pm

    “the ‘liberal, metropolitan elite’. When did ‘liberal’ become a dirty word?”
    I think it is a ‘liberal elite’ that is disliked, rather than liberals per se.
    There is perhaps a perception that an elite (i.e. “a group or class of people seen as having the most power and influence in a society, especially on account of their wealth or privilege”) are especially keen on the liberties associated with liberalism because they have the resources to take advantage of them (e.g. cheaper labour, opportunities for travel, etc.) while those who are less fortunate can see the potential benefits of a little protectionism. I think that a refusal to address this before the EU referendum contributed to the failure of the Remain campaign, and it has been further fuelled by the reaction of some Lib Dems and other Bremainers who appear to be dismissing as ignorance and racism the opinions of many voters.

  • Jenny Barnes 10th Nov '16 - 4:50pm

    “free ” markets only work by pretending / forcing both land / nature and labour / human beings to behave like commodities. Neither can be forced for ever, see climate change, see the recent anti neo-liberal/market votes. How do you get people to behave as if their labour were a commodity? Starve them. And that’s why the welfare state is being dismantled.

  • Frankie, you use it as an attempt to smear a whole group of people who disagree with you, as you well know. If everyone is defined by the people they share an opinion with on a particular topic then that would leave all unionists associated with the orange order, UKIP, the BNP, the NF etc.

    Invoking Charles Kennedy’s death to that end, who was leader at part of the time when I was in the Liberal Democrats, is in poor taste and does your case no credit. Bear in mind, particularly in the wake of the brexit vote, that the wider Yes movement contains and welcomes both former and current members and supporters of the Liberal Democrats.

    Just as pro EU people should not be silenced by sneers and smears of “liberal metropolitan elite”, neither will the indy movement be silenced by similar sneers and smears.

  • Al,

    to be blunt I dislike nationalist in all its forms. I believe it appeals to the worst bits of all our natures. I believe that nationalism is basically the same no matter what form it appears as, some may be cuddly, some may be frightening but they all are based on

    1. We are an exceptional group
    2. Some other group is trying to pull us down

    For example
    The Orange Order we are Protestants the Catholics and their pope are trying to destroy us.
    UKIP we are proud Britain’s the EU are trying to destroy us.
    BNP and NF we are proud white Britains the other peoples are trying to destroy us
    and finally the SNP
    We are Proud Scots, Westminster (often used as code for the English) are trying to destroy us.

    I can understand the siren song nationalists sing but carried to its logical conclusion we will all be living in small villages worrying what the next small village is up to.

  • Philip Rolle 11th Nov '16 - 2:10am

    Liberal became a dirty word because liberals maintained that nationalism and concerns about national identity were not legitimate and that those holding such opinions were bad or stupid people.

    Many of you still think that. If you continue to be so minded, people even worse than Trump will be elected.

  • Jane Ann Liston 11th Nov '16 - 9:10am

    I’d like to reclaim ‘elite’ as a positive term, which it originally was, and still used in some contexts, such as in sport. I’ve always thought it simply means being the best at something, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Instead the word is used as a term of abuse, like ‘do-gooder’ (what could be better than doing good, may I ask?) and of course ‘middle-class’, which label is usually applied on the grounds of one’s accent or lack thereof Subversion of the language by making non-judgemental, neutral or positive words to mean something undesirable smacks of Orwell.

  • Peter Watson 11th Nov '16 - 11:00am

    @Jane Ann Liston “I’d like to reclaim ‘elite’ as a positive term, which it originally was, and still used in some contexts, such as in sport. I’ve always thought it simply means being the best at something ..”
    I’m not so sure about that. I’m no linguist but “elite” appears to come from an old french word meaning ‘chosen’ or ‘elected’ and has long (historically) been used to refer to a group who are there by birth rather than merit.

  • Dani Tougher 11th Nov '16 - 11:14am

    Thank you everyone for your comments and thought-provoking discussions 🙂

    I was watching a couple of political panel shows yesterday morning (coincidentally around the same time that this piece went live) and lost count of the amount of times the words ‘liberal’, ‘elite’, and/or ‘metropolitan’ were used in a derogatory context.

  • Philip Rolle
    “concerns about national identity”
    I am comfortable about my identity and so are millions of others in England. I have never needed to wave a flag about or start wearing a rose on St Georges Day.

  • Philip Rolle 11th Nov '16 - 6:09pm

    But some liberals started saying that those who did were xenophobic. Let flag wavers wave if they want to.

  • Ronald Murray 11th Nov '16 - 10:53pm

    I worry little about the misuse of Liberal having been a member around forty years. Less any politically restricted years. We have an unfortunate habit of being unable to separate American language from our own original english. My own particular hatred being “train station” As for nationalism in Scotland this like the election of Trump was a rejection of the other established British parties the SNP are making many of the same mistakes. We did not push a federal system quickly enough, maybe we should have coined a new name not involving Liberal, Social or Democrat. One regular mistake the residents of England is the constant referring to England when they mean UKGB. Finally I remember a quote about nationalism I think for pre war Germany.
    “Nationalism is our form of incest, is our idolatry, is our insanity. Patriotism is its cult”
    Maybe our academic elite can tell us who said it.

  • Ronald Murray 11th Nov '16 - 10:56pm

    Nice to see a new member bringing up such a salient point Dani

  • Dani

    You have started an excellent discussion, shame I lost touch with it while it was still live. Peter Bancroft makes some excellent points.

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