Defending Liberalism from the culture warriors

‘Democracy doesn’t happen by accident. We have to defend it. Strengthen it. Renew it.’ President Biden said that in his virtual address to the Munich Security Conference last week. He was talking explicitly about threats to Democracy across the world, but implicitly also about the threats within the United States. We should worry that liberal Democracy, open society and constitutional government are not to be taken for granted in Britain, either.

None of us should under-estimate the extent to which the US Republican Right has effectively colonised the Conservative Party. Our right-wing media takes its cue from American campaigns – on culture, free markets, ‘family values’, suspicion of government as such. Tory MPs interact with US politicians and think-tankers far more than with conservatives across the Channel. Funds flow into the UK from right-wing US foundations, companies and lobbies, supporting similar groups and promoting like-minded causes over here. The denigration of liberalism that grips the American right is echoed in London seminars on ‘post liberalism and endless attacks on Britain’s allegedly ‘metropolitan liberal elite’ – by well-connected and well-paid Conservative intellectuals who live in London themselves.

The right-wing narrative represents the people of Britain, who have been betrayed by the sophistication of an over-educated liberal elite. Britain’s cultural and political institutions, therefore, have to be recaptured for ‘common sense’ and the common man: from the BBC, our universities, the left-wing curriculum taught in our schools, the criticisms of strong government peddled by ‘Guardianistas’, the judges and lawyers who have over-promoted minority rights. To read the Telegraph, the Spectator, or magazines like Standpoint is to understand liberal elites as intolerant, even authoritarian, as well as unpatriotic. In the Daily Mail last week, a Leave-supporting professor declared himself to be part of a ‘secretive’ group of academics defending the cause of ‘viewpoint diversity’ and academic freedom against the cultural censorship of intellectual life in British universities.

His article appeared on the day that the Department for Education published a white paper on ‘Higher Education: free speech and academic freedom.’ Policy Exchange, the most-generously-funded right-wing think tank, welcomed the white paper as closely following the arguments it has put forward over the past year and having accepted most of its proposals. On March 2nd, Policy Exchange moved on to its next front in the British version of America’s cultural wars, with a conference on ‘History Matters’. I must have read allegations that left-wingers are trying to ‘rewrite history’ a dozen times in recent months – a charge that assumes that there is a single version of patriotic British (or English) history that is now under attack, in the same way, that American liberals are questioning the glorious narratives of their country’s history.

We are facing a determined attempt to drag the accepted discourse of English political culture to the right. The majority of the mass written media have supported this for several decades. Here, as in the USA and Australia, the Murdoch press has pushed an increasingly partisan and polarised perspective. Right-wing intellectuals have been generously subsidised by fees for articles in the Mail, Telegraph and Murdoch papers; Boris Johnson, of course, has been one of Britain’s best-paid right-wing columnists. Constant attacks on the BBC appear in all these papers, part of a war against this alleged stronghold of liberalism that attempts to occupy the centre of our national political debate.

We should all be worried about this cultural counter-revolution. The flabbiness of the Labour Party, the closing down of political activity since the 2019 election that COVID-19 has brought about, the difficulties of gaining a hearing in the right-wing media and the defensiveness of the BBC under sustained attack have all made it difficult to argue the case for liberalism, tolerance, and open society. So we should use every possible Channel to make the case.

Moreover, what did Boris Johnson talk about in his speech to the Munich Security Conference? He welcomed stronger US leadership in global politics and promised to follow it wherever it will take us – hopefully, in a less illiberal direction under President Biden than under Trump.

* Lord Wallace of Saltaire is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords. He has taught at Manchester and Oxford Universities and at the LSE.

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56 Comments

  • John Marriott 3rd Mar '21 - 9:59am

    As usual, a very erudite analysis of where Liberalism stands. The problem, as Trump found out in the USA and Johnson seems to have found over here, is that you really can’t run a country, or any political administration for that matter, as an on going political campaign. In the case of both politicos it was how their governments handled COVID that brought them down to Earth. In Trump’s case, the ‘people’s verdict’ via the ballot box was the arbiter. In Johnson’s case, it was the ditching of Cummings and his chaos practitioners that steered the ship of government into calmer, more rational waters and enabled it to get what hopefully is a decisive grip on the pandemic, which might well bring its political rewards in May and for some time afterwards.

    I don’t know about political culture being dragged “to the right”. It’s been festering there for several generations. The only time that blue went vaguely red was between 1997 and 2010 but only because Blair and his team made sure that they kept the sceptical, largely Tory voting middle classes on board. The motto was clearly “Don’t rock the boat!”. The real disappointment in the first two Blair administrations was that, given the cushion of two landslides, they were not radical enough, and they eventually paid the price.

    Talking of not rocking the boat, I’ve come to the conclusion that Lord Salisbury may have been right when he described the ship of state in late Victorian times as being like a rowing boat (I think) gently floating down the river with the occasional application of the oar to make sure it didn’t collide with either bank. As that election poster proclaimed back in 1959; “Life is better under the Conservatives. Don’t let Labour ruin it!”.

  • Matt (Bristol) 3rd Mar '21 - 10:01am

    I’m not denying these vested interests and processes exist, but I continue to be disturbed by the Lib Dem attempt (post-Farron) to create a rhetoric that denies that social conservatism of different kinds could exist across the left-right spectrum and that all conservatives (or those who wish to allow conservatives of the left to be allowed to speak within the institutions of the left) are tools or fifth columnists being ‘run’ by the Right. This is a binary model of politics which is itself a straight import from the US and is antithetical to the Lib Dem model of more than one political spectrum and the aspiration for a multiparty politics.

    In fact, it creates the reality it claims to detest, as it leads anyone who might be mildly conservative or distanced from current progressive groupthink on a given single issue to be at risk of being labelled ‘not a proper liberal’ (or in Labour circles, not a proper socialist) and pushes those people into the hands of media which plays on the ‘agree with us on this? Well, what about this?’ narrative. There was a point (when the party was bigger and more successful) when Lib Dems were obsessive with the right of those in the party to dissent on any given issue, and played up the parts of the constitution which talked about ‘balancing’ rights. Not so much now. If the party wants to avoid a culture war, it needs to allow proponents of several sides inside any given culture conflict, to happily exist in the party. If instead it actively wants one, all it needs to do is keep going in the direction it is going, which will enable the Conservative Party, not counter them.

  • John Marriott 3rd Mar '21 - 10:14am

    I should have added that the reason I so often portray myself as a cynic is because those of us who support a radical approach to politics have had THREE massive opportunities to get our agenda on to the Statute Book, certainly since the demise of the Thatcher/Major administrations, in 1997 (the Blair landslide), 2010 (the formation of the Coalition Government) and 2019 (the Brexit parliamentary debates) and we failed on all three occasions!

  • Little Jackie Paper 3rd Mar '21 - 10:30am

    Not sure I buy this. The basic problem that all (stress, all) political parties in the UK confront is that we no longer really have a politics that reflects a class divide. We no longer have a working class in any sense of that term my grandparents would understand. Jeremy Corbyn tested to destruction the idea that the Labour Party could be some mix of Hampstead and Hull. Love or hate Dominic Cummings he was the first to really understand how the ‘coping class’ and the ‘comfortable class’ we have could be merged into a coherent political platform.

    Is it really some sort of hard conservatism to want something that makes coping just that bit easier? We saw this question most obviously at the referendum where liberals effectively invited people, many of whom were immigrants themselves, to believe that very large scale immigration was an unalloyed good. It did come across (unwittingly) as, ‘well, your jobs are being outsourced, but there are now French bankers in London to foot the welfare bills.’ And, undeniably it does at times come over as intolerant. At worst we see hair-trigger allegations of racism.

    Perhaps a lot of the current culture wars is little more than a social media construct of course. I truly believe that the best thing for politics would be the end of social media.
    But what has happened in the last 15 or so years is that liberalism has come across as saying that capitalism is wonderful just as long as you are the one with the capital. Great if you have the bubble priced house or a job at a multinational, not so great for a lot of others.

    The coping class is not the working class and I don’t think liberals have quite grasped that. The open agenda has not been great for everyone and it really shouldn’t spark a culture war to say as much.

  • Barry Lofty 3rd Mar '21 - 10:42am

    After a near lifetime craving for a different approach to the governance of our country, this latest assessment by Lord Wallace should be a wake up call to us all and is a very worrying prospect for the future. Every Tory election win seems to tighten the right wing bias in the country,when will all opposition parties get their heads together before it is too late. Given the handing of a massive majority to Boris Johnson at the last election I live in hope rather than expectation

  • Stewart EDGE 3rd Mar '21 - 10:42am

    Matt, thank you for making your comments. It is essential that LibDems work to encourage the pluralism which is essential basis for a liberal democracy. I think what you said needs saying. (As an example I remember, before Brexit, there was a LibDem who spoke against our EU enthusiasm at Conference more than once. He was given the space to speak and heard respectfully. I hope that could still be the case)
    I also think that Lord William Wallace’s comments are correct and need saying: maybe the situation is even worse – he even managed to raise the warning flags without referring to the imminent arrival of NewsUK and GB News which may give us the UK equivalent of Fox News. He did however finish by saying that we need use every possible channel to make the case for liberalism, tolerance and an open society.
    As you say Matt, making that case is not helped by denying any space for ‘mild conservatism or questioning progressive groupthink’. But the need to make the case is still clear.

  • “We are facing a determined attempt to drag the accepted discourse of English political culture to the right.”

    I think that’s what the majority want. That doesn’t mean the population of the UK are right wing crazies, they just think it has gone too far to the liberal left.

  • Matt (Bristol) 3rd Mar '21 - 11:05am

    I have said before, that in fact a proportional democratic system implemented in the 30s in the UK (as it was in Ireland) could have actually slowed the rate of social progress / reform. The reason it is preferable, however, is that proportional voting systems reduce / prevent the sudden shifts of power that cause political conflict, enabling more gradual and incremental changes, rather than what Hartley Shawcross characterised as the ‘we are the masters now’ mentality.

  • Paul Barker 3rd Mar '21 - 11:53am

    I accept a lot of the points made here but I think we are talking ourselves into depression, based on mythology & not a cool assessment of the World.
    As Mark Pack has written about more eloquently than me, most of the battles fought by The Cultural Right they have lost, over Decades they have been in retreat, steadily conceding ground to Anti-Racists, Feminists & Gay Rights campaigners. The fact that so many Right Wingers constantly moan that they cant joke about Women or Minorities any more proves the point.
    There are two big exceptions – The USA & Brexit. The USA is different – in many ways it has more in common with Brazil or Russia than Germany say, or even The UK.
    Brexit didnt happen because of any New tricks by The British Right, it was founded on Imperial Nostalgia & the closely connected dislike of Europe & all its works.

    The Tories have been trying to Fight The Culture Wars since the 1980s (anyone remember Section 28 ? ) & by & large The Voters havent been interested.
    We wont know Anything about what actually happening in British Politics till the Covid Trance lifts & we wont know when that happens till it does. May 7th may tell us something but we may have to wait till next Year for a clear picture. We just have to carry on & develop patience.

  • James Moore 3rd Mar '21 - 12:47pm

    As an academic historian and a Liberal, I welcome the government’s attempts to protect free speech, pluralism and liberal values in higher education.

    History is being increasingly taught in the universities through post-Marxist prisms of class, race and gender. History is reduced to culture wars. Jobs in many universities are limited to those who share these perspectives or who demand the ‘decolonisation’ of the curriculum, even though few can explain what this is. Alternative approaches to the past are being excluded or denounced as colonialist, racist or sexist. The result is an impoverishment of the humanities and social sciences and a narrowing of the educational experience for students.

  • william wallace 3rd Mar '21 - 1:00pm

    Matt: Recent electoral studies have established that there isn’t a binary divide in British (and English) politics: on economic issues the camps differ from on social and value issues. This is key to the current crisis of the Labour Party: many of its voters are socially conservative, but economically redistributive, whereas its membership is far more socially liberal. Active Conservative efforts to stoke up divisions on cultural issues – and they ARE active, not just driven by social media – are intended (as in the USA) to distract voters from economic inequality by focussing on identity and values.

  • Joseph Bourke 3rd Mar '21 - 1:14pm

    Ramsha Khan is a young journalist of Pakistani heritage based in Manchester. In her article in spiked “Don’t let them cancel Winston Churchill” https://www.spiked-online.com/2021/02/17/dont-let-them-cancel-winston-churchill/ She writes:
    “A school has dropped Churchill’s name from one of its houses, after its students said he was ‘a figure who promoted racism and inequality, unfairly imprisoning and torturing many’. In addition, an academic panel at the Cambridge University college named after him argued that Churchill was a white supremacist. He led an empire that was ‘worse than the Nazis’, they claimed.”

    “This kind of revisionist history being pushed by woke students and academics could have terrible consequences for education. As someone with Pakistani heritage, I know very well what happens when a state decides to erase its past and enforce a monolithic curriculum to suit the political narrative of the time. It is usually disastrous; it results in creating a generation of people who feel disaffected and alienated.”

    This is a piece that seems to reflect the sentiment of the great majority of people living in the UK whatever their ancestry or social status. This young woman demonstrates a wisdom beyond her years and speaks to what Liberalism is about – a tolerance for different viewpoints, a recognition that the values of the past are not those of today and a civil discourse that acknowledges there is no absolute truth – just a variety of opinions.

  • Brad Barrows 3rd Mar '21 - 1:30pm

    On the other hand, you can understand why the sight of mobs deciding which statues they determine should be pulled down, and the police standing aside to let them do it, does fill the majority of the population with a fear that society is being pulled in a dangerous direction. Is it right wing to believe that statues of historical figures should not be destroyed because a minority of the population is willing to break the law to impose their views on the majority?

  • Little Jackie Paper 3rd Mar '21 - 1:54pm

    Joseph Bourke – I think that what annoyed people about the statues was less the revisionism (bad as that was) but the sense of performative politics. Statues generally are put up by local communities for a reason. I know that the Colston statue in Bristol was there in memory of his legacy to the city for example. These things were not put up like the statues of the Soviet Union. Statues and the like should be taken down, in a free country, by communal endorsement of the people who live there and not torn down as an act of performative politics. And, it should be noted, whilst the police stepped aside and allowed criminality.

    The unmistakeable sense was that any small club or village monument or school was fair game for that sort of performative politics or indeed virtue signalling, be it online or in person. Irrespective of anything else like context.

    We saw something similar with unease about sport teams kneeling. People go to sport games not to have progressive, or any politics, rammed down their throats for the benefit of TV cameras. They go to watch sport. This line of argument, I realise, could be extended to, for example, the very in-your-face nature of the contemporary Poppy Appeal and its links with sport.

    I think it’s an issue around the culture wars as performance and theatre rather than any particular outlook. My sense is that people just want politics out of their faces and I say good on ’em.

  • Matt (Bristol) 3rd Mar '21 - 2:31pm

    William — my contention is that there is a (smallish) clump of voters in England, at least, who are economically centrist (ish), moderately socially conservative and democratically devolutionist / reformist who are completely unrepresented in the current party system and used to be a part of the Lib Dem coalition and are now smeared across all four English parties. The Lib Dems tend to not ‘see’ them or take them for granted, and I still feel because many liberals would like there to be a liberal-illiberal binary, these people end up being pushed to the authoritarian centre-right, rather than the democratic centre-left where there could / should easily be a home for them.

    Joseph, much as I suspect Spiked and its motives and its funding streams, you are articulating something felt by many, but too easily exploited by the Johnson-era Conservatives as there is no opposing small ‘c’ conservative, small ‘l’ liberal, force to split their vote. The Lib Dems should not necessarily seek to be that party for many reasons but it is a continuing absence from British politics.

  • Peter Martin 3rd Mar '21 - 3:20pm

    “Brexit didnt happen because of any New tricks by The British Right, it was founded on Imperial Nostalgia & the closely connected dislike of Europe & all its works.”

    The repetition of this sort of nonsense is a large part of the reason that Labour lost significant support in its heartlands in recent elections. Not huge levels of support but significant enough to tilt the balance in many formerly rock solid Labour constituencies.

    The Labour Party was eurosceptic long before the Tories. We fought the elections on the platform. Even Tony Blair was eurosceptic at one time.

    So was Tony Blair and the rest of the Labour Party, at the time, acting on “Imperial Nostalgia”. I don’t remember anyone, even those who were pro-Remain, accusing us of that. The Labour Party may have moved away from its previous euroscepticism but many of its erstwhile supporters haven’t. It doesn’t mean they/we have moved to the right.

    We’ve stayed right where we were!

    https://i2-prod.chroniclelive.co.uk/incoming/article12938599.ece/ALTERNATES/s615b/240417TonyBlairelection.jpg

  • The problem is that we’re not making it easy for ourselves. Identity politics has become increasingly toxic and irrational and we seem to be ceding freedom of speech to the right.

    On Spiked and Standpoint, yes they have an agenda and the sheer volume of ‘anti-woke’ pieces is somewhat tiresome, but much of what they say isn’t actually wrong.

  • Unfortunately Lord Wallace has mounted a defence of something that isn’t “liberalism” at all.

    Liberalism is about individual rights, freedom of conscience and freedom of expression. It rejects the idea that you see the world through the prism of your identity. In that regard, publications such as the Telegraph and Spectator are sometimes on the side of liberalism.

    Cancel culture, safe spaces and Rhodes must fall type campaigns aren’t liberal at all but are more associated with the “new left”. The so-called culture wars have little relevance to the real challenges the world faces.

  • Peter Martin 3rd Mar '21 - 3:46pm

    “……argued that Churchill was a white supremacist.”

    That’s because he was! He was very much of the old school view that the maintenance of the British Empire was part of the “white man’s burden”!

    You can always find someone to say something like “he was worse than the Nazis”. He wasn’t – at least IMO. But an exaggeration of the case by one or two individuals doesn’t totally negate it.

    From discussions I’ve had with now deceased members of my own family, they were of the opinion that it was necessary to unite behind him at the time to win the war, but they were more than happy to give him the boot in 1945. His actions and reprisals against Welsh miners at Tonypandy, for example, hadn’t been forgiven or forgotten.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Racial_views_of_Winston_Churchill

  • william wallace 3rd Mar '21 - 3:52pm

    For those of you who think that the ‘rewriting of history’ is coming only from the ‘left’, let me recommend the review of the Home Office version of UK History for applicants for UK citizenship, as revised under Theresa May in 2013: https://historyjournal.org.uk/2020/09/11/britain-first-the-official-history-of-the-united-kingdom-according-to-the-home-office-a-critical-review/
    It’s written by a Professor of History at Birkbeck who has just become a British citizen. In my generation of historians, the Peterhouse group were determinedly trying to rewrite British history as less European and more ‘Anglo-Saxon’ (or imperialist).

  • Nonconformistradical 3rd Mar '21 - 5:11pm

    @Marco
    “Liberalism is about individual rights, freedom of conscience and freedom of expression. ”
    Indeed, but what happens when particular freedoms which you might cherish come into conflict with someone else’s freedoms? Are you going to ride roughshod over the other person?

    Do you accept that J S Mill’s “do no harm” principle might be a justifiable reason to restrict individual freeoms where they may have a detrimental impact on others? As in the Covid predicament when what you may feel you have the right to do might put other people at risk?

    “It rejects the idea that you see the world through the prism of your identity.”
    Agree absolutely.

  • Paul Barker 3rd Mar '21 - 5:18pm

    Some people seem to be conflating History with The Past, while the first is based on the second it is not the same. The past is fixed, infinitely complex & ultimately, unknowable. History is “what you remember”, its a series of Stories we tell about the Past & changes all the time & that is as true of our personal Histories as as it is of Official “History”.

    Tragically, Britain has very few Statues older than 200 Years, “Peak Statue” was probably around 1890. We did have lots of Mediaeval Statues at one point but almost all were smashed by Religious/Political extremists in the 17th Century. The Victorians destroyed a lot of the surviving ones because they preferred their version of Mediaevalism to the real thing.
    Sorry, I am rambling, the result of living too much in imaginary Pasts & Futures.

  • John McHugo 3rd Mar '21 - 6:39pm

    William – I agree.

    As you know, I have a keen interest in Middle Eastern history and, by extension, that of the British Empire. I noticed back in the 1990s and then especially after 9/11 and in the run up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 that there was a range of centre-right publications, including The Times, The Telegraph and The Spectator which all had narratives about the Arab world that they pushed. They tried to ensure there was no real debate in their columns to question the sense of victimhood and grievance culture many people in Britain (and the West generally) feel whenever they think about that part of the world. (“Why do they hate us?”).

    A certain Michael Gove, then a columnist for The Times, played a prominent, ideological role in this. His book Celsius 7/7 is now an interesting historical document from that period. Boris Johnson also did so, but probably to a lesser extent (except, perhaps, in being the gatekeeper at The Spectator who decided what that organ published).

    Can Gove and others now in government set out an approved historical narrative? I think they will find it difficult. There are now too many good historians like David Olusoga, and Sathnam Sanghera (see this review of his book Empireland: https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/empireland-sathnam-sanghera-book-review/) who will make it impossible. At least, I hope so. The Goves and Johnsons are losing this battle, and I suspect they have already lost it so far as the younger generation is concerned. .

  • Tony Greaves 3rd Mar '21 - 8:08pm

    Brilliant article. As ever here (it seems. sadly) a discussion that is led into the wilderness (with the occasional exception) by certain usual suspects. If people cannot see what is happening from the ugly right-wing (ugly sometimes in what they say and generally in their organisation and funding) there is really no hope.

  • @ Nonconformist

    “Do you accept that J S Mill’s “do no harm” principle…”

    Er, I think you may have your philosophers muddled up a bit there. Mill had a harm principle, but “do no harm” was Hippocrates.

    “ might be a justifiable reason to restrict individual freeoms where they may have a detrimental impact on others?”

    We do have obligations to other people but to me most human societies err far too much towards the collective and are quick to paint individualists as selfish. Some terrible things have done in the name of the common good.

    “As in the Covid predicament when what you may feel you have the right to do might put other people at risk?”

    Mills harm principle is actually an argument that people can risk harm to themselves. It is popular with Libertarians as a result.

    For example, if people want to go to a pub or restaurant during an epidemic is that not their choice? It doesn’t harm anyone else because people who are at high risk don’t have to go there. And what is the principle that says it is ok to go for a jog but not a picnic?

  • Peter 3:20pm
    The Labour Party was split on Europe which was why Wilson called the referndum in 1975. The rift didn’t heal because a few years later the SDP was formed.
    The left of the Labour Party wanted to nationalise everything which is why they didn’t want to join Europe because the EEC would not allow that,

  • Joseph Bourke 4th Mar '21 - 4:16am

    Manfarang,

    BP was a nationalised company when the UK joined the EEC and could have remained so. The exploitation of North Sea oil was vast opportunity lost as Norway has shown. Tony Benn was right about the nationalisation of North Sea oil. This article looks as some of the figures https://offshoreinsider.wordpress.com/2016/06/06/north-sea-oil-the-uks-biggest-blunder/
    Francois Mitterand carried out extensive nationalisations in France in 1982 including rail and utilities. The coordination of transport is specifically exempt from state aid regulations. Almost every EU state has passenger rail that is overwhelmingly run by the country’s respective version of British Rail. Utilities can also be taken into municipal control, as has happened in Germany..
    The argument that came from the left of the Labour party and Nigel Farage was never accurate as this article explains https://www.anothereurope.org/lets-be-clear-nationalisation-is-not-against-eu-law/

  • Peter Martin 4th Mar '21 - 5:04am

    @ Manfarang, @ JoeB

    The argument from the left against the EU wasn’t just about Nationalisation. We can argue about EU directives on that until the cows come home. From the perspective of the EU they don’t want taxpayers in one EU country subsidising particular industries which then causes problems for competitive industries in other EU countries and so have to be supported by their taxpayers too. We wouldn’t want taxpayer subsidised industries in Yorkshire causing problems for Lancashire taxpayers in just the same way.

    So, in this respect the EU position is perfectly understandable and reasonable.

    But it’s different when it’s competition against the Americans with industries like Airbus. Then taxpayer money being spent is fine by the EU, if not fine by the Americans and the WTO.

    https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-44120525

    The argument against EU membership presented by Tony Benn wasn’t particularly left wing as anyone who has taken the trouble to listen to what he said will know. Many of his criticisms were taken up, with little alteration, later by those of a much more right wing persuasion. He always argued that democracy was more important than socialism. It was the lack of democratic accountability in the EU, and its direction of travel, which was the main objection.

  • Rif Winfield 4th Mar '21 - 8:05am

    I always make a point of reading William’s articles, which always make a significant contribution to the development of Liberal pholosophy and strategy, and once again I have to praise it and say how completely accurate it is. It needs wider dissemination!

  • Marco 3rd Mar ’21 – 9:33pm…………For example, if people want to go to a pub or restaurant during an epidemic is that not their choice? It doesn’t harm anyone else because people who are at high risk don’t have to go there. ……….

    That would be fine if they, afterwards, didn’t travel on public transport, visit supermarkets or anywhere else where they came into contact with those who ‘didn’t visit the pub or restaurant’…

    The virus isn’t Father Christmas “who knows who has been bad or good”..

  • Nonconformistradical 4th Mar '21 - 9:50am

    @Marco
    I do know about the Hippocratic oath. I used the wording as a quick way of expressing the Mill principle.

    My point is about inflicting harm on others through exercise of your own freedoms to the possible detriment of the rights of others.

    “For example, if people want to go to a pub or restaurant during an epidemic is that not their choice? It doesn’t harm anyone else because people who are at high risk don’t have to go there.”

    It potentially might harm others exercising their rights to freedom in the same pub or restaurant if you are carrying the virus (maybe unknowingly) – whatever the virus is since you refer to ‘an epidemic’. You seem to be imposing your right to freedom on others with insufficient regard for their rights to freedom. Do you not recognise the importance of balancing your rights to freedom against those of other people?

    Take for example a fairly elderly person (say early 70s, maybe otherwise reasonably healthy and not in the ‘shielding categories’) whose only outside contact normally is in the local pub. That person might have made a value judgement that when they visit the pub for their one and only social contact the environment is normally sufficiently safe for them to do so and better for their mental health than staying at home.

    Is it more important that you exercise your freedom going to that pub if in doing so you risk depriving that person of the one and only social contact they normally have (through the presence of a stranger in the pub impacting their view of how safe it might be)?

  • Katharine Pindar 4th Mar '21 - 11:18am

    An important, really thought-provoking article, thank you William. I would personally like our party to stress and debate more often our commitment to civil liberties, somewhat under threat from government edicts in the last few months, and to human rights such as those (as John Hall suggests) of oppressed groups such as the Palestinians. But on the valuable picture you present of the influence of the Republican Right on Conservative thinking here, I am musing that what we Liberals need is a clear new articulation of Liberalism, not in an intellectual or historical frame, but as one to which ordinary people’s instinctive liberalism in this country can relate.

  • @ Tony Greaves – it’s more than evident what the right are doing and how dangerous that is. However, what’s equally concerning is that, instead of trying to combat this, the left has largely fallen down the rabbit hole of identity politics – sometimes relevant, sometimes not in the slightest bit liberal. The vast majority of people don’t care about any ‘culture war’, but if nobody speaks out in a rational way against both sides when warranted, all you get is polarisation – and the things the right are doing to undermine institutions and the media end up overlooked. As has been said above, the way things are put across sometimes drives a lot of people towards the right. It’s not that what Lord Wallace says in this article isn’t broadly correct, it’s that who is it speaking to other than those who already agree (I’m aware that as a Lib Dem site that was the intention – but I hope you get what I mean).

    Even the undermining of the BBC as a public service isn’t really being challenged in any meaningful way. I’ve read the book Peter Wrigley has recommended – it’s worth reading. But whenever the issue is discussed anywhere, it’s always about alleged bias towards/against one side or the other or whether or not anybody watches BBC tv programmes.

  • John McHugo 4th Mar '21 - 2:05pm

    I would like to endorse what John Hall and Katherine Pindar say about how the party should be less timid in its support for the Palestinians. I was privileged to see a zoom talk by Philippe Sands to Yachad the other day about the ICC decision that it has jurisdiction to investigate war crimes and crimes against humanity committed on the soil of the State of Palestine (i.e. the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza).
    Sands was particularly interesting in what he said about the possibility of prosecutions in relation to those who organise and promote Israeli settlements. I hope that the ICC’s decision to open its investigation https://www.theguardian.com/law/2021/mar/03/icc-open-formal-investigation-war-crimes-palestine will be fully endorsed by the Party, without any equivocation.

    I made an earlier contribution to this thread on the question of historical narratives, and William Wallace may feel some disappointment that there has not been more discussion of that question. I see, though, that a very interesting history book is advertised at the top – How the West stole Democracy from the Arabs by Elizabeth Thompson https://blackwells.co.uk/bookshop/product/9780802148209?gC=5a105e8b&gclid=EAIaIQobChMIp6f11-KW7wIVx9beCh16Cw61EAEYASABEgLBvvD_BwE. I read this book several months ago, and would recommend it to anyone interested in Britain’s role (together with France) in frustrating the legitimate aspirations of the peoples of that part of the world. That is something that the likes of Gove and Johnson would do well to study. It tells the story of how Britain and France prevented the people of the area of historic Syria (i.e. the people living between the Sinai and the foothills of the Anatolian plateau) of developing a constitutional monarchy in 1919-20. This dealt a mortal blow to democracy in the Arab world from which it still has not recovered. .

  • Peter Martin 4th Mar '21 - 2:49pm

    @ Marco,

    “For example, if people want to go to a pub or restaurant during an epidemic is that not their choice? It doesn’t harm anyone else…..”

    Well yes it does. This person could be a shopworker, or a nurse, or a policeman, or a teacher, or a doctor and have allowed contact with other members of the community who are then exposed to the same risk.

    By the same argument we don’t have to go to Brazil if we are concerned about the new variants of Covid. But if we aren’t that concerned and do go there we have to accept any restrictions imposed on our return to avoid harming anyone else.

  • Adrian Collett 4th Mar '21 - 3:03pm

    Thank you William. Spot-on, as ever!

  • @ Peter Martin, Expats, NCFR

    People who were at risk from Covid could have avoided shops and public transport as well although they was no actual evidence that pubs, restaurants, shops or public transport were places where people were actually catching Covid. Hospitals, care homes, private homes and workplaces were probably the main drivers of the R rate.

    The role of government should have been to focus protection on those who need to shield and then the vaccines step in and take the place of focused protection.

  • Marco 4th Mar ’21 – 8:34pm:
    People who were at risk from Covid could have avoided shops and public transport as well although they was no actual evidence that pubs, restaurants, shops or public transport were places where people were actually catching Covid.

    Any poorly ventilated confined space where people mix is high risk. In such environments exhaled aerosolised virus can remain suspended in the air for many hours.

    ‘COVID-19 Is Transmitted Through Aerosols. We Have Enough Evidence, Now It Is Time to Act’ [25th. August 2020]:
    https://time.com/5883081/covid-19-transmitted-aerosols/

    Talking, and especially singing and shouting increase aerosol exhalation by factors of 10 and 50, respectively. Indeed, we are finding that outbreaks often occur when people gather in crowded, insufficiently ventilated indoor spaces, such as singing at karaoke parties, cheering at clubs, having conversations in bars, and exercising in gyms. Superspreading events, where one person infects many, occur almost exclusively in indoor locations and are driving the pandemic. These observations are easily explained by aerosols, and are very difficult or impossible to explain by droplets or fomites.

    The role of government should have been to focus protection on those who need to shield and then the vaccines step in and take the place of focused protection.

    Can you cite a country which has successfully protected “those who need to shield” (other than those countries which have protected their entire population with an elimination strategy)?

  • Japan

  • James Fowler 5th Mar '21 - 10:52am

    I think that the ‘Republicanisation’ of the Conservative Party is overblown. The Republican Party is in meltdown after its capture by Trump and is now badly split about the future. The Conservative Party is firmly in charge and likely to be so for sometime to come. The aftermath of Brexit provides it with an everlasting supply of minor rows with the EU to ‘show who’s the boss’ while the SNP mean that ‘Vote Labour, get SNP’ will remain potent.

    I despair of the culture wars. Most of all I despair of the Left’s enthusiasm for generating them. The Left will lose badly as the demographics of an ageing population are hard against them, though of course they give ample opportunity for performative politics and frantic virtue signalling which are popular with the young and angry. The counter productive absurdity of this posturing provides the Right the excuse it needs to reclaim the institutions that the Left still have influence over.

    I think that the hard truth is that much of the ‘progressive’ wing of politics has STILL not entirely come to terms with the realities of the financial crash. Poverty frightens people into closing in on themselves and society looks inward. It’s not a good time for liberalism, or for socialist utopias – although the latter channels the anger and idealism of the marginalised much better.

    I don’t there’s any magic bullet out there to revive liberalism. It’s just a question of keeping the flame burning in the background and quietly arguing its eternal truths until the world turns and renewed prosperity makes people more confident, open to the wider world and ready to listen again.

  • @ James Fowler “Vote Labour, get SNP’ will remain potent”.

    A very south of the Border point of view, James. It implies that five and a half million Scots must remain tied to a Tory Government of privilege, meanness to public services and narrow nationalism that they, for the most part, have not voted for and don’t agree with, particularly on the issue of Europe.

    Echoes of Hilaire Belloc’s ‘hanging on to nurse for fear of something worse’.

  • James Fowler 5th Mar '21 - 12:40pm

    @David Raw. Indeed it is a south of the border view. However, since the overwhelming strength and potential of the Conservative Party has been south of the border for more than a third of a century now, that is where this tune will continue to be played loudly and effectively. See GE 2015.

    I agree with your implication about Scots tied to Tory England, and hence understand and broadly support the campaign for independence.

  • Barry Lofty 5th Mar '21 - 1:13pm

    Whatever the strengths of the Conservative party here in England I have to say that I abhor the even more populist and right-wing direction the present proponents of that party are taking our country, come on the UK wake up and smell the coffee, as Sir Ed Davey said recently. That is my rather uneducated but black and white view of the state of our country at the moment.

  • Peter
    “The argument against EU membership presented by Tony Benn wasn’t particularly left wing ”
    It’s about food, it’s about jobs, it’s about votes, as he said
    Just a few years later people got a vote in the first election to the European Parliament (1979). Years later a more representative voting system was adopted for these elections in the UK.

  • Nicky Manton 7th Mar '21 - 3:18am

    “The denigration of liberalism that grips the American right is echoed in London seminars on ‘post liberalism and endless attacks on Britain’s allegedly ‘metropolitan liberal elite’ – by well-connected and well-paid Conservative intellectuals who live in London themselves.”
    Does William Wallace even know what postliberalism is? That’s not to be mean but a serious question. And the ‘well connected and well paid Conservative intellectuals’ bit seems to be an ad hominem? Does his Lordship have an argument?

  • Peter Hirst 8th Mar '21 - 4:21pm

    Processes matter and determine what sectors can conceivably get away with. The fundamental challenge is to allow the dictum that we are all created equal to permeate our society. Fundamental constitutional change would prevent a minority from imposing their values on the majority.

  • Alex Macfie 9th Mar '21 - 8:21am

    @James Fowler

    “The Left will lose badly as the demographics of an ageing population are hard against them”

    Really? I’d have thought it was the Right who would be on the losing side, as the elderly cultural conservatives who form the bedrock of their support gradually die off, replaced by a younger generation with with more liberal social attitudes.
    Before anyone responds with cliches about age, heads and hearts, the large difference in voting patterns between the young and old is a recent phenomonon. In the 1980s, when the Tories were last in power with large Parliamentary majorities, the youngest voters were every bit as Tory-leaning as their elders. And while people do tend to become more fiscally conservative as they grow older, there is no evidence that they become more culturally conservative. So the Tories are going to be in deep trouble in a few years unless they adapt to the more liberal social attitudes of the present younger generation. They’ve done so successfully in the past, but I suspect that this time it’ll take a lot longer.
    The Right has been fighting the “culture war” for a long time; it just wasn’t called that until recently. What else was Clause 28? And more importantly, is there anyone prepared to say now that it was a good thing? The culture war represents the reaction of the right to society becoming more liberal, and it has intensified in recent years because the gulf between the more liberal and less liberal has widened dramatically.

  • Alex Macfie 9th Mar '21 - 8:28am

    @Nicky Manton: It’s a bit rich (pardon the pun) for the political Right to talk of a “metropolitan liberal elite’” when it is itself led by a metropolitan elite. So this kind of attack is absolutely legitimate, and indeed we should be doing a lot more of it. We should have a Led By Donkeys style campaign, with large pictures of Johnson, Rees-Mogg et al capationed “Who are you calling elite?”

  • Peter Martin 9th Mar '21 - 9:41am

    @ Manfarang,

    “Just a few years later people got a vote in the first election to the European Parliament….”

    However, most people were thinking, in the words of the song, “That Don’t Impress me Much” and stayed away from the polls. They didn’t want another layer of government. Before we came out of the UK, Scottish voters would have had a couple of tiers of local government to vote for, on top of that they could vote for their MSPs, the next layer was the MPs they elected to Westminster, and to top it all off they had another raft of MEPs to support in Brussels and Strasbourg.

    We can all be in favour of democracy but surely you can have too much of a good thing. The phrase “too many cooks” springs to mind.

    @ Alex Macfie,

    You’re missing the point about the Metropolitan Elite. Voters have always voted for an elite. If they largely agree with them they don’t use that term. If they don’t they do. So it’s the lack of agreement which has been the issue and it is why the Labour Party lost a significant amount of its former bedrock support in 2019.

    They already know that Johnson, Farage, Rees-Mogg and co are part of a different section of society to themselves. Saying something like “what about them? They are elitist too” isn’t going to change anything.

    The parties of the left have to get back to basics and start campaigning on working class issues. There’d hardly be a better oportunity than taking on the Tories over their derisory offer of 1% to nurses and health workers.

  • To return to the crux of William’s article, I am sure most of us would agree that we need to push back against the right wing agenda and their “culture war” as waged by the likes of Steve Bannon. However, there seems to be an implication that the excesses of the left are an illusion, fake news, that the attempts by radicalised students in US colleges to get staff fired for the most innocent transgressions didn’t happen or don’t matter ? Or that such things never happen this side of the water. We should be critical of both sides and calling out for tolerance, a quality conspicuously absent from contemporary debate.

  • @Peter Martin – “However, … They didn’t want another layer of government.”
    From memory, the real problem the European Parliament had back then and even today is that it only gets the powers that national governments are prepared to cede to it. With many governments (including the UK) preferring to keep control within the unelected Commission where they have greater say and even a veto on matters, letting the Parliament be a discussion forum, with less powers than the House of Lords.
    A big problem therefore has been ‘selling’ the value of the European Parliament and thus voting for your representative to the national electorates.

    Against this background, it is obvious the typical voter would regard both the European Parliament and Commission with some scepticism.

    As for too many layers of government, I would agree there is some point where enough is enough, so that there is some clear readily discernable water between the layers.

  • Nicky Manton 14th Mar '21 - 7:53pm

    @Chris Cory – you are correct.

    @AlexMcife – Point of that matter is that the elite – and you can look at a range of values surveys from a range of sources – have views that are divergent from the majority of the populace. The fact that the right say this does not mean that it is not necessarily true. Even among Labour and Lib Dem voters, there are views that are divergent from the majority. Now the majority is not always right and sometimes the majority are wrong. But it is still the case that there is a divergence in views. You’re wrong to pretend otherwise using what are individualist fallacies. The fact that David Goodhart, Maurice Glasman, Nick Timothy, Phillip Blond (?), Jon Cruddas and others live in London and are in academia does not undermine the argument (Boris and Farage and others are not postlibs). There is a group of individuals with sets of views that can be described as ‘metropolitan liberal elite’.

  • Nicky Manton 14th Mar '21 - 7:53pm

    @AlexMcIfe – the second point is also wrong. 1) Younger voters are not actually metro liberal elite. Many are not on say trans issues were they take a more critical position (and actually you find that young men are less in favour of Me Too than older men). On immigration, desire for evolution as opposed to radical change, political correctness, toughness on crime, support for the monarchy (despite megxit), patriotism and many issues. Many young women do not identify as feminists as well. Why this binary analysis does not work. 2) The population is ageing which means that there are going to be fewer young voters to chase anyway and, in addition to that, people become more conservative – culturally conservative – as they grow older. 0.1% on average for every year that they live. In fact studies in America show when you compare young people from the 1980s who are now older people now, they have become more conservative. The change is really when people start having children because there is a correlation (not necessarily causation but correlation) with heightened threat sensitivity and voting for rightwing parties. Obviously, you cannot always go on the basis of past inferences to say that something in the future will definitely happen. However, the Coalition of the Ascendent argument is nonsense. Actually, on that, if it were true then it would not explain Le Pen’s support among young voters, young white voters for Trump, it would not explain the Tories winning every single election since 2010 (and growing their support at every election since 2001) and it would not explain Brexit or the rise in identification as ‘English’. It’s a completely fallacious argument.

  • Nicky Manton 14th Mar '21 - 7:55pm

    If Wallace bothered to read or listen to Larry Siedentop, he’d realise that there is a rich tradition of liberalism which is completely compatible with post-liberal thinking. It is complex and complicated. Many post liberals actually think that the liberal revolutions – 1960s and 1980s – were necessary and increased flourishing in society. Social liberalism emancipated sexual and ethnic minorities, as well as women. Economic liberalism increased wealth and made society more prosperous. The issue that postliberals say is that these things came with downsides as it has made society much more focused on the ‘I’ and less focused on the ‘we’. One could also draw upon Hegel to stress the importance of the i and the we being interconnected, that individuals are society but also the individual is social and relies on belonging, institutions, trust, norms, rules etc. And that liberty has to be recognised by society and society needs the trust, norms, rules, language, law, traditions, customs etc. And that the logic of liberalism – the incessant ocus on the I – rubs against the social and can destroy the social which is bad for the I. And moreover, that it can clash with liberalism and liberal values for eg. the attacks on free speech done in the name of ‘liberation’ (AND THAT IS NOT A RIGHTWING MYTH). This is a point Tim Farron himself made in his speech to the think tank Theos in 2007. And the whereby people are forced or demanded to hold to certain points of view which fit a ‘progressive liberal’ paradigm despite these views not being the majorty in the country and even among many people who many liberals and leftists claim to speak for! That is illiberal! Now one can disagree with those positions and articulate a strong case against them. But what Wallace has shown, despite being a man of considerable intellect, is that he has failed to understand the complexities and nuances surrounding this. This is not good for someone who sits in the House of Lords and is entrusted with helping to make the law of the land. The Liberal Democrats, through its heritage, can be a vehicle that can use postliberalism to its advantage. TH Green and Hobhouse stressed the importance of communitiarianism as well as liberalism, in fact the social idealist tradition was inspired by Hegel. Jo Grimond himself is also someone who was post-liberal before post-liberal was a thing.

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