Lord William Wallace writes…Fighting for liberal values

Putin has paid us a compliment.  He’s defined politics as a conflict over values, with liberal values as the enemy that authoritarian regimes like his define themselves against.  He’s full-throated in defending autocracy against democracy: government by diktat, authoritarian leader as father figure, leaning on nationalist myths and ‘traditional’ values for legitimacy. A regime underpinned by force, disguising huge gaps between the privileged rich, close to power, and the poor.  Viktor Orban (in Hungary) and other rising authoritarians haven’t yet gone quite so far: he defines his style of government as ‘illiberal democracy’, retaining some of the outer structures of popular participation while bringing media, universities, and much of the economy under state control.

Many 19th century liberals were optimistic about progress and education leading almost inevitably to enlightenment, tolerance of diversity and minorities, the rule of law and an open society.  The 20th century taught liberals that these achievements can never be taken for granted, and have to be promoted and defended by every generation.  And that’s not an easy task: it’s a complicated argument to defend minorities and minority rights, to talk about the importance of law and political processes, when much of the population is more concerned about economic insecurity and more attracted by the easy promises of charismatic populists.

Britain, like many other countries, has made enormous advances in recognising liberal values over the past fifty years – in opportunities and rights for women, in attitudes to ethnic diversity and to sexual and gender diversity.  But the populist appeal to ‘traditional values’ blows a dog whistle against all this.  Populist attacks on ‘elites’, often described as ‘liberal elites’, dismiss reasoned debate in favour of gut feelings.  Michael Gove’s attack on ‘experts’ was an encouragement to the public to follow their guts and stop listening to reason or detailed argument; his efforts to return the teaching of history to ‘the national story’ would have pleased Putin.  Boris Johnson’s campaign is becoming more illiberal by the day. His dismissal of his own party’s reasoned policy on the sugar tax is a classic example of an appeal to prejudice against enlightened self-interest.

Putin’s interview with the Financial Times last week touched most main anti-liberal themes.  He saw liberalism as ‘decadent’, a symptom of societies that have lost their moral cohesion and of elites that ‘have broken away from the people’.  He stressed ‘traditional…biblical values’ as the basis for social solidarity, with a sideswipe at liberal acceptance of the LGBT community at the expense of ‘the core population.’  Religion ‘must play an important role in terms of national culture and cohesiveness’. But he warned that the Catholic church is now infected with liberalism, in contrast to the Orthodox Church – taking the side of the hardliners opposed to attempted reforms of the current Pope.  And he attacked migration and the threat that migrants may not ‘respect the laws, customs and culture of the country’ they move to.  Multiculturalism – ‘diversity as an organising principle in society’ -, he insisted, is ‘no longer tenable’ and must give way to ‘the interests of the core population.’

President Trump’s ideological guru Steve Bannon, meanwhile, has been raising funds for an academy for authoritarian populists, with close links to right-wing Catholics who also condemn the ‘liberalism’ of the current Pope.  Their hopes of leasing an Italian monastery have now been blocked; but their attempts to create a ‘nationalist international’ are continuing.  Don’t forget that Bannon has links to Farage and Johnson (which Johnson has attempted to downplay); that Russian as well as American money flows around the circles in which these anti-liberals operate; and that President Trump admires strong authoritarian leaders much more than democratic liberals.

So we need to find a way to defend liberal values that can cut through to the wider public.  We have to talk about reviving and reforming democratic government, through stronger local democracy and constitutional change – easier to do as we approach a potential constitutional crisis.  We need to argue the importance of equal rights for all citizens, against libertarian Conservatives who are penalising and excluding the disadvantaged.  We have to find ways to discredit false ‘men of the people’ who expect to live in luxury themselves, and without obeying ‘traditional values’; Johnson and Farage are reported to have benefitted from earnings (or subsidies) of around half a million pounds each in the last tax year. And we should dig out Karl Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies to remind us of the authoritarian ideology that drives Corbyn’s neo-Stalinist advisers – the authoritarianism of the hard left, not so different from its counterpart on the hard right.  Not easy to get across to the wider public: but Liberal values are our centre ground.


* William Wallace has fought five parliamentary elections in Manchester and West Yorkshire. He is a former president of the Yorkshire regional Liberal Democrats.

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  • Paul Barker 5th Jul '19 - 2:34pm

    The first thing we have to admit to ourselves is that Liberalism is a minority belief. To sustain Liberalism we need to build long-term Alliances with Centrists, Moderates & Reformists. I think Jo Swinson “Gets” that, one of the reasons I voted for her.

  • Mick Taylor 5th Jul '19 - 3:01pm

    I do not share Steve Trevethan’s view on Julian Assange, who is in a hole entirely of his own making. He is just another man who won’t accept he has treated a woman appallingly and wants to pretend it was consensual. If that was the case he should have gone to court and argued his view. But no, instead he holed up in the embassy to avoid facing the music.
    Whatever one’s views of Wikileaks, its founder has feet of clay and he should now have his day in court and try to convince the court of his innocence. Given that the court is in Sweden he cannot convince me that he won’t get a fair trial.
    I would not be in favour of extradition to the USA because fair trials are much more difficult there, but I’m not just saying that for Assange.

  • In the 1960s I would argue that liberalism was winning. It was winning because it was delivering. Therefore the answer for liberalism is to deliver for the people. I think people want a secure job which pays above the poverty line, a home of their own to live in, and the opportunity to become better off. Liberalism has to be concerned with running the economy to ensure no one is left behind and that everyone who wants a job has one, and everyone who wants a home of their own has one. If liberalism could achieve these then people wouldn’t look for scapegoats and strong leaders.

  • Nom de Plume 5th Jul '19 - 11:20pm

    Anyone who thinks authoritarianism or dictatorship is a better form of government than democracy is a fool. And is wilfully blind, not only to historical facts, but present events as well. There is no such thing as illiberal democracy. It is the road to authoritarianism or dictatorship.

    Democracies have problems because societies have problems. If the problems persist it is due to bad government. Furthermore, there is no political or societal utopia. Regardless of what populists or wannabe dictators might promise. Various utopias have been attempted. They have all ended up as a being hell. Venezuela is a good contemporary example.

  • Dilettante Eye 6th Jul '19 - 2:05pm

    The assumption is that radical views go hand in hand with support for authoritarianism, but that’s not necessarily the case.

    Sometimes if there is a [voter], sense of lost political connectivity, radical views can be more of a ‘tug on the leash’, to warn our [would be], leaders that they have overstepped the mark.

    I’ve been trying to search for a comment I read some time ago about The Third way, which was the origin of centrism, which Blair and Bill Clinton were staunch advocates of.
    The comment on Centrism which I’m struggling to find was quite cynical, but encompassed the reason why it worked for the better part of three decades, but suddenly died as a political idea, once it ‘got found out’ by the working classes, whereby it got swapped for populism.

    I have to paraphrase the comment but it went something like this :
    “ Why in a FPTP system is a Labour Party [or a Democrat Party], even bothering to ‘court’ the poor for their votes, when they [poor] have nowhere else to go with their [x] but the Labour Party ?“

    The comment, cynical as it was, made the obvious point that low income people have only the Labour or Democrat [x] box, if they bother to turn up at the ballot box.
    So to gain power, Centrists like Blair and Mandelson, purposely ignored their working class base, and instead re-designed policy to garner votes from the middle class middle ground. Thus original Blairism ignored their working class base and targeted policy at blue collar foreman managers, teachers, junior doctors, local government officers, media people etc. ( the university educated middle )

    Centrism, worked for a good thirty years, then suddenly it stopped working.

    Because the inherent flaw was that Centrists cynically took for granted their base vote of the working classes, and left them behind !
    So today’s populism is not a cancer, it is the very obvious and frankly natural reaction of the ignored to being side-lined by left liberal centrists for thirty years.
    The populism you see today via Trump and Brexit, is a case of reaping what you centrists cynically sowed and ignored for three decades.

    Centrism is dead, never to return, and populism is here to stay until it’s sufficiently ‘tugged the leash’ to pull control of democracy back into a national frame from where it was stolen.

  • Centrism has bounced back across the EU with the ALDE group making the biggest gains, followed by the Greens, leapfrogging the populists, who lost ground in a lot of countries after being seen to fail.
    LibDems are back in the UK as a serious contender, stronger than any time last least since the original alliance.

  • Nom de Plume 6th Jul '19 - 7:10pm

    @Dilettante Eye

    You should post that on a Tory or Labour website. The LibDems were only in power as part of a Tory coalition. And paid a heavy political price for it in 2015. I do think a sense of betrayal contributed to the 2015 defenestration – LibDems were meant to be different.

    The left behind should vote LibDem because they want to change the voting system to STV. The left behind can then express whatever political views they want. Athough they did vote against their own interests in the 2011 AV referendum. They are easily (mis)lead.

    Populism will not solve anything – it is also a form of cynicsm. Brexit won’t help either.

  • Katharine Pindar 7th Jul '19 - 9:49am

    William, this is such a worthwhile and relevant review, thank you for posting it. Liberal values are indeed under particular threat these days. Liberalism is a strong and lasting philosophy, but needs as staunch a defence as does much-traduced Democracy, and our party must be in the lead in Britain and through ALDE in Europe to defend both today.

  • jayne mansfield 7th Jul '19 - 2:48pm

    @ Dilettante Eye,

    Your second paragraph strikes a cord. When discussing the rising populism with others, I am frequently asked by those who find the rise of the right abhorrent, but why are people behaving in this way? What has pushed otherwise easy going people to these extremes?

    Matthew Godwin writes an article in the Mail on Sunday today:
    ‘A childish stunt, yes. But this is what happens when the elite turn THEIR backs on democracy: PROFESSOR MATTHEW GOODWIN on the how the reaction to the Brexit’s Party’s EU protest has only further divided the UK’.

    @ Katharine Pindar,
    Liberal Values may need a strong defence, but perhaps one of the most effective ways is by trying to first of all understand why they are under such attack in the first place.

    Is it because, as I find when I discuss these matters, a substantial number of the electorate have felt that their views and wishes have been ignored for too long, that politics have not empowered but disempowered them because of a growing disconnect between politicians and the people?

    Do you really think that a People’s Vote , whatever the result, will end the division and anger? I don’t, but it seems that the opportunity for compromise ( my preference), has gone.

  • Peter Hirst 7th Jul '19 - 7:17pm

    Liberal Democracy depends on a culture of fairness, liberty and respecting other’s views. This in turn depends on an educational system that has time to discuss these values and a society that respects them. It also needs a desire to counter those who seek to undermine them.

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