Rebecca Coulson is a freelance classical musician and writer, and was Parliamentary Candidate for the City of Durham at the 2015 General Election.
The other day, one of my best friends asked if I’d ever considered joining the Liberal Democrats. Now I’ve stopped laughing, I feel the need to address this question properly. After all, the friend knows me — and British politics — better than most. He knows there’s nothing I value more than freedom, and he knows that the more I think about conservatism, the less sure I am of it. And, although he’s a committed Labour voter, we both regard ourselves as classical liberals — a political description I’m finding myself drawn to as sufficient. However, because the term ‘liberal’ is increasingly popular, yet representative of increasingly disparate things, it needs further clarification. Indeed, that it’s progressively used to describe people who promote views and behaviours that seem strongly illiberal, calls for an urgent restatement of liberalism’s traditional meaning and principles.
Fundamentally, liberalism is to do with liberty — but I’m unconvinced that this is the self-evident truism it might once have been. In the manner of the Enlightenment social contractors, classical liberalism is founded in variations on the theme that freedom is humanity’s natural state. When individuals choose to come together in communities or organised society, they tacitly consent to forsake the completeness of their freedom, in return for corporate protection, not least of their rights, including that to property. Classical liberals see the benefits of this deal as a justification for the state acting on their behalf — its primary aim being to afford its citizens the greatest possible amount of freedom. Growing consensus around individuals’ rights drove revolutions against regimes that were recognised to be suppressive, most obviously in France and America, but also during our own civil war. Democratic nation states emerged, and all of this fed the economic liberalism associated with the rise of free trade between those nations.
In the party-political meantime, the Whigs — the reactionary Tories’ opponents — moved from simply opposing the hierarchy of absolute monarchy, and landed on full-on liberalism. Of course, they even took ‘liberal’ into their title, and led successive governments in the name of its values. Support for the party declined in the inter-war years, and a new politics arrived after World War Two, the more statist Labour Party (building on its earlier push towards a ‘modern’ form of liberalism) having usurped the Liberals in Britain’s bipartite structure. As philosophical discussion returned to the social contract — and a place within it for welfare and community-based freedoms — Thatcher fought the fattened state with an embrace of liberal economics that countered Keynes while privatising and deregulating on the supply side.
Recent history, therefore, makes it unsurprising when Conservatives believe that their party champions the individual. That said, I’d argue that conservatism isn’t intrinsically linked to anything — rather, that it’s reactive in that it endorses functional traditions and institutions, and opposes unnecessary ideological change — and that an alliance with liberalism is entirely owing to evolution. (There’s no time now to discuss how much the party’s current policies do advance a liberal agenda.)
More generally, ‘liberal’ in Britain today is being steadily influenced by the different understanding that has developed in the United States. There, ‘liberal’ is taken to mean (and is often replaced by) ‘progressive’; it is used by American conservatives as a term of derision. Although this understanding also tends towards egalitarianism and tolerance, it is focused on social goods over economic ones. It does see the individual as an end in himself, yet sanctions an expanded role for the state, necessitating a bigger abdication of the individual’s freedom.
As for many liberals on the British left, this is sometimes justified on the grounds of the ideals of ‘positive freedom’. These allow that the state shouldn’t merely protect its citizens’ liberty in the sense of checking constraints, but that it should also actively help them to realise their freedom, even to the extent of protecting them from themselves when they are unconscious products of an unfair system. That seems an understandable (if easily exploitable) reaction for those who deem the advocacy of negative freedom to be a lethargic effector — and for disappointed Marxists, and others who retain faith in alternative ideologies as a guard against repetitions of twentieth-century totalitarian catastrophes.
But a well-meant appetite for extreme state intervention in the name of freedom has engendered a new generation of hard-line progressives. These are the illiberal liberals — currently most pronounced in student activist circles – who want to defend us from discomfort, who think that tolerance doesn’t extend to intolerance, who encourage the suppression of particular groups’ freedom in an attempt to free others they assert deserve it more, who are so certain that they are right on society’s rights and wrongs that they presume it unnecessary to question their own views, who have decided it’s more important to control language than to debate ideas, and who display the kind of historically ignorant and inconsistent thinking that leaves us defenceless against terrorist totalitarians who hate freedom of any kind. These illiberal liberals are not liberal — they recklessly risk our liberty.
None of this explains why I’m not a Liberal Democrat. That’s easy to answer: to me, they don’t represent their party’s title; in Britain, the Conservatives seem to offer the best refuge for a classical liberal. But any party claiming to be liberal while failing to attest how liberalism backs up its actions is not only missing a trick (it’s difficult to find a better warrant for state power), it also exposes liberal values to hijack. In times of illiberalism, a real British liberal party is missed. Conservatives who believe that the priority — and justification — of the state is to protect individual freedom, must fight to reclaim liberalism and promote its true principles.