Which liberal are you? Are you Liz Truss – a social and economic liberal, a neo-liberal, almost a libertarian? Or are you Vince Cable – an inheritor of the social democratic as well as part of the liberal tradition? (He was an SDP Parliamentary candidate during the 1980s.) Or are you Hillary Clinton? After all, “liberal” is perhaps most often used today in an American context, and the words point more broadly to a left-of-centre movement whose distinguishing factor, if her presidential campaign was anything to go by, was a campaining focus on identity politics.
Vladimir Putin didn’t differentiate in his Financial Times interview. Nor did he need to. For all three variants of liberalism have been part of the governing philosophy of western democracies since at least the end of the Second World War. And what they have in common is not primarily their outlook on, say migrant numbers or family policy – both of which he zeroed in on – but, rather, that they operate within a political framework and cultural settlement to which Putin’s Russia is a stranger.
In other words, his real target wasn;t liberalism, per se, but the arrangement which makes liberalism possible: in other words, democracy. This isn’t simply voting: after all, Putin himself is elected. Rather, it is what gives voting meaning: elections that allow for real opposition; judges that aren’t controlled by government; politicians can’t make millions at public expense – at least, without a free media being in place to report it; strong civil society independent of the state; protection for minorities; government within the rule of law.
None of these apply to Russia. Freedom House declares plainly that the country is “not free” – citing, at the top of its charge sheet, the disqualification of Aleksey Navalny, Putin’s “most potent opponent”…”due to a politically motivated criminal conviction”. Human Rights Watch cites the banning of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Reporters Without Borders says that Russia is imprisoning more “than at any time since the fall of the Soviet Union and more and more bloggers are being jailed”.
It can’t even be argued that, for all these privations, Russia brings home the bacon. Budget revenues, national income, GDP, GDP per head, GDP per head taking purchasing power into account – on all these, the UK outscores Russia, often considerably. So why the fawning over Putin’s authoritarian regime on some parts of the Left and Right – reminiscent of the idolising, during the 1930s, of the totalitarian systems?
On the Left, the answer seems clear enough. The established system must be wrong, so anything else must be right. Such is the Left’s psychology of adolescent revolt. On the Right, there is yearning for a strong man. The likes of Theresa May are written off, like Stanley Baldwin during the 1930s. How feeble moustachioed Clement Attlee looked compared to moustachioed Adolf Hitler – or Joseph Stalin. But Attlee helped keep the Soviets at bay after 1945. And the system that produced Baldwin also produced Winston Churchill.
There is a danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. A view isn’t automatically wrong simply because Putin holds it – or purports to. For example, he is opposed to Islamist extremism. It doesn’t therefore follow that such extremism is white because Putin says it is black. Nor is his judgement always sound: far from it. He seems to favour Brexit. But Britain leaving the EU won’t weaken liberal democratic Europe if – and it is an if – Global Britain doubles down on our common European defence.
Conservatism is a current within that liberal democratic western stream. None the less, conservatism is not liberalism. It is less accomodating to mass immigration, believing that there is only so much change a country can take quickly, and more committed to institutions. Indeed, what gives British conservatism its particular flavour is its attachment to institutions. Familes are one of these, and it is striking that the Conservative Party is less committed to family-friendly taxation than most of its counterparts elsewhere in Europe.
Britain has no strategic reason to be hostile to Russia. None the less, our answer to Putin should be self-evident, and run roughly as follows. “Sure, we have dealt with mass immigration badly. But we can handle it better without becoming an autocracy. Yes, our politicians are peculiarly fearful of families’ policy. But we can have one without kidnapping and torturing gay men. Yes, the international “rules-based order” is in a bad way.”
“But you’re not in a position to say so – unless we’re to count the use of cluster munitions and incendiary weapons in Syria, including “barrel bombs”, as somehow upholding international rules. And then there’s that business of launching a Novichok attack within the United Kingdom itself. Which is the point: you’re not really interested in our migration and family policy at all. What drives you is an unsurprising, familar goal: furthering Russia’s foreign policy interests.”
“That means detaching Hungary, say, or Italy from the western alliance – utimately, presumably, from NATO. Not to mention neutralising the United States. But for all your peculiar standing with Donald Trump, you are under-estimating America. He is the product of the biggest democracy of all. As for us, Brexit won’t mean giving up on NATO. Far from it. Global Britain requires a new European commitment, outside the framework of the EU, and higher defence spending.”
“Let’s be clear. We think Merkel made a mess of migration, and Macron’s posturing grates on us. None the less, free, democratic Britain has more in common with free, democratic Germany than with your kleptocracy. And France will remain our most important military ally – “despite Brexit”. Talking of which, the EU isn’t for us. It irritates our democratic instinct. But that can’t be said of the rest of its members – at least at the moment. They aren’t queueing up to leave. And whether they do or don’t, they will remain our friends.”
Your answer to our original question may have been “none of the above”. Gilbert and Sullivan’s take on every boy and girl “born into the world alive” still resonates – despite the eruption of socialism for over a century. None the less, it is very hard to think of a present-day conservative who is untouched by liberalism (no, not even John Hayes). After all, the Conservatives have been master artists, over time, at absorbing liberals: Liberal Unionists, National Liberals – even, in coalition for five years, the Liberal Democrats. We are part of the same family, even if they are distant relations. Liberalism good; conservatism better – and Putin much, much worse than either.