The established ideology is on its way out*. Going with it, for citizens of the United Kingdom (a compromise that may also be witnessing its twilight), is not just EU membership and long-inflated global status, but the very political foundation on which we depended. The old antithesis of Left and Right, socialism and Toryism, worker and capitalist, somehow survived 1989 and Blair, but not, it seems, Brexit.
The new political division that will shape this Banana Monarchy is, at present, lob-sided. The traditional Right wasted no time in adjusting. As the “Left” faltered (we will likely never completely shed ourselves of the shorthand gained from the French Revolution), the forces of reaction, authoritarianism and tribalism built up what is invariably described as alt-, new-, or populist-right. And who constitutes the bulk of this movement? The group progressives have often taken for granted: the poor. For working class supporters of the Leave EU campaign (as too, Le Pen and Trump), socio-economic loyalties are secondary to those of race and nation, if considered at all.
This urge to, as Kipling termed it, “think with the blood” is, for roughly 52% of the population, a strong one. But traditions matter, especially in a nation that holds them in place of rights. None more so than liberty.
Refreshing the Tree
I am aware of the pitfalls involved in defining national “traits”. I cannot in all honesty stand by the claim, inspired by Oscar Wilde, that liberty is to the English what scepticism is to the Jews. After all, a Tory government recently passed the horribly draconian, invasive “Snooper’s Charter”. And this, as if to make the literal-minded cringe, to the voiced dismay of the highest court of that supposedly authoritarian institution, the European Union (and their manifesto promises more, more, more!). Too, the so-called Jewish State has been spewing up governments which have been taking the decidedly uncritical, self-damning policy of annexing the West Bank1.
But the country that jailed Richard Carlile and William Cobbett for the crime of voicing unpleasant facts, and Milton for republican polemic, also provided a safe haven and a stage for Pax Britannia’s greatest critics – from Karl Marx and Ernest Jones to Gandhi – and that, without a Bill of Rights.
It was the Whigs, faced with radicals who would force reform violently if need be, that manned the green trenches against the ferocious assaults to free expression directed from Tory Front Benches. They kept up this up, to varying degrees, throughout the post-Napoleon I era, up until the transition to the Liberal Party. During the Victorian era – or, better yet, the age of empire (Eric Hobsbawm’s descriptive has the benefit of being both republican and expository) – it became capital L Liberals which came to fly the flag for free-trade, free-speech and, in the form of unions, free-association. Sometimes these causes had their roots in Bentham utilitarian thinking; but, more often than not, an American-like suspicion of government overreach.
In the excellent Strange Death of Liberal England, George Dangerfield charts how this Liberalism eventually fell victim to the chain reaction of Tory, Women’s, and Worker’s rebellion. The Liberal Party proved too moderate and, at base too conciliatory, to survive the ruptures of the modern age, much like the hereditary principle it had in part neutered2. He wrote,
When codes, when religions, when ideas cease to move forward, it is always in some shining illusion that an alarmed humanity attempts to take refuge
The shining illusions in the early twentieth century were grand ideologies which promised humanity a New Man. Those gleaming trapdoors, fascism and Stalinism. Now, aggressive nationalism is the illusion competing for the imaginations of little men everywhere. (In Britain that’s all we have – what is called “the Opposition” has swayed between ignoring the new political reality, and chasing working class jingoisms. Corbyn’s Labour Party has managed to lose everything, including, somehow, the moral high ground.)
The Importance of Being Liberal
The liberalism required to counter the alt-right will bear some similarity to the tradition Dangerfield chronicled the death of. Though to best represent contemporary progressives, anti-authoriatrians and internationalists – and it must – this new liberalism must learn to be more muscular and self-aware (read: critical) than what went before. It could also benefit from some pointers offered by Bertrand Russell. It’s worth quoting him at length:
- Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.
- Do not think it worth while to proceed by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.
- Never try to discourage thinking for you are sure to succeed.
- When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavor to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.
- Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.
- Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.
- Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.
- Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.
- Be scrupulously truthful, even if the truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.
- Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool’s paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness.
The liberal order Russell envisaged bears considerable similarity to Polanyi’s republic of Science. That self-regulating and ever-expanding community – both in number and purview – that sets out to solve the puzzles of physics, chemistry and biology. In these fields authority isn’t inherited, and it isn’t derived from being the oldest in the room. It’s gained by being proven right and right again – and even then, as the best science educators will tell you, it’s to be scrutinised.
Admittedly, there would be difficulties transplanting the science republic framework to politics. The “science community” has proven to be remarkably egalitarian and dynamic, while most of the planet lives under despots with special rooms with tongs and electrodes reserved for those citizens feeling particularly sceptical.
(But what are liberals but triers: they try to be vegan, they try to be responsible consumers, they try to be good people – and, as fellow dinner guests will attest, they at least succeed in trying patience.)
Implicit in Russell’s list is the suggestion that “good” liberalism is more of a disposition than an ideology, and indeed that’s how it should be read (Goethe made a similar suggestion before). Liberal policies – freedom of speech and of movement, the right to privacy and debate, etc. – can exist in a variety of economic and political models.
It, as a tradition, must form the bedrock of a citizen’s outlook. Progressives take note: You only have to consider its nationalistic iterations to realise what humbug socialism would be without liberty.
Conor Cruise O’Brien noted the occasion, following a biting accusation by an African leader, he had the realisation that he was a liberal and not a socialist. This was a serious charge: at the advent of the postcolonial era, Western liberals had proven themselves to be false friends at best, and not much different from their conservative adversaries on the important questions of self-determination and justice.
He was in the Congo where the new government was attempting socialist reform. The odds were stacked against them – as it was for the great swath of post-colonised societies – and to achieve success certain liberties were being taken in the courts, and press freedom had been curtailed. The ends were noble and promised great things, but, nevertheless, O’Brien felt an instinctual unpleasantness toward the means,
Whatever I might argue, I was more profoundly attached to liberal concepts of freedom – freedom of speech and of the press, academic freedom, independent judgement and independent judges – than I was to the idea of a disciplined party mobilising all the forces of society for the creation of a social order guaranteeing more real freedom for all instead of just the few. The revolutionary idea both impressed me and struck me as more immediately relevant for most of humanity than were liberal concepts. But it was the liberal concepts and their long-term importance… that held my allegiance
He goes on to draw an important distinction between truth and utility in politics. There are those for whom the former would, ideally, be the means as well as ends. For them objectivity rests outside of politics, and stands as a guide. For those which seek utility, what’s “best” is what best leads to some perfect end. Trotskyists, neo-conservatives and fascists will consider the objective an obstacle if it is percieved to halt or defer that end.
In this “post-truth” age, it is of vital of importance that the “new” Left (or whatever we will come to call the organised opposition to the alt-right) should regain the highground, and declare truth’s primacy over utility. The signals aren’t good: “progressives” were only too eager to jump into bed with the Central Intelligence Agency simply because it appeared to be working contra Trump. (It hadn’t mattered they provided no proof of his wrongdoing, and that all avaliable evidence suggests that shady Agency is no friend of progress.)
But it is only with the penetrating spotlight of Truth that we’ll be able to show those shining illusions for what they really are: the fossilized turds of monsters that have had their day.
*This ideology is often described as the “liberal” or “metropolitan” elite or establishment. This is a misnomer. There is very little that was liberal – classically at least – about the Thatcherite consensus.
1 How tragic that, just when the European Christians laid down the torch of imperialism, the Jews went to pick it up.
2 Resulting from Liberal MP’s ultimately successful battle to limit the powers of the House of Lords. Before then, the Lords – born, seldom earned – had veto power over Bills brought by the Commons.