How liberals misread their own history

Michael Ignatieff

  • Liberalism and Its Discontents by Alan Brinkley
    Harvard, 372 pp, £18.50, May 1998, ISBN 0 674 53017 9

To be a liberal in Europe is a frustrating business. In Britain Liberal Democrats can only stand by and fume while Blair’s Third Way steals liberal nostrums and enlists them in the service of a new centrist consensus designed to keep Lib Dems on the margins for ever. In Germany, the liberals have gone from being the king-makers of the Kohl era to bystanders in Schröder’s. In Jospin’s France, it is not possible to be a genuine liberal at all. The word itself has collapsed into a synonym for ‘neo-liberal’, which means rabidly free market.

Eleven out of the 15 governments in the European Union are pursuing a new pinkish consensus. Everywhere, the social-democratic left has regained power by squeezing into the centre, stealing from conservatives and liberals alike. It has stolen family values, tight money and privatisation from the conservatives and personal responsibility, autonomy, rights, constitutional and legal reform from the liberals. The result is what the Guardian calls ‘social liberal’ governments, in which social-democratic politicians adopt liberal politics and in the process keep liberals out of power.

Tony Blair’s Third Way pamphlet illustrates the trend. The Third Way, he writes, ‘draws vitality from uniting the two great streams of left-of-centre thought – social democracy and liberalism – whose divorce did so much to weaken progressive politics across the West’. Although liberalism was always about ‘the primacy of individual liberty in the market economy’, and social democracy about ‘social justice with the state as its main agent’, Blair insists that ‘there is no necessary conflict between the two,’ since both traditions now want to use state power to enhance individual liberty. This is clever politics, but it obscures the clear historical distinction between the liberal and social-democratic traditions. Liberals and social democrats have been frères ennemis since Lloyd George. A liberal smells paternalism in the social-democratic enthusiasm for the use of state power, while social democrats suspect that liberals care more about liberty than equality. Third Way talk suppresses these contradictions, and while this is good for Labour, it is not necessarily a good thing for the country. Constitutionally, the notion of the Third Way helps to suppress the one ideological and moral source from which effective and critical opposition to the Labour project can come. On everything from fox-hunting to the House of Lords and electoral reform, a liberal tradition points in a different direction from social democracy, and with conservatism dormant or dead, the vitality of political debate in Europe depends on reviving, not smothering the liberal voice.

In Europe liberals find themselves competing for power and influence with social democrats who have effectively stolen their thunder. In America, the situation is more complex – and Alan Brinkley’s book is an excellent guide to these perplexities. When American liberals try to explain why liberalism is in such a parlous condition, they begin with the assumption that liberalism was the common sense of the country from Roosevelt through to Jack Kennedy. Roosevelt got the country out of depression and proved that big government could be good government. From the wartime boom through the Eisenhower years, a liberal consensus fuelled a dramatic extension of American prosperity. Then the rot set in: Civil Rights, Vietnam and the Sixties. Liberals found themselves suddenly outflanked by black activists and student radicals, and the liberal consensus dissolved in acrimony. By the Reagan years, ‘liberalism’ had become a synonym for moral permissiveness and to run as a liberal was to court electoral suicide anywhere outside Manhattan or San Francisco.

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