Swearing by Phrenology

John Vincent

  • An Intelligent Person's Guide to Liberalism by Conrad Russell
    Duckworth, 128 pp, £12.95, September 1999, ISBN 0 7156 2947 6

This is a rather relaxed book. As such, it may disappoint those who know the author through his brilliant contributions to early Stuart history, or his recent principled interventions in debate in the House of Lords. Its aim, a truly ambitious one, is to trace the continuities between the liberalism of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, and that of Liberal Democratic politics today. Indeed, Conrad Russell goes further than that; he not only makes a claim for continuity over a very long period, but maintains that this sprang from a common root in liberal political philosophy, especially that of Locke, Bentham and Mill.

One may perhaps put aside for the moment the question of continuity across the centuries as one of lowly historical fact. Much more difficult is the apparent assertion that ideas determine activity. This smacks of an essentialist approach to political action: the rejection of the belief that practical politics may be an autonomous activity, like most other practical activities, but rather is built around some underlying intellectual idea. Certainly, it is not hard to concede that in every century since the 17th, political thought and action have often taken forms which are deeply non-conservative in general tone. The difficulty lies in taking the argument further.

In particular, if we are talking about continuity from then to now, some sense of what constitutes the Liberal now is needed. When we look at the Liberal Democrat revival under Mr Ashdown, we are looking at discontinuity not continuity, at the creation of what is almost a new party from next to nothing, and – which bears on Russell’s arguments – at the superiority of the strategic (target seats, tactical voting and tighter discipline) over the ideological or intellectual. Ashdown’s achievement, which was considerable, is to be measured in terms of action not thought.

The truth is that there is little to say about the modern Liberal Democrats that would fit Russell’s argument for continuity and a liberal philosophic basis. For, in all except deeply cherished nomenclature and some eccentric trappings, they are modern social democrats. They believe in big government, the high-tax economy and the welfare state, which their forebears either repudiated or found inconceivable: not much continuity there. They are a tax-and-spend party. Where Liberal Democrats differ marginally, it is because, not being a party of government, they still nourish an opposition mentality, and because they have attracted no-hope fringe groups. But in all except inessentials, mainstream Liberal Democrats resemble mainstream social democrats the world over, which leaves little to say about them doctrinally.

The literature on the postwar Liberals is not inconsiderable, but it is academic and journalistic, not archival or written by participants. Lord Russell (I say this without certainty) might have offered an updated characterisation of his party as it developed in the Ashdown era, as seen by an insider who is also a leading historian. Sadly, he does nothing of the kind. He turns instead, as is natural to one engaged in current politics, to questions of public policy. His suggestions here, expressed in what could well be Guardian leaders, are cogent, intelligent and garnished with individual reflection. They offer well-balanced views on such matters as globalisation, global warming, the need to move from car to rail and the problem of organophosphates. In short, he wishes virtue to reign; though what constitutes public virtue is strangely mutable. A century ago, our man of good will would have preached anti-vaccinationism or the suppression of the drug traffic; a century and a half ago, a card-carrying progressive would have sworn, as Richard Cobden did, by phrenology. When invited to lend our ears to what is obvious to all men of good will, phrenology should always come to mind.

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