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.

At an individual level, today’s Lib Dems are hardly rooted in the great continuities of history. A 1992 survey of members showed that only 12 per cent were ex-Social Democrat: so the roots of the party certainly don’t lie there. But then, only 36 per cent of them were ex-Liberals, while 52 per cent were not ex-anything. At an individual level, therefore, continuity was a bit thin on the ground: Lib Dems are very New Liberal, every bit as much as the Blairites are very New Labour. Similarly, Liberal voters are a flighty lot: in the 1966 and 1970 general elections, about half the Liberal vote consisted of people who had not voted Liberal the time before, while in 1974 nearly half of those voting Liberal in the February election had ceased to vote Liberal by October.

At the grass roots, Liberal voters are uncommonly like all other voters: rather muddled, rather prejudiced and with precious little of Locke, Bentham or Mill about them. The most anti-EU group of any rank and file, they persistently vote for the most pro-EU leadership. As for prejudice, 2500 Coventry Liberals switched to Labour or Conservative rather than vote for a Liberal candidate who was black. One must never assume that the Liberal voter is Guardian Man, the conscious heir to centuries of enlightenment, or that the Liberal activist resembles or can speak for the Liberal voter.

A note of pedantry might reasonably intrude here. The Liberals today, as always, are nothing if not fissiparous. Besides Charles Kennedy’s Lib Dems, there is another Liberal party: the Liberal Party, properly so called. Its lineage is impeccable. It exists nationwide, if patchily, it fights elections, it is entirely unsuccessful. The media never mention it. Its relevance here is that as a party of purists, it conforms much more closely to Russell’s conception of a band of Liberal philosophers inspired by certain eternal truths. It is the bookish, ‘Wee Free’ arm of political liberalism. Russell, as a party politician, barely gives it a passing mention. Yet people who really believe what he believes ought in principle to consider joining the Liberals rather than the Lib Dems. In practice, most will, like Russell, prefer to join a disciplined vote-getting organisation, since party politics is not about philosophy but practice. Doctrinally, at least, the Liberal Party, properly so called, is far nearer to the pure milk of the Liberal word than are the Lib Dems.

Any primer of liberalism would be a large affair. It would need great historical depth, more so than a primer of socialism. It would need to concern itself less with individual thinkers than with historic types of liberal practice and their audience or context. It would be improved by detachment from contemporary liberal preoccupations. It would require above all to recognise the polymorphic nature of liberalism, the way in which its various actually occurring forms bear little relation to each other and can perfectly well contradict each other. And, to anyone coming to the subject from the rigours of socialist theory, it is remarkable how little added value or polish has been contributed by attendant intellectuals, whose gifts have lain more in persuasion than analysis. Liberal theory is a field where no great unifying force has been at work.

Not entirely surprisingly, Russell finds no room for the Manchester School, the liberalism we all love to hate. Yet of all the varieties, it is perhaps the nearest thing to a scientific liberalism, in the sense that we speak of scientific socialism. Rooted in the heritage of Adam Smith, it had a sense of the direction and dynamics of world history and (perhaps) the primacy of trade over production. As such, it was our only reality-based or materialist liberalism, for all that it produced a large superstructure of reformist political and ethical argument. It was not expressed at a high intellectual level, and it had few links with other contemporary liberal circles: the utilitarians, the aristocratic Holland House circle or Gladstonian Liberalism. Its nearest connection was with its opposite, Palmerstonian nationalism, which it did much to make possible: a case of opposites supporting each other. As perhaps the most original home-grown liberalism, it should still be possible to regard the Manchester School with a certain tender pride.

The aristocratic liberalism of earlier centuries is dead. Its job was to find out what the Crown was doing and stop it; and therefore when the Crown died as a political force and became a historical relic, Whig liberalism had nothing left to push against. Both its celebrations of a glorious past, and its slightly paranoid anxieties about Windsor, became superfluous historical baggage. It’s all very well to argue that nowadays we should substitute Blair or Whitehall or the state for the Crown, but to claim that the Lib Dem creed remains, as ever, to limit the powers of government is stretching a point. Liberalism arose in a specific political landscape where kings mattered supremely, and it cannot readily be transplanted elsewhere.

In Russell’s version of liberalism, John Stuart Mill takes a central place. This may be the standard view, but it is not without its distortions. Historically, as Russell admits, liberalism came first, and Mill’s path from marginality to central cultural icon came much later. The Mill of On Liberty was not venerated outside sectarian circles until well into this century, as Stefan Collini has demonstrated. For his contemporaries, Mill’s standing rested mainly on his earlier, more hardminded achievement as logician and economist, which has little to do with his status today as a high priest of modern hedonistic individualism. The obverse of Russell’s unqualified enthusiasm for Mill’s conscienceless liberalism is that he airbrushes out of his account the historically far more important liberalism of conscience – what was once called the Nonconformist Conscience, but is better known from before that as the Puritanism of Bunyon, Milton and Cromwell. Heroic dissent, in Russell’s estimation, sits well below the salt, and there is a reluctance to insist that liberalism has at root always been far more religious than philosophic in character.

In any case, is Mill without spot? Gladstone vehemently refused to support a memorial to him, and his opinion might be allowed to count for something. Mill also opposed democracy. He spoke strongly against the admission of the compound householder to the suffrage – a complex issue, but meaning in practical terms that he did not want very large numbers of working men to get the vote. Having failed to keep the working class out, next day he tried to bring the middle-class woman in.

There is also the paradox tentatively suggested by Maurice Cowling, who has hinted that Mill was an authoritarian Liberal for whom liberty was code for a species of refined coercion. There may be something in this. If it is asked whether Mill wanted to turn an England of parish churches, Sunday Schools and church primary schools into something totally different and alien, then the answer must be that he did. While his hold on the succeeding generation of young intellectuals was immense, his influence on Victorian political liberalism generally was tenuous.

Passing references apart, Russell chooses not to discuss Gladstone and Gladstonian Liberalism: a startling omission, if indeed it is not a rejection, and one which brings to mind the tetchy relations which existed last century between the first Earl Russell and Mr Gladstone. Has nothing changed? Gladstone was a great Christian, a great High Churchman, a great Anglican: qualities which in successive generations have not commended themselves to the house of Russell. Mention of such personal matters may seem petty, but one is left with the feeling that Gladstone has been air-brushed out of a picture in which he ought to have been central. Even its opponents felt mat no liberalism anywhere or at any time could rival the splendour of Gladstonian Liberalism at its best.

The New Liberalism of the early 20th century is commonly regarded in a triumphalist spirit, as showing that even if liberalism had not hitherto lived in conformity with late 20th-century standards, at least it died in the arms of the modern spirit. This is much exaggerated. The rhetoric of New Liberalism was truly wondrous; yet the reality as late as 1914 remained a low-tax economy and the persistence of traditional sectarian, constitutional and Irish issues. Pre-1914, New Liberalism was mainly a potentiality; post-1914, pieties uttered from the sickbed of a dying party. As a principle, New Liberalism means spending money, which means heavy taxation of the working man, in contrast to the negligible taxation he enjoyed under the despised old Liberalism. Millions now spend miserable retirements feeding coins into meters, finding out the hard way that the New Liberalism did not solve the problem of old age. For the success of New Liberalism, and it has been an overwhelming one, has lain specifically in pension mis-selling, and more generally in turning all eyes to state expenditure as the answer to life’s problems. (The symbol of this liberalism, endemic in today’s Lib Dems, is VAT.) New Liberalism as a propaganda triumph has little in common with any previous form of liberalism. It is a triumph, not of ideas or of principle, but of historical interpretation, the history of this century having been written, indeed monopolised, by one set of sincerely partisan propagandists. It is as if all writers on the 17th century were perforce committed Parliamentarians. In no other century does political commitment play this central part in the writing of its history.

There may be those who see in Bloomsbury, however defined, a new and freer liberalism than that of Victorian times, a second spring of liberal thought and values. This is perhaps how it saw itself and in its own terms it succeeded, but not without cost. It was as much a dissolution of liberal thought as a rebirth. As a comprehensive interpretation of the world it lived in, it failed to go far. It retreated into personal relationships and a set of discrete humanitarian responses to random elements in a world structure whose features could not be expressed in humanitarian terms. One would not turn to liberal (or socialist) thought for any insight into the defining feature of the late 20th century: global capitalism. Liberal thought for most of this century has fallen far behind its times, and has blossomed most when most peripheral.

When Russell argues that his party are ‘the oldest political party in the world – born 1679, and still going strong’, he has a case of sorts, but it depends on setting context aside with some violence. For three centuries the party was an aristocratic party, committed above all to aristocratic rule. Is that what Charles Kennedy stands for today? Between the pre-industrial monarchy, hardly urbanised, in which liberal political philosophy was formed, and modern society, there is a change of context and agenda so complete and jarring as to require very great discontinuities. Likewise with religion: historical liberalism was the work of a seriously Christian society such as no longer exists. The gulf between then and now is profound, and to suppose that a political party can bridge it when nothing else can shows an unwillingness to take on board the sociological dimensions of thought.