Monday, 16 April 2012

What is a Liberal? 1: A Bit of History and Geography

I am a Liberal. I find that the term is used by people who have no stake in it to mean things I don't recognise - and sometimes by people who do have a stake in it. It also means different things in different places - so I thought I'd define what it meant to me.

It isn't altogether strange that the word means such different things in different countries: after all, the military dictatorship of Myanmar (Burma) calls itself Socialist, as does the main French centre-left party, which has its faults but is certainly democratic and civilian; and the same word was used by Communist dictatorships and by British Labour Party leaders who tied Britain closely to NATO, the USA and a hostile stand-off with the Communist regimes after the Second World War. "Conservative" might mean similar things around the world, but that's because it's perhaps more a condition than a programme or a philosophy; and European Conservatism has little of the moral majority flavour of U.S. Conservatism.

In the U.S., Liberal means something like "left-wing" or "social democratic" in Europe. In much of continental Europe Liberalism is seen as a creed of individual liberty and free enterprise, naturally aligned against high taxation, a strong state and a powerful church, and kinder to business interests than the Conservatives, Nationalists or Christian Democrats. South American Liberals are traditionally anti-clerical.

The roots of the word are, I believe, in early 19th century Spain, applied to reformers who opposed absolute royal power and challenged the Catholic Church on some issues. It has Latin origins and meant either "free" or "generous". Britain had a Liberal Party from the 1860s, but that party had much older roots, being a merger of Radicals (left democrats often accused of being rabble-rousers and crypto-revolutionaries) with a larger group of Whigs, a party tracing its roots back to opposition to the King in the 1670s and even to the Parliamentary cause in the English Civil War and that of the Covenanters in Scotland. So there are some emerging themes - opposition to unlimited power, plus defence of individual and collective rights against a powerful centre.

The Liberal Party in Britain generally stood for the removal of privileges and barriers, for example the restriction of access to universities by religion, and led the gradual process of extending the vote to more and more groups during the 19th century. A commitment to free trade was seen as part of this opposition to unfair and divisive barriers and privileges. In the late 19th century the party increasingly perceived that liberty as well as compassion required an assault on extremes of poverty, and the Liberal Government of 1905-14 laid the foundations of a system of social insurance. Although the Whigs had once been a rather warlike party, Liberals were always more suspicious of military adventure and empire than their main opponents.

The rapid replacement of the Liberal Party by Labour as the main anti-Conservative party in the 1920s meant a deep decline but also to a painful process of redefinition and rededication in roughly the period 1928-1962.

So what came out of that? It matters to me because I joined the party as a student at the end of 1966.

I was joining a party that was uneasy with the facile categories of left and right, but on most issues stood on the left. It was not hostile to the state, but opposed what it saw as unnecessary growth of state power such as nationalisation of some industries. It defended individual liberty in moral matters and preached a revival of local initiative and collective self-help, instead of the centralisation and command planning popular with Labour at that time. It was internationalist, and without arguing against commitment to NATO and suchlike, sought a way out of military stockpiling and the Cold War. It was interested in giving real power to employees in companies. While less suspicious of business interests than Labour, it was not a "businessmen's party" as some continental Liberal parties had become.

Perhaps what attracted me most was the commitment to facilitating local, free, collective action wherever possible instead of either passive acceptance of central state power or big business power.

Next time I'll try to define what I mean when I say I'm a Liberal and what that means for British Liberalism now.

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