Thursday, 2 June 2011

Wrestling with 'muscular' liberalism - pt1

"if you have a final answer, no sacrifice is too great for it... and then there is the temptation, if you think you have it, to do awful things."
Isaiah Berlin

20th Century politics and the Cold War in particular were shaped by the ideological divide between positive and negative liberties Berlin described, just as 20th Century events and the Cold war in particular were shaped by decisions made in and over Berlin. The political failure which led politicians to argue for, agitate for, and undertake those atrocities now cited as justification for current policy decisions means how we understand the intellectual issues at the heart of this matter determines how we frame the policy choices facing us to this day.

In simple terms it was, according to Berlin, the over-emphasis on either of these tendencies which resulted in the horrific failures by those political leaders who held the city in their grasp - positive liberty caused coercion on the individual, while negative liberty had to be imposed upon the state to prevent those same coercive policies (just think Chile and Vietnam).

But for thinkers like Berlin meaningful questions are those which would necessarily produce different results under different circumstances rather than this endless merry-go-round. Was it, for example, that some countries (such as Britain) saw less dramatic scenes because the politicians were more moderate, or were the politicians less extreme because the public were more conscious of historical precedents and therefore more cautious of radical promises?


Here, I want to take this up in discussion about LibDem strategic policy direction (how this relates to Obama's recent announcements relating to the Arab world in the aftermath of the 'Arab Spring' and its impact on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict I'll take up in another post).

As the third party in UK politics, the LibDems are often caught between the two stools of positive and negative liberty, and unsympathetic opponents on either side are naturally enough given an open goal to attack on the grounds of unrealistic idealism or a betrayal of principles. However much it hurts to admit it there will necessarily be an element of truth to both arguments which are impossible to ignore when considering recent election results, but so long as these critiques remain equally valid there is still hope that thinkers such as Berlin may offer a route to electoral salvation.

Twas ever thus. The LibDems emerged just as Berlin's ideological Cold War came to a close with the fall of the eponymous Wall, but as the traditional LibDem baiter Simon Jenkins regularly points out with such relish the party suffers from 'The Liberal Paradox' of existing within a polarised oppositional parliamentary system and this diminishes prospects of power - as he says their best hope of influence only amounts to "power for an hour".

Jenkins obviously considers LibDems as a block on his poralised knock-about style of politics. Even back in 2007 he was calling for LibDems to disband, asking the rhetorically magnificent question "What are the LibDems for?" - it wouldn't matter how this was answered, it was designed to divide.

And Jenkins has clearly arrived at a final solution to all our problems, so it's worth mentioning in this context that one of Berlin's potentially 'awful things' would be the final demise of the LibDem party without any corresponding implementation of Liberalism (preferably with a big dose of Democracy thrown in).

All the same this question is, as James Graham successfully argued, one that is peculiarly required of LibDems. Nobody really asks what Labour or Conservative parties are for because we don't need to ask, we already know who they are for. But in the battle to write a coherent narrative LibDems can't simply accede to Lab-Con wishes and state broad-brush favoritism for whatever section of society the other parties can't or won't digest, the LibDems must be able to set out their own agenda.

So Nick Clegg's speech to mark the first anniversary of the coalition government which came in the wake of a bad set of local election results (notable for the unrelenting attacks from either wing on the grounds of unrealistic idealism the betrayal of principles) is interesting for the way in which he (somewhat bashfully) announced a more assertive style of 'muscular liberalism'.

As Glen Oglaza reports, Clegg acknowledges both the need to have a distinctive voice and for it to be heard more widely.

For those LibDems dismayed that Jenkin's prediction of a slow and tortured demise may be coming true this was a timely intervention, but as I asked Simon Goldie, could 'muscular liberalism' create a unifying narrative to drive LibDem party fortunes forward and help further the advance of more liberal policies?


First a quick recap.

The Guardian's Michael White notes the origins of the phrase date back to the 1850s when Charles Kingsley and Thomas Hughes are credited with inventing 'muscular Christianity' to revitalise the established Church of England in the face of numerous threats, such as evangelicals, Anglo-Catholics, anarchists and atheists. This strategic doctrine fostered the zeal of several generations of imperial missionaries who carried the message of the British Empire to all the corners of the planet.

More recently, in 2003 The Economist recorded the promotion of a group of assertive liberal voices to the frontbench of the LibDems under Charles Kennedy to 'beef up' their credentials within those portfolios where the party was traditionally seen as weak - these included Vince Cable, David Laws and Mark Oaten.

And in February earlier this year David Cameron used his speech the the Munich Security Conference to attack 'the doctrine of state multiculturism' by couching it in terms of liberal values which must be actively promoted. These included freedom of speech, freedom of worship, democracy, the rule of law and equal rights regardless of race, sex or sexuality.

Right-winger John Derbyshire couldn't be more scathing as he percieves further loss of control to the state, "Could any notion be more contrary to the classic Tory ideal than 'muscular liberalism'?"

Meanwhile, from the opposite side of the debate, Maahwish Mirza objects to the suggestion that "multiculturalism itself is destructive and leads to segregation in society," tellingly concluding that "a strand of liberalism that works to force liberalism on to a society or hold a monopoly over culture sounds like a paradoxical idea."

In a lengthy conversation regarding the political situation of Jews in America in Standpoint magazine (I'll refer to this again when dealing with Obama's foreign policy shift) Ruth Wisse and Jack Wertheimer conclude western civilisation is itself founded on liberal values, but that it "must speak with the voice of moral confidence" in order to uphold and spread those cultural and political values.

As Wisse says, the post-war period was when muscular liberalism was at it's height, 
"One had just fought the war and one knew what the war had been fought over and for and there was a sense that evil in the world meant political evil. The worst forces, the most malevolent political forces, were ranged against the Jews - Jews as representatives of a kind of liberal democracy."
Elsewhere Sunder Katwala of the left-leaning Fabian Society gives space to examine the right-leaning Demos' 'interpretion' of the doctrine.

Max Wind-Cowie argues it always serves political, economic and strategic interests to create a link with open and democratic liberal values because this ensures security and prosperity.

In an interesting twist (and in more considered language) Katwala thoroughly slams this 'impractical' ideology for failing to engage with the "real and legitimately contested debates" of the precise content of these liberal values and how they can be successfully advanced in practise.

Sunder complains that the tonal emphasis on interventionist gunboat diplomacy and a more 'muscular' approach to security is upsetting to defenders of civil liberties. While he argues because it is more reminiscent of the macho neo-conservatism of recent years (which shares his own 'robust' 'social democratic defence of human rights and democracy) that there is potential for wider appeal, he claims this raises so-far unanswered questions about the means to be used to pursue these mainstream values.

I, for one, cannot validate the criticisms in his commentary: as a philosophic starting point providing an outline of specific values also provides an implicit direction.

Overwhelming concern for welfare spending without regard for the actual impact creates distrust against partisan opponents which makes it all too easy for welfare doves to overlook the basic precept that all means must be means-tested (or at least they will be when put into action) or it allows welfare hawks to ignore the self-imposed judgement inherent in espousal of liberal over conservative tradition - undermining the left's claims to robustness and the right's claims to reliability.

But equally I cannot uphold Wind-Cowie's lack of consistency on putting principle into practise.

While Max can convince on foreign policy and geo-political analysis in rejecting both 'old-left' and 'old-right' (on the cultural relativism which tolerates intolerance out of misplaced cultural sensitivity and the amorality resulting from any constant battle for dominance), he can't bring himself to apply this outlook equally to party political judgement, exposing a wide gap between strategy and tactics.


Which brings me back to Nick Clegg's hesitancy to adopt the phrase 'muscular liberalism' as his personal LibDem narrative.

As we can see above there is much baggage associated with the term, and although it accords more closely with his position it is awkward for Clegg that Cameron got there first to appropriate it in the media mind. Yet it is a big feather in his cap to see the enthusiasm his coalition partner lavishes upon it, even if this was just a passing fad (Wind-Cowie's blog has significantly declined in output as Cameron's Munich speech fades in the memory and attempts to replace multi-culturalism with a 'big society' fails to gain traction) and perhaps it's smarter to allow the term to fade gradually into the background, assimilated by opponents or as an example of how he is actually exerting influence over them.

So while 'muscular liberalism' could be a good banner for Clegg to hoist, and because he'd create a hostage to fortune by being forced to further deliniate the lines of difference between the coalition parties, perhaps he doesn't need to and would be well advised not to try - that is, if other alternative desriptions can be found to fulfil the same purpose which compensate for the gaps in Cameron's interpretation.

In this case it's helpful to return to his earlier speeches and articles where he offers his arguments in favour of his liberal narrative - you can read the archive of his political columns for yourself.

Back in 2004, before the financial crisis and whilst still an MEP, Clegg asserted his party's guiding values,
"changes in British society have created a natural convergence with much of what Lib Dems aspire to: political pluralism, internationalism, liberal on moral issues, environmentally aware, attentive to local needs, hostile to overcentralised power, keen on individual choice... A future LibDem government is now no longer a laughable proposition."
He followed this up in 2007 with his emotional victory speech on accepting leadership of the party by placing his personal narrative within the framework of Berlin's 20th century conflicts:
"I was taught from an early age that Britain was a place of tolerance and pluralism, with a history steeping in democracy and the rule of law. I believe that liberalism is the thread that holds together everything that this country stands for. Pull out that thread and the fabric of our nation unravels."
He continued,
"We're a people with a strong sense of fair-play and social justice; an instinct to protect the environment for future generations. We're suspicious of arbitrary power, wary of government interference. We want to play an active, enlightened role in the wider world. And we have always put our faith in the ability of ordinary people to change things for the better... I have one simple ambition: to change Britain; to make it the liberal country I believe the British people want it to be."
And in one of his original answers further back in 2002 Clegg makes clear that he campaigns for a reacknowledgement of those 'tried and tested' principles and values which won the battles throughout the period when we needed them most.

If anything strikes you from this it's that he isn't happy to play the Westminster game of relaunching himself every other month with a new soundbite and a couple of awfully expensive, ineffective and ill-considered initiatives cooked up for consumption by media consultants and focus groups and he sees no need to confuse the real issues: "Left, right? Neither. Just plain, old fashioned Liberalism. It's got a lot going for it."

Less meh, more yeah - you can't get much more distinctive than that!


Update: Malcolm Gladwell scratches his head over the rhetorical questions of asking if government policy is being influenced by LibDem thinking - if it isn't then what would be the point of being in coalition, but then how can you be sure unless differences are exposed?

Elsewhere Libertarian fullabeanz hopes the LibDems can replace Labour on the left of the political spectrum, but by flexing some 'steroid enhanced muscles' to put a block on the government agenda on areas like Andrew Lansley's NHS reforms, as he says, "they will show they have muscle but no balls".


Simon Goldie said...

It has been a while since I read Isiah Berlin's speech. But one should remember it came out of a specific time and was influenced by the definitions of what liberty could be. I think one of the problems for the advocates of negative liberty is that they sound as though they are holding the line against change. But if you read Hayek's 'Why I am not a Conservative' it is clear that he sees freedom as opening the gates to human creativity and spontaneous endeavour.

There appears great confusion over the notion of rationality. Hayek is caricatured as believing people are rational. In fact, he warns of the dangers of rationalism especially when it drives State policy.


As stated within your piece - unless the differences are exposed you cannot guage if/how libdem thinking is influencing the coalition.

I think it is and feel secure in that thought.