Monday, 21 November 2011

Updating Berlin's 'Two Concepts of Liberty'

This is written partly in response to Giles Fraser's questions "What is liberalism?" and "What is 'good' freedom?"


When in 1958 liberal philosopher Isaiah Berlin set out his epoch-defining argument of a dialectic between 'Positive Liberty' and 'Negative Liberty' he laid the theoretical foundations for the rebirth of liberal politics in the post-war period.

This perfectly-balanced rational understanding of human motivations spurred the regrowth of Britain's Liberal Party and consigned traditional duopolistic confrontation to irrelevance.

In fact, it was so successful that it broke the ideological deadlock between conservatism and socialism which  had gradually brought Britain and the world to its' knees, through christian democracy and social democracy which threatened to, and offered the only effective route out of the seemingly inevitable social strife and economic decline.

The detente of the mid-1970s transformed the political arena when Margaret Thatcher successfully seized control of right-wing debate by replacing 'conservatism' with 'negative liberty'. Labour's subsequent internal revolution during the mid-1980s then enabled Neil Kinnock to replace his own party's 'socialism' with 'positive liberty', symbolically completed by Blair's Damascene 'Clause IV moment'.

For a while the fate of liberal politics hung in the balance as the swings between right and left appeared to be reasserting the oppositional style of debate, reflected by the mirror images of Thatcher and Blair's three election victories, Major and Brown's abject defeats and the transition between aggression and consensualism and back again which marked the styles of each premiership.

But throughout this period something interesting was happening to the true inheritors of Berlin's vision: first with the short-lived support for minority government, then with the defection of the 'Gang of Four' which resulted in the evolution towards a refounded 'Liberal Democrat' party just at the point in history when the Wall of Berlin's own nominative city fell and reconcilation affected the nations of Europe. Until finally, at home, with moves accepting the productive possibilities of coalition government in an oppositional format realised after the 2010 general election.

But as we've seen the path to establishing the supremacy of liberal ideas hasn't been smooth. Indeed liberal ideology continues to be used to divide liberals as the practical debate over application of principles leads to disagreement over the degree to which positive and negative ideals should be emphasised.

The same debate has remained to the fore as extreme examples are presented showing how these ideals can be abused when unbalanced. The street violence in the wake of the ongoing crisis and policies of austerity are a prime exhibit of this mis-matching of cause and effect.

Berlin himself indicated the solution to this theoretical dichotomy when he proposed a pragmatic stratagem of 'elective affinity'.

So how does the ability to analytically distinguish and make trade-offs between, rather than conflate, our understanding of liberties impact upon the terminology of political debate?

While supporters of liberalism pre-Berlin stood opposed in equal measure to supporters of conservatism and socialism, this no longer applies and Liberal Democrats must unite behind a common language or be subsumed by the inheritors of a state where personal responsibility and state intervention are incompatible and their interrelation lost.

I propose a three-fold format.

Firstly, we clearly identify the opponents of liberty, with whom cooperation is impossible. They are the illiberals.

Secondly, we must identify the unreliable supporters of liberty, with whom we must attempt to cooperate in order to advance our mutual interest in freedom wherever realistically possible. They are the mono-liberals.

Finally, we should ourselves agree that we belong to none of those groups and articulate it. We are the pluralists. We are the liberal democrats.


It makes no sense to argue about whether liberals are 'classical' or 'social', either in political or campaigning terms. It simply divides us from ourselves and hinders our progess.

If the Liberal Democrats are to regain the initiative then the party must simply resist attempts by the other parties to conduct debate on their terms. If the party stands for anything then it must be liberal democracy.

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