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Why I welcome the Economist’s mea culpa Sensible liberalism and sensible populism are not as far apart as both sides think

Credit: Sylvain Lefevre/Getty Images

October 16, 2018   6 mins

Liberalism means many different things to many different people. But the ‘double liberalism’ (economic and social) that has dominated the West since the end of the Cold War – liberal-democratic internationalism, European integration, relatively open borders for trade and people and, at home, individualism, secularism, equality (though not economic) and multiculturalism – is finally beginning to adapt to the democratic revolt.

Or rather it is possible to detect the emergence of two broad strands of liberal response to recent events: the admonished and the militant. The latter is best represented by writers like AC Grayling and Oliver Kamm, most (though not all) supporters of a second Brexit referendum, and all those who like to preface the concept of sovereignty with the weasel word “notional” (yes, I mean you Andrew Adonis and Will Hutton!).

Consider this perfect expression of unrepentant, militant liberalism from Oliver Kamm in Prospect magazine last year: “In the era of Brexit, Corbyn and Trump, it’s natural for us in the despised metropolitan media liberal elite to engage in soul-searching. I’ve done it and arrived at the difficult but ineluctable conclusion that I’ve been right all along. Our ideas have worked; they need reasserting.” I wonder how long he spent searching.

Kamm at the end of that same piece provides rather a good (Isaiah Berlinish) definition of a less militant, more pluralistic, liberalism that has evidently inspired many admonished liberals:

“Liberalism is an optimistic creed not because of misconceptions about human benevolence but, on the contrary, because it recognises something intrinsic to our nature: we all have different goals and conceptions of the good. And the things we value can’t all be realised simultaneously and made compatible with each other. A liberal society is the best method yet devised of recognising this multiplicity of aims. It stresses value pluralism in the face of political and religious dogmatism.”

Yet liberalism has not taken its own liberalism seriously over the past three decades. It has solidified into the political package I described in the first paragraph – one might label it FT/Economist liberalism – and regards itself as self-evidently for the common good and open to challenge only at the margin.

In my own language the Anywhere worldview of openness, autonomy and mobility, underpinned by the ‘achieved’ identities of the exam-passing classes, largely ignored the discomfort of the less well educated, more rooted Somewheres about rapid social change and the erosion of national social contracts. It closed the so-called Overton Window around the liberal package and excluded or vilified most opponents.

One small way it did that is by not inviting critics of the package to its gatherings. As a journalist and think-tanker I have had the privilege of being invited to countless conferences of the British, intra-European and trans-Atlantic policy elite over the past 25 years. Attempts have usually been made to balance centre-Right and centre-Left and, latterly, to have some gender and ethnic diversity at such gatherings. But the idea of inviting Nigel Farage or Marine Le Pen to such an event would have been considered beyond the pale, even though both of them are intelligent and articulate representatives of the 20- 25% of voters who feel most hostile to the package.

I do not want to over-estimate the importance of those talking-shops, but if members of the liberal policy elite had actually met some real populists and had to engage with their ideas it’s possible that the liberal package might have been able to adapt rather better to its critics instead of facing the sudden shock of Brexit and Trump.

In any case, it may be too little, too late, but the barbarians have finally been ushered into the citadel by the admonished liberals. Let me cite two recent examples.

Earlier this summer I was invited to the Ambrosetti conference in Italy, a sort of Italian Davos. To my surprise I found myself on a panel with the very tall, baby-faced Geert Wilders. Also on the panel was Frans Timmermans, a vice-president of the EU Commission, who admitted to being a friend of Wilders, both of them are from the same part of the eastern Netherlands near the German border.

In the session Timmermans served up the old-time religion of European unity. He recalled how his coal miner grandfather had, before the Second World War, worked happily underground with many itinerant Italians and Germans, but then in the latter stages of that war had watched the obliteration of the nearby German city of Aachen, celebrating as every bomb landed. This, he said, is why we have the EU today.

The mainly pro-EU Italian audience of business people and academics clapped and cheered. A few minutes later they gave a less enthusiastic, but nonetheless respectful audience to Wilders who described the ethnic and religious transformation of some big Dutch cities.

A short time later another big beast of the populist world, Matteo Salvini the Italian interior minister, was ushered in. Before his arrival this mainly liberal audience were invited to vote (secretly) on the various options for handling the refugee crisis, with the vast majority opting for something like the Salvini/Australia option of stopping them arriving in the first place through deals with surrounding countries. When Salvini spoke he charmed what should have been a very hostile audience and got hearty applause at the end of his speech.

The second example, which I only watched on YouTube, was even more electrifying: Steve Bannon, the ex-Trump adviser, addressing a recent Economist conference in New York. I think it would be fair to say that Bannon had the better of the argument with the magazine’s editor Zanny Minton Beddoes, who is no push over.

Bannon drew critical attention to a 10,700-word essay on the future of liberalism in the magzine’s 175th anniversary issue, written by Minton Beddoes herself. He pointed out that there was no discussion of lost sovereignty or terrorism or crime or inequality. He was right. But he also missed a trick, because this essay is an extraordinary mea culpa from inside the heart of mandarin liberalism.

It concedes that modern liberalism has lost its way and become too associated with smug elites and the status quo; that it must be saved from itself. The essay accepts that liberals paid too little attention to the people and places harmed by trade and automation, and too little heed to the things people value beyond self-determination and economic betterment, such as their religious and ethnic identities.

It said liberal views on migration have been “more influenced by the ease of employing a cleaner than by fear of losing out”, and must take account of the fact that many people place greater weight on “ethnic and cultural homogeneity” than liberals do.

It recommended a tough line on refugees (not that different to Salvini’s), a version of ID cards, lower numbers and phased social rights for immigrants, and facing down the detached liberals who dominate our universities. Nigel Farage would have agreed with much of it.

I welcome the Economist essay and the invitations to Wilders and Bannon as evidence that perpetual political polarisation is not necessarily our fate, that sensible (admonished) liberalism and sensible populism, often just a form of small-c conservatism, are not as far apart as both sides often assume.

Most Somewheres, and most people who vote for populist parties, are not extremists but ‘decent populists’. By that I mean people who accept the broad assumption of human equality that has emerged in the last few decades because it has chimed with their own experiences and sense of fairness. But to most people the idea of human equality does not mean we have the same obligations to everyone, and decent populists have been especially alienated by the liberal drift towards post-national attitudes and the new aggressive identity politics – often driven by activists who command tiny levels of support in wider society.

But this is not just about feeling irritated by the proliferation of items on transgender politics on the BBC. Decent populists are not liberals in any meaningful modern sense, but neither are they illiberal, and liberals need to accept some of their communitarian political intuitions.

What are these intuitions? The importance of stable neighbourhoods and secure national borders; the value of national social contracts and the priority of citizen rights over universal rights; the importance of reciprocity and contribution, especially in welfare; the evolution but not abolition of the gender division of labour and support for family life; recognition and narrative (and decent training and post-school options) for those who are not cognitively blessed and upwardly mobile into the high-status professional world, but who still require a sense that they are useful and respected.

Liberals do not have to accept all those things, but they must not rig politics against the large minority, if not majority, of their fellow citizens who do embrace them. They remain free to argue for the liberal package, but need to persuade not impose. And they can, indeed should, try to police the line between legitimate and illegitimate populism.

One of those lines is racism, though that is itself a contested concept: put simply, discriminating between citizens and non-citizens is legitimate, discriminating among citizens on grounds of ethnicity in the welfare state or job market is not. Similarly with Islam, Islamism is a political threat that is legitimate to mobilise against, Islam itself may be in tension with aspects of modern liberal societies, but wanting to restrict the rights of Muslim citizens is a form of racism.

Admonished liberals do not always get it right. Theresa May arguably over-compensated for her Remain support in the first few weeks after the Brexit vote which is why it is now so hard to find a reasonable compromise on leaving the EU.

But it is important that the ideas in that Economist essay win the argument within liberalism, for it is on the common ground between mainstream decent populism and mainstream moderate – or admonished – liberalism that the future of our politics must stand.

David Goodhart is the author of Head, Hand, Heart: The Struggle for Dignity and Status in the 21st Century. He is head of the Demography unit at the think tank Policy Exchange.


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