Authoritarian must be forestalled (Fatih Aktas/Anadolu via Getty Images)

November 7, 2023   5 mins

Away from the horror unfolding in Israel, the past month has provided one long acid test for the West’s commitment to liberal values. What are we to make of middle-class bien pensants asserting that mass murder requires “context”, of the overt antisemitism, and of a police force that makes excuses for theocrats calling for “jihad” on the streets of London? For some, this is proof of the failure of multiculturalism. For others, it is the final straw that broke the back of liberalism. Hate speech laws must now be strengthened, certain protests ought to be banned, and we must no longer tolerate the intolerant.

Republican senator Tom Cotton has called for those who express support for Hamas to be deported, and Donald Trump has promised to do so if re-elected. In France, Emmanuel Macron has outlawed pro-Palestine rallies on the grounds of maintaining public order, although his decree has been largely ignored. Closer to home, a pro-Palestinian protest has been scheduled in London for Armistice Day, a tactic surely intended to generate as much outrage and attention as possible.

In that respect, it has already succeeded. Rishi Sunak has stopped short of a ban, but has called on the Met Police to make “robust use” of its powers to prevent the Remembrance events being disrupted. In this, he is out of kilter with the majority of the country: only 18% believe it “should be allowed to go ahead”.

Liberalism has always been a tricky prospect, cherishing personal autonomy and freedom of speech up to the point where our behaviour encroaches on the rights of others. To ideologues, it is a poison, because it rejects their insistence that we ought to follow a preordained set of rules. Some even claim that liberalism is itself an ideology, though I see it as the precise opposite: it is the repudiation of ideological thinking — because it refuses to accept oversimplified interpretations of reality, or to outsource our decision-making capacities to an already established creed. This is why there are liberals on the Left, the Right, and everywhere in between.

Yet it has been dispiriting to see our commitment to Enlightenment values being assaulted on multiple fronts. There are theocratic extremists who oppose free speech and would happily see blasphemers and apostates executed. There are Western activists intoxicated by the moonshine of intersectional identity politics calling for censorship and other restrictions. And now, we have those who once considered themselves to be “liberal” pronouncing that there should be limitations to freedom of speech and assembly.

Even those who have previously decried “cancel culture” appear to be relishing its impact on their opponents. A lecture at Liverpool Hope University by Professor Avi Shlaim, a critic of Israel, was cancelled out of concern for the “safety and wellbeing” of students; Michael Eisen, a geneticist at UC Berkeley, was fired as editor-in-chief of eLife magazine for sharing a satirical article from The Onion which took a pro-Palestine stance. Eisen, some have pointed out, had previously questioned whether cancellation really exists. But while a degree of schadenfreude is understandable, it is hardly helpful.

That there are no rulebooks to consult is liberalism’s major appeal to those of a free-thinking disposition, but it is also the source of its instability. The authoritarian has no need to engage with his detractors; he can simply have them eliminated. By contrast, the liberal must find a way to coexist with those who yearn to see his freedoms quashed, to somehow reconcile himself to the multiplicity of human outlooks and their inherent incommensurability. But how can you run a marketplace of ideas while there are hooligans trying to overturn the tables?

This essential vulnerability is always tested in moments of crisis. Governments enact “emergency powers” when at war because short-term authoritarianism seems preferable to the alternative. So when protesters at pro-Palestine marches in London are holding signs that openly celebrate the slaughter, rape and kidnapping of civilians, and an official advisor to the Met police is filmed leading a chant of “from the river to the sea”, there will always be pressure from a justifiably incensed public to resort to authoritarian remedies.

Even in peacetime, liberalism is susceptible to changing trends within the nation state. What happens, for instance, when the majority of any given population rejects the liberal values upon which their society is based? What if a government has implemented reckless migration policies that grant citizenship to those who do not recognise the value of individual freedoms? In such circumstances, the principle of democracy could be its own undoing.

Sweden is often considered to be a case in point. According to its national police chief, the rapid surge in migration over the past decade has led to an “unprecedented” rise in gang warfare between those who do not respect the rule of law. On a recent trip to Stockholm, I found myself discussing the implications with a group of residents. One woman expressed the view that Swedish people tended to take liberalism for granted, and that they had assumed newcomers would be eager to adopt the values of the nation that had welcomed them. Now many fear that this was warm-hearted naivety, and that the government had not done enough to ensure widespread integration.

Liberal countries acknowledge their moral responsibility to offer asylum for those in need, and typically take a compassionate view towards foreigners seeking a more prosperous life. At the same time, there must be a degree of societal consensus for the ethos of these nations to survive at all. For where such a consensus is jeopardised, either through mass immigration or radical domestic political movements, the temptation to dispense with liberal values is inevitable. But to call for the deportation of citizens who actively seek the demolition of our culture is to surrender our principles to the very people who oppose them. It is to resign oneself to authoritarianism in a perverse effort to defeat it.

Inevitably, one thinks of Karl Popper’s famous paradox that “in the name of tolerance” we should claim “the right not to tolerate the intolerant”. This is often invoked by activists to defend censorship of their opponents, typically in the form of a well-known cartoon meme that decontextualises and misreads Popper’s formulation:

“Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.”

Popper’s next sentence is often omitted, in which he emphasises that so long as public opinion and rational argument can “keep them in check”, suppression of intolerant views would be “most unwise”. Protesters who take to the streets to celebrate murder fall into this category because they are self-discrediting. They are impervious to reason, but their sentiments are so essentially rebarbative that there is no risk of public opinion shifting in their favour.

But, some might respond, if liberalism is so delicate and continually under threat, why bother with it at all? In short: because it works. For all the claims by identitarian activists that the Western world is a racist hellhole, few living in the era of Jim Crow could have conceived of the advances we have made since then. The triumph of social liberalism is evident in multiple studies that show how Western societies are the most tolerant and diverse to have ever existed. It is no coincidence that all of the major civil rights movements — for black emancipation, feminism and gay rights — have traditionally been underpinned by a commitment to free speech and liberal ideals.

Of course, it is only natural that our patience is wearing thin. Having already witnessed pro-Palestine protesters in London throwing fireworks at police, and chanting in support of “Intifada” on the Tube, there can be no guarantees that such behaviour won’t be repeated on Saturday. The timing seems not only calculated to maximise publicity, but also as a declaration of contempt for British values and history.

But even if unruly and disrespectful, it would be self-defeating to ban the protest, or to insist on deportations for the worst offenders. Taking action against direct incitement to violence is one thing, but compromising on our key values is another. If we renege on our principles at the very moment when they are most imperilled, we risk undermining the very foundations upon which our civilisation is built. The authoritarian instinct may be a human constant but, with vigilance, it can be forestalled.

Andrew Doyle is a comedian and creator of the Twitter persona Titania McGrath