The word liberal. Is its modern meaning the freedom to oppress?

If you vote Liberal in Australia, you’re choosing the conservative option: liberal in economics and on freedom from state control, tougher on immigration and crime. In the USA, by contrast, ‘liberal’ is the Republicans’ term of abuse for leftist Democrats and their angry identity politics. In Great Britain, our political establishment and institutions are said to be immersed in ‘liberal-left’ ideology, despite their decidedly illiberal rejection of the democratic verdict in the EU referendum. So does ‘liberal’ mean anything nowadays?

Consider this flawed interpretation by Jane Moore, in her Sun column: –

‘Amal Clooney is a well-regarded human rights lawyer who uses her platform to highlight various liberal causes. So I was rather perplexed to hear that in 2012 she reportedly gave legal advice to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange on how to potentially sabotage the British government’s bid to arrest him. Whether you think Assange’s role in leaking 750,000 classified US documents was espionage or heroism, it remains that he was also trying to avoid extradition to Sweden where he faced charges of sexual assault. How, pray tell, does that fit with liberal values?’

This writer rather lazily seems to assume that certain causes are ‘liberal’, regardless of how they are pursued.  It would be justifiable to extradite Assange to answer the charge, but this is a matter of criminal justice – not liberal values. A true (albeit extreme) liberal position on crime and punishment was taken by one of my lecturers in mental health nurse training, who argued that prisons should be abolished. 

‘Liberal’ seems to mean whatever anybody wants it to mean. Communists could claim to be ultimately liberal, because their oppressive practices are intended to propel society to the sunny uplands of Marxism, where men and women shall be free for ever more. Calling for increased stop-and-search to curtail knife crime would seem sensible to many people, but it is hardly liberal to do this, unless one takes a long-term view of the mantra that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.

The emancipatory movements that erupted in the 1960s are more accurately described as liberal: the civil rights campaign by black Americans, gay activism, feminism, and anti-Apartheid protests. Freedom and equal rights were pursued against conservative opposition, but campaigners continued beyond justice to demand special rights. As a result quotas and ‘protected characteristics’ under the Equality Act have distorted the meaning of liberalism, leading us from a permissive to a puritanical society.

The lack of insight of those who define themselves as liberal is a feature of our hypocritical society. The freedom to be gay, for example, has progressed to LGBT propaganda pervading every public space. The freedom to observe the Muslim faith has led to the silencing of any criticism of Islam, and the prospect of a selective blasphemy law.  Debate, which should be promoted in universities, is quashed by ‘no-platforming’ and ‘safe spaces’ to protect the sensitivities of supposedly vulnerable groups. In wider society, calling out the madness of transgenderism is criminalised as ‘hate speech’. Instead, free speech has been reinterpreted as a pernicious medium for right-wing bigots. Libertarianism, once part of the liberal family, has been orphaned.   

The EU is assumed by Remainers to be a liberal project. Leave voters, by contrast, see a remote bureaucratic fiefdom that suppresses national autonomy. Political theorist Steve Hilton, in his book More Human (2015), acknowledged that ‘as an expression of the liberal values of democracy and freedom, it was a beacon to the subjugated peoples of Europe’. But Brussels now stifles democracy and liberty to chase a collectivist Utopian dream: ‘the whole point of the EU is to take power out of people’s hands, in pursuit of a greater good.’

The pages of progressive literature are filled with alarm at the threat to ‘liberal democracy’, whether on the anti-Trump and anti-Brexit diatribes on Waterstone’s shelves or in current affairs magazines such as the Economist, Prospect, Time or Foreign Affairs on the racks at WH Smith. The culprit is ‘populism’. But populism is democracy in practice: the people voted for Trump, Bolsonaro, Brexit and La Liga because they were exasperated by duplicitous politicians’ subservience to a new world order that sacrifices jobs and security for open borders and global capitalism.

The self-serving political class in Western societies is refusing to listen to the electorate, repudiating their votes as ignorant or the result of malevolent forces (typically Russian, with Putin playing the role of Emmanuel Goldstein in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four). Police brutality against the gilets jaunes in France, and the prosecution of protestors for coarse language outside Westminster (James Goddard got a suspended prison sentence for calling Anna Soubry MP a ‘Nazi’) show the determination of those with power and privilege to suppress the great unwashed.  

As a lecturer I am keenly aware of the failings of liberal teaching in our education system. Reform is needed urgently, as we are in danger of losing the values of the Enlightenment and our Judaeo – Christian heritage. The educated younger generations have been hardwired to worship the EU, Jeremy Corbyn’s socialist fantasies and multiculturalism, have little identification or pride in their country despite its wonderful contribution to the world’s past, present and future.  Few really respect democracy or uncensored debate.

Things may get worse before they get better, but hope has been renewed by our new prime minister, the swashbuckling Boris Johnson. Like his hero Winston Churchill, Boris is an impassioned champion of liberty. Churchill was for many years a Liberal MP, until he saw the Conservative Party as the vehicle for maintaining the civic order on which the practice of liberal principles depends. Today, the Liberal Democrat Party is a double misnomer, being anti-democratic in its headline policy to ‘stop Brexit’, and illiberal in its censorial attitudes (for example, relatively likeable leader Tim Farron resigned after his embarrassingly normal Christian beliefs were exposed).

A free marketer and slayer of political correctness, Boris is considerably more liberal than the party he leads and most occupants of the opposition benches. In his controversial Telegraph column on the burka, he defended the right of women to wear this alien garb, while exercising licence to satire. But now Boris has more important priorities than his weekly preaching to the already-converted. His singular resolve is to get us out of the EU and defeat the trenchant Remain miserabalists. Freedom from foreign oppression, as he sees the Brussels regime, is a liberal venture. In the hysteria of the BBC and Guardian, he is castigated as the British Trump or worse, but he puts a spring in the step of the ordinary people, who are sick and tired of contrived doom and gloom.

‘Liberal’ has been hijacked as a virtue of progressive ideology, but the backlash against mean-spirited and subversive identity politics is growing. Without democracy and freedom of expression, what is liberal in society – apart from the special rights afforded to favoured groups? At last we have a leader of true liberal outlook, who realises that tough decisions must be made to ensure that liberty is revived. Let us pray that his irrepressible energy frees us from the shackles.  

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25 Comments on The word liberal. Is its modern meaning the freedom to oppress?

  1. Matt – it’s hard to believe that WS really wrote that bit of doggerel on his alleged grave. Pythagoras and The Philosopher (Aristotle) are the subject of jokes but I’d be intrigued by evidence of Catholic morality as compared with what might be expected in a Christian country. There was a continuing interest in secret Catholics but evidence is less secure. Pepys, for instance, entertained allegations about Charles II but there was no hard evidence as far as I know.

  2. Liberals, which no longer exist, sought the personal freedom to pursue the degenerate and reprobate.

    The current progressive seeks to force everyone to revel in the degenerate and reprobate regardless of whether they wish to or not.

  3. Yes, but not to forget that one reason for encouraging the maximum liberty of action and thought is because it allows people to be the best version of themselves possible, as inventors, wealth creators, soldiers, nurses etc, and that benefits all of us. Confining freedom and initiative to a totalitarian group – the F*ck Boris demonstrators last night for example, or their soul mates ruling Iran, cuts out the best of humanity from making the world better.

  4. I always think of small ‘c’ conservatism as:

    1) Promoting, above all, the liberty of the individual.

    2) Providing that liberty with brakes and a steering wheel – in the form of Judeo-Christian traditions and teaching, the Common Law and social mores that prevent the liberty of the individual from encroaching on or impeding the liberty of other individuals.

    A conservative seeks to conserve No 2) as necessary to safeguard No 1).

    A socialist doesn’t believe in No 1) and thus has no need of No 2)

    A modern ‘liberal’ believes in No 1) but sees No 2) as an obstruction, rather than a safeguard.

  5. In my youth “Liberal” was a political position between Conservative and Labour, accepting the positive features from both sides but opposing the bad extremes of both. It has been hijacked, now being a disguise to drag those with genuine old-Liberal views into a fairly extreme left wing camp, plus, believe or not, genuine Conservatives (who have not checked the pedigree Of those modern (fake) “Liberals”, or “Liberal Democrats”). In a similar way the formerly perfectly good words “progressive” and “gay” have been hijacked, also that wonderful display in the sky, the rainbow (described in Genesis as being “My bow”, ie God’s bow). We do indeed live in dark days, and our simple answer is to avoid the use of hijacked words and call things by what they really are.

    • We live in the best days we’ve ever had, and if some words changing meaning is the worst thing you have to worry about then you are truly fortunate.

      • Some words have changed meaning so recently as people think – ‘gay’ in its present form goes back 100 years or more. Lewis Carrol was familiar with this sort of thing which is why he had Humpty Dumpty say what he did about words meaning what he wanted them to mean.

        However ……. that is not a general rule. take ‘islamophobia’ for instance. That word has transformed a rational and justified fear of a dangerous supremacist racist misogynist intolerant belligerent political religion into something to apologise for. The West and East (china and similar) are threatened by it yet Muslim crime and totalitarianism is ignored in the media and among our rulers.

      • Sorry Roger, but these are not “the best days we’ve ever had”. Winston Churchill was correct when he said that 1940 was our finest hour. The country was under siege, people were being killed by enemy action, food was limited, but public spirit and patriotism were high (including in Parliament), the streets generally were safe at night without street lights, Britain was Britain (and I lived through those years). When I said that we are now in dark days I wasn’t thinking only about a few word changes, but about the situation of which these are example indicators. Maybe you cannot remember the early 1940s?

  6. Lib dems classic example. Neither liberal nor democratic.

    Jo Simpson – ‘I would not accept the result of a second (and presumably third, fourth, fifth referendum) if the result was once again leave.’
    One wonders what would happen if everyone in the country voted to leave except

        • Yes Michaela, Violet Elizabeth, in response to one of Just William’s ideas. You see, I am ancient enough to recognise good old kids’ fun!

          • It’s still amuses – my children and grandchildren love the stories though they are about 100 years old. Richmal wrote a few adult novels with the same wit and in which occasional child-wickedness drives the plot. Of course, you can’t talk about the author these days without having speculations about whether she batted for the other side, shopped around the corner and walked with a squeak!

  7. Whatamazes me is the onslaught of the Remainer liberal elite on the Brexiteers for having, apparently, been responsible for all the ills the country has faced since the Referendum – otherwise known as the People’s Vote BTW, when the real reason has been the deliberate and sustained sabotaging of the vote to leave. So certain were they that they would win that every Remainer voice stated that the result would stand- but only of course if they won. Ironically Farage was the only one to state that if Leave lost the battle would go on. He did not say how. Soubry and her followers have cost this country billions as the world stands perplexed at the spectacle of our version of democracy.

  8. The Liberal Democrats wish to overturn the democratic mandate. As such, they are illiberal totalitarians. One wonders if Mz Swinson has read 1984?

    • If she has, she’ll have taken it for a handbook.
      I have wondered how that book is taught these days in schools when it’s no longer fantasy. Maybe a teacher could let us know.

    • The problem, Mr Weston, with the “democratic mandate” is that a run of three successive good referendum results doesn’t mean that future referendum results will be as satisfactory. There are millions of non-British voters, and their numbers are increasing, while our numbers are diminishing. Try to think of democracy as I do: a means to an end, not an end in itself.

      • True – but wouldn’t you agree that democracy is more than ‘the least worst’ way of ruling as Aristotle and Lincoln said. There is merit in talk and critical discussion for their own sake – though the way it’s done these days with tweets is not edifying. Peripatetic chat was what made the Academy and the Lyceum such timeless contributors to human thought surely?

  9. Any form of liberalism that isn’t preceded by the word “classical” isn’t liberalism.

    Instead it is usually a bunch of puritans telling us how we should be living.

    Life has been like this since the English Civil War, and it is about time that the cavalier amongst us made our presence known again.

  10. Feste: But indeed words are grown very rascals since bonds disgraced them.
    Viola: Thy reason man?
    Feste: Truth sir, I can yield you none without words, and words are grown so false I am loath to prove reason with them.
    (Twelfth Night, 2.5)
    WS uses his extensive knowledge of the ancients throughout his plays and the above, I think, may come from reading Parmenides. (The RSC and BBC productions of this play miss out good Greek jokes because the directors don’t understand them. The Globe gets it right).
    We owe a lot to the pagans, as well as Moses and Jesus Christ. The teaching of virtue in schools and universities has failed, but vested interests and laziness prevent anything being done about it.
    All tyrants, not just the the totalitarian Left, use virtue-speak. Saddam told one of my students he was a ‘just but firm’ ruler. A member of one of the WW2 death squads in Poland told Christopher Browning that ‘it soothed his conscience’ to shoot only children who could not survive without their parents. A Rwandan Hutu woman defended the killing of a Tutsi neighbour’s children with the exact same reason.
    Words are rascals. Matt 7.16, ‘by their fruits you’ll know them’ – itself repeating Aristotle’s phronesis, practical virtue.

    • “WS uses his extensive knowledge of the ancients throughout his plays and the above, I think, may come from reading Parmenides.”

      The writings of Parmenides survive in various fragments quoted by various ancient authors, such as Athenaeus, who were obscure and untranslated in Shakespeare’s time. I don’t think WS had even heard the name of Parmenides.

      How, in any case, do you connect Parmenides, the most abstract of all philosophers, with the teaching of virtue? I was taught virtue in school (instead of being taught that sodomy is virtuous, as happens nowadays), but Moses and St Paul were the authorities I was taught to respect. I didn’t meet Parmenides until years later, when I heard somebody quoting him for fun and thought, “Hang on a minute: that may not be as silly as it sounds.”

      • Thank you. I wasn’t aware translation was so late – but surely WS would have read Greek and Latin, taught by his Welsh Grammar School master who is parodied in the Henrys?? I wasn’t thinking of Parmenides (obscure, yes) on virtue but his critical attitude to whatis and what is not, the beginning of a self-conscious undermining of blind trust in language and common sense. Maybe he was influenced by Xenophanes: a version of his famous ‘human knowledge is a web of guesses’ is one of my favourite quotes (and a foundation stone of Conservatism’s caution and hesitancy about Grand Programmes).

        Whatever you and I were taught about Moses, Jesus and St Paul it had little effect on crime and vice (I would hazard) but the room for flexibility in the Commandments (sometimes it’s right to lie and kill) and the acceptance of the varying contexts and times has ensured the teachings endure. (All Ethics is footnotes to Moses?) Islam fails because it’s hard to find an ethical component in it – zakat is a mechanical soulless set of rules and the numerous threatening lines in the Koran are an imperative that only Ahmadi Muslims eschew as far as I know.

        • I think you’re right, Shakespeare had a first rate classical education. It would at least indirectly include Father Parmendkes and Heraclitus through Aristotle’s references to them.

          It would be surprising if Shakespeare were to turn out not Catholic. His writings all reflect Catholicism amidst the catastrophe of his times. And also important for us is that he knew how to write and not appear to have written, a skill needed in today’s persecution of reason and eros.

          • Thank you. Can you supply examples of his Catholicism I wonder. Not something I’d noticed, but I tend to stick to the comedies and the Henry plays. (We have tragedy aplenty in real life!)

          • Amazingly the BBC series and book by Michael Wood suggests this possibility. Clare Asquith wrote on it also. There are books going back at least 80 years which discuss the possibility, and bring up apparent connections to the martyr Robert Southwell.

            But just sensitve reading of Shakespeare listening for the moral point of view and an echo spiritual warning is to me the most convincing.

            Some gallows humour. Under Henry’s reign, large numbers of Catholic graves were destroyed and the bodies dispersed (along with the destruction of stained glass and sculptures in churches). Perhaps this explains the odd text of imprecation Shakespeare added to his tomb regarding disturbing his bones.