What is Liberalism?

The basic philosophical and practical foundations of British Liberalism have been a belief in personal, political, economic and social liberalism, combined with a strongly internationalist approach to extending these self-same freedoms across the world.  Liberalism is, by every instinct, an internationalist creed.

This is David Laws definition and is from The Orange Book: Reclaiming Liberalism.  I’m going to draw heavily on this book in what follows.

Personal liberalism is easy; it is freedom of the individual from all forms of oppression including oppression by the state.  It is also freedom from ignorance, intolerance, prejudice and conformity.  But it is not a code-word for anarchy.  The basic tenet is maximal personal freedom without impinging on the freedom of others, so it is freedom under the law.

Political liberalism is the belief that power should be exercised in a democratic way through transparent and accountable structures, as close to the people affected as possible – that is, decentralisation and devolution of power.  As such it has much affinity with David Cameron’s Big Society discussed previously.

Economic liberalism is the belief in the value of free trade and free markets.  It is the belief that a private sector with open competition and consumers free to chose between products is at the root of a healthy economy.  It is also the belief that monopolies are bad and that we should be wary of state control and interference.  Note the word control: it does not mean unregulated.

Social liberalism came relatively late to the game but it is an acknowledgement that personal, political and economic liberalism are not enough on their own to ensure freedom for everyone.  It is a belief that education, housing, healthcare, and freedom from poverty are also necessary for the freedom of an individual.

So what about internationalism? Liberalism stands against narrow interests – whether they be of class or of nation – in favour of the general interest.  I can do no better and be no more topical than ape David Laws’ use of Gladstone:

Remember the rights of the savage, as we call him.  Remember that the happiness of his humble home, remember that the sanctity of life in the hill villages of Afghanistan among the winter snows, is as inviolable in the eyes of Almighty God as can be your own

Personal and political liberalism are what set us apart from Labour who are, by instinct, authoritarian and statist.

The Conservatives also now believe in personal and political liberalism, and these form the basis of our current coalition, but they are not strong believers in internationalism.  I say they “now believe” with reason; for much of the 20th century they have been just as guilty as Labour of centralising all power in Westminster.  It is only with David Cameron that policy seems to have reverted to what I think is the natural instinct of their party.

All three parties believe in economic liberalism to some extent.  The Conservatives policies are the most liberal; Labour’s the least.  Our thinking is divided, and I think because of confusions over social liberalism.

None of the parties believe anyone should be deprived of housing, education or healthcare, or that any should live in poverty.  But the motivations are different.  At heart, I think Labour still believe in a Fabian redistributive model and the Conservatives still cling to trickle-down beliefs.  I think our belief is different because we believe these things are a prerequisite for individuals to fully exercise their freedom and for them to fully participate in power.

So why does this confuse us on economic liberalism?  Because I think many on the left have come from a Labour background and are applying redistributive and statist thinking where it doesn’t really apply.  Let me put it another way: we want to ensure people are provided with essential services and are free from poverty and have opportunity to earn to their maximum ability (without any nasty poverty traps).  We are not trying to redistribute wealth in some egalitarian belief that all people should have equal income.

You may think I’m some kind of closet-Tory (see I used the word; see my entry on terminology).  I am not.  Though we share beliefs with the Conservatives in personal and political liberalism, they do not believe in internationalism or in social liberalism.  Further than that, a belief in the traditional and a distrust of large projects and large changes is at the heart of Conservatism.  We are radicals, prepared to rip-up policies and start again.

Incidentally, some Conservatives do not believe in personal liberalism.  These are best personified by the hate-filled headlines in the Daily Mail.  My belief (and experience) is that this does not represent the views of the majority of Conservatives but it arises from them attracting a particularly mean-spirited set of C1 voters (who sadly swing elections).

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