‘Liberalism: The Life of an Idea’, by Edmund Fawcett

A portrait of a sometimes elusive political creed casts its net wide. Review by Samuel Brittan

Liberalism: The Life of an Idea, by Edmund Fawcett, Princeton, RRP£24.95/$35, 488 pages

Liberalism is one of those concepts that seems clear-cut, until we try to define it. It is easier to come to terms with on a comparative rather than an absolute basis. Gorbachev was clearly a more liberal ruler of Russia than Stalin. More parochially, Westminster was a more liberal school than Eton in the immediate postwar decades.

Edmund Fawcett has taken on a brave task in Liberalism: The Life of an Idea. The author, a journalist who worked for more than three decades at the Economist, has wisely limited himself to concentrating on political liberalism and on four countries – the US, the UK, France and Germany – and on the period from 1830 onwards. Nevertheless, I wish he had said more on antecedents. Voltaire, the 18th-century philosophe, was clearly a liberal in the modern sense. And I am sure there were elements of liberalism as far back as the pre-Socratic philosophers.

Fawcett characterises liberalism by four basic beliefs: recognition of the inescapable conflict within society; distrust of power; faith in human progress; and respect for all people. The only one I would query is progress. Russian literature must be full of pessimistic liberals. Of his many suggested definitions I prefer: “Liberalism is a practice of politics for people who will not be bossed about or pushed around by superior power, whether the power of the state, the power of wealth or the power of society.”

To add to the contemporary confusion, liberals in the US tend to favour an extensive economic and social role for government. George Bush Sr tried indeed to tar his Democratic opponents with the “l” word. Polls suggest that only 20 per cent of the US electorate consistently uphold liberal positions. European liberals, on the other hand, are often accused of a doctrinaire adherence to laisser faire. Moreover, few of the political parties with a claim to be liberal actually used that word in their titles. The exceptions are the British Liberal party and the German National Liberals; and the latter went over all too soon to the side of Bismarck.

The most dubious part of the book relates to the period after the second world war. Here Fawcett discovers a wide variety of purportedly liberal thinkers. They range from Michael Oakeshott and Isaiah Berlin to Friedrich Hayek, George Orwell, Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, John Rawls, Robert Nozick, Ronald Dworkin, Pierre Mendès-France, Milton Friedman, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and François Mitterrand, to name but a few.

If all these are liberals, then liberalism comprises almost any set of beliefs of a non-totalitarian or non-authoritarian kind. Friedman, for instance, rather liked the word liberal; but ultimately he did not mind what he was called so long as people accepted his arguments. I doubt Sartre ever called himself a liberal in this sense. And although Thatcher’s followers, or some of them, would maintain that she upheld a liberal tradition, she hardly ever used the term herself.

Fawcett is unsparing about the potential and sometimes actual clashes within liberalism. Put crudely, there is no guarantee that a wide franchise and majority voting will lead to the tolerant individualism beloved by liberals – although the historical record suggests that is a better bet than autocracy or oligarchy. In the early 20th century a split developed between those liberals who favoured free competitive markets and those interested in causes such as anticensorship or open government. The former tended to become a conservative subgroup and the latter to become indistinguishable from social democrats. But the separation has impoverished both sides.

The willingness in the UK of Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats to deal with whichever of the two larger parties has a plurality is often dismissed as cynicism. But not so fast. Despite the element of opportunism involved, and for all the recent reversals, there is here a possibility of building a rampart against self-interested conservatism and a would-be egalitarian bulldozer.

Samuel Brittan is a former economics editor of the Financial Times

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