What Now for Liberalism?
Liberalism is a loaded term; it means very different things to different people. It certainly means very different things on either side of the Atlantic. I am an old-fashioned liberal. Literally, I am an old-fashioned Liberal. I come from the European classical liberal tradition. My political hero is William Gladstone, closely followed by a trio of William Wilberforce, Herbert Asquith and David Lloyd George. Wilberforce led the campaign to abolish the slave trade in the early 19th century, while Gladstone, Asquith and Lloyd-George were three of the last four Liberal Party Prime Ministers in Britain. Gladstone, who together with Benjamin Disreali dominated Victorian politics, became Prime Minister for the first time in 1868. He served as Prime Minister four times, leaving the post for the last time 26 years later in 1894. Asquith and Lloyd George served as Prime Minister between 1908 to 1916 and 1916 to 1922 respectively. Give or take some differences, they embraced policies of free trade and open markets but also believed that the state had an important role in providing a safety net. Asquith’s government, with Lloyd George as Chancellor of the Exchequer, put in place the foundations of Britain’s welfare state with the “People’s Budget” of 1909.
Britain’s first past the post electoral system is unforgiving towards smaller parties, it was therefore somewhat inevitable that the Liberal Party would dwindle after being overtaken in the 1920s by Labour as one of the big two parties. However, its principles lived on and led to changes in both the Conservative and Labour parties. The Conservatives moved away from the protectionist stance they had held for much of the 19th century. Labour followed suit in their swing to Liberal positions. This was personified by the social reforming zeal of the Wilson government in the 1960s and economically during the Blair/Brown years. Over the last century both the Conservative and Labour parties have contained important liberal wings in their broad tents. In the case of the Conservatives this was personified by the virtually now extinct One Nation Tory tradition of politicians like Michael Heseltine and Ken Clarke and in more recent times Rory Stewart. In the case of Labour, it was embodied by the likes of Roy Jenkins and Tony Blair. I know that many of my Labour supporting socialist friends would wholeheartedly agree with the view that while a Labour Prime Minister, Tony Blair was never a Socialist. He was to all intents and purposes a Liberal. The nineties generally were good times for Liberals; Tony Blair was in 10 Downing Street, Bill Clinton in the White House. These were two politicians with whom I agreed with 75% of their policies. Yet in retrospect they were indicative of the inherent problems that liberalism in its broad form faces.
The recent UK election was a sobering experience for the political centre and left in Britain. It is strange watching an election from afar. In some respects, there is less noise, you don’t get the chatter of family, friends and colleagues. However, in these days, even if you’re living 5,000 miles away, you still see and hear everything. Social media in particular means that you can’t avoid the echo chamber. Indeed, if anything it amplifies it, reducing the risk of you coming across dissenting views. You run the risk of falling into the trap of believing that support for your viewpoint is overwhelming, thereby hardening your own perspective. That can then turn into disbelief if a result goes against you.
Since the election there has been much commentary about what happened and how Labour and the Liberal Democrats made strategic mis-steps in their election strategy. Much of the post-mortem currently going on within the Labour party is similar to the discussions taking place as the Democrat primaries approach here in the US. Over recent years the pendulum in the Labour and Democratic parties has swung leftwards. That does seem to have been accompanied by an increasing problem in both parties in talking beyond their echo chamber and reaching out with a positive message. To get elected you need to persuade people that your ideas are better, more worthy and more viable than others. In the recent UK election, I saw more anti-Liberal Democrat social media posts being bandied about by Labour than positive messages or even attacks against the Conservatives. But Labour needed Liberal and ‘Red Tory’ votes to get elected. They needed those who voted for Blair, maybe even Cameron. They needed those Conservatives who in 2019 were at least tempted to vote Liberal. Without that centrist swing vote it was going to be impossible for Labour to achieve a majority. If you don’t get that vote then you don’t get elected. This isn’t about compromise, just taking a positive message and debating with people, not shouting them down and arguing that they are wrong. Moving to the US has made particularly stark the realisation that many modern Liberals aren’t liberal, at least not given my classic definition of the word. I increasingly take umbrage at the use of the term Liberal, for they aren’t. They are increasingly dogmatic. There was a great quote in a Washington Post piece in 2017 that really sums this up; “The counterculture never died. It just switched sides. Transgression now lives on the right; dogmatism on the left.”
As so often dogmatism leads to the route of a journey being more important than the destination. The hard truth is that the Labour left and the progressive wing of the Democrats can be too unwilling to compromise, they demand total submission, for people to accept that they are right. However, there simply aren’t enough ‘true’ believers to get them elected. They therefore just end up shouting from the sidelines, all too knowing in the smugness of their perceived superiority. Bluntly, you just end up taking the high moral ground and shouting into your echo chamber. You become a protest movement rather than getting elected and becoming a positive force for change. The uncomfortable truth is that since Clement Atlee in 1945 only two Labour Party Leaders have managed to win a majority at a UK General Election, Harold Wilson and Tony Blair. Many on the left will hate me for saying this, but there is a reason why Wilson and Blair are the most successful post Atlee Labour leaders. They reached out to swing voters and convinced people to vote for the party. To use a somewhat provocative term, Wilson and Blair were in many respects far more inclusive than the left often are.
But is this the only problem? I don’t think it is. To begin with this is just an issue for the left, the centre have exactly the same issues. However, and more pertinently, this isn’t the first ‘disappointment’ for the centre and left in recent years. Yes, Populism has gained traction, but this isn’t just about Brexit or the election of Donald Trump, it also follows the growing support for conservative parties and the right in Europe and in Australia. In many respects, and in many different countries and contexts, this has been an electoral outcome that has been decades in the making and the issues aren’t going to go away anytime soon, no matter how much people close their eyes and wish it so. Both the Democrats and Labour have paid the price of taking their heartlands for granted.
Since 19th Century voting reform and the widening of the electoral franchise there has existed an alliance in many countries between middle class liberals and progressives and the working class. That coalition is however in tatters across much of the western world. The parts of the US and UK that delivered victories for Donald Trump, Brexit and Boris Johnson are the former industrial heartlands. The Rustbelt of the United States voted overwhelming for Trump, he swept Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. The North of England, South Wales and the Midlands voted for Brexit, while in December Labour’s ‘Northern Wall’ collapsed as many of the party’s safest seats voted Conservative for the time in generations, in some cases for the first time ever. The alliance of old is in tatters. The left’s traditional heartlands feel unheard, disenfranchised and patronized.
Just following the 2016 US Presidential Election I wrote a blog expressing surprise that anyone could be surprised by Donald Trump’s election. I concluded by saying;
"I say this as an unashamed Liberal. The left in both Britain and America, together with those One Nation Tories and moderate Republicans who are horrified at the nastier elements that have surfaced in recent months, need to accept a few things. We need to firstly accept what has happened. Accept that Brexit is happening; accept that Trump is President-elect and that both votes are legitimate. Secondly, this is not going away and we need to accept that. Thirdly, don’t assume that “people will come to their senses”. If the left deny what has happened and continue to patronise and demean those who voted for Brexit and Trump then things will just get worse and both countries will become more divided. Fourthly, we need to seriously look at why people feel disillusioned and angry. Fifthly, yes we have entered a “post-factual” world. However, this doesn’t mean that people have voted based on ignorance. Rather they have voted based on a long-standing feeling of being taken for granted and abandoned. Finally, if you disagree with things then go out there and make a positive case and persuade people of your arguments. Don’t just sit back in mock superiority and sneer".
We are now in 2020 yet it seems as though the lessons from 2016 have still not been learnt. The centre and left still aren’t asking themselves why their heartlands feel abandoned.
Much of it, directly or indirectly, has its origins in the de-industrialization observed from the sixties onwards. There are countless communities across North America and Europe that have been economically devastated over the last fifty years. But this isn’t just about the disappearance of industry. Many industrial towns and cities were highly concentrated, often one industry or even one company towns. Think of the mill towns of Yorkshire (wool) and Lancashire (cotton); the mining villages of County Durham, South Yorkshire and South Wales; the shipyards of Belfast; Glasgow and Newcastle; Steel in Sheffield etc etc. The US has its equivalents, the coal mining communities of the Appalachians and steel towns such as Bethlehem. But what happens when the industry or the company leaves? What was left behind wasn’t just economic desolation but social collapse. Jobs that had been passed down through the generations, not just a family trade but a community’s trade, no longer existed. What was a mining village to do when the pit closed? ‘Traditional’ industry was often located around natural resources. Mining was located where the coal, gold, tin, iron ore, copper etc happened to be. Ship building was on major rivers such as the Clyde and the Tyne. The communities and ancillary industries that grew up around them were often just as specialist and dependent on the primary employer. This meant that the impact of a declining industry stretched far and wide. More so, it wasn’t just the smaller towns and villages that were affected. Think of Detroit and what happened to it as the heyday of the motorcar industry got visibility smaller in the rear view mirror.
Employment increasingly relied upon different skillsets and industries that weren’t as fixed to the industrial heartlands. From the sixties onwards we saw a sustained shift in the employment patterns. Growth sectors were often driven by different locational drivers. In the US we saw the rise of the Sunbelt, in the UK the economic dominance of London and the South East of England gathered momentum. Similar effects were seen across the industrialised west. In the nineties there was much talk about how the development of the digital economy could revolutionize working and reverse some of the trends seen in the previous three decades. The truth though is that it hasn’t. The much vaunted mobility that the internet was supposed to bring hasn’t emerged. While individuals in some jobs may be able to work wherever they wish, it turns out that technology firms appreciate the benefits of agglomeration economies and having a large skilled workforce located together as much as more traditional economic sectors. In the US, technology firms are still unduly concentrated in Silicon Valley plus other key centres such as Seattle, New York and Boston. Despite the rise of electronic trading, employment in finance is still concentrated in major global financial centres such as New York and London.
The disillusionment that has accompanied this economic decline has been accompanied by anger about the perceived abandonment of them. To me the issue is one of perception and the frequent problems that middle class progressive politicians, across the centre and left, have in engaging with the working class. This isn’t just a pure Liberal, in a European sense of the word, problem. As was recently illustrated, the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn suffered just as much from ‘Metropolitan Elite Liberalism’ as Tony Blair’s New Labour, a comparison that I’m sure both of them would hate. The left in Britain has always had a middle/upper class intellectual wing. However, in the past this was balanced by politicians who came from working class backgrounds. Today though, it is often hard to spot the difference between senior politicians in any of the major political parties.
The Achilles Heal of middle-class Liberals, Progressives and Social Democrats is their middle-classness and the accompanying failure to understand the working class. They don’t understand its sports, they don’t understand its music, they don’t understand its culture or share it’s cultural references, including its patriotism. Despite the growth in popularity over the last 25 years, there is still in Britain a failure by the liberal middle classes to understand the tribalism inherent in football. In America, substitute NASCAR. They don’t understand certain forms of music, think country music in the US. This is all despite one of their core purposes supposedly being to improve the welfare of all and in particularly to improve the lot of the working classes and those in poverty.
I’ve recently read Didier Eribon’s book “Returning to Reims”. Eribon is almost a stereotypical French public intellectual, yet he came from a working-class background in Reims. In it he details how many of his family have over time shifted their political allegiance from the Communist Party to Jean-Marie Le Pen. Eribon’s book was originally published in 2009, showing that in many ways the rise of the National Front in France was a precursor to what has happened in more recent times elsewhere. However, beyond the big picture political consequences there is one especially telling point from Eribon’s book. He comments that he found it difficult growing up in the environment he did being gay. After moving to Paris he felt far more comfortable being openly gay. However, he instead found himself hiding or underplaying his roots among his new Progressive/left-wing circle who were supposedly supportive of the working class. To begin with it highlights the disconnect present with the reality on the ground but as Eribon notes, what was the difference from having to hide being gay in Reims to having to hide being working-class in Parisian intellectual circles ? I’m not saying that the left do not care; they do and sincerely so. But there is an implicit, and increasingly explicit, disconnect between middle-class progressives and the communities they are supposedly trying to help.
Darren McGarvey’s book “Poverty Safari” is a fantastic description of life in a working-class family in Glasgow. Primarily because it is a memoir it avoids being voyeuristic to detail the broader consequences of poverty. For example, it highlights how so many of the issues often seen in low income/poor neighbourhoods, such as smoking, drinking, poor diet, addiction etc, are related to stress, stress that is related to economic and financial uncertainty. One section though especially caught my eye. He talks about how, despite being well intentioned and well-meaning, there can often be an enormous disconnect between middle-class politicians and officials and the local population. As McGarvey says; “There is a big disconnect between the grand social engineering agenda of government and the far simpler, unglamorous aspirations and needs of local people, many of whom are not fluent in the ways of jargon.”
One of the biggest inherent problems is middle-class progressive’s tendency to be sanctimonious and patronising. The “we know better attitude”. I remember reading an opinion piece from BBC journalist Andrew Marr back in the late eighties/early nineties when he was an opinion writer with The Independent. In it he commented that while conservatives believed they were right, liberals ‘knew’ they were right. At the time I took that as a compliment, linked to the high moral ground I myself often ascend. Today I read it in the way I think Andrew Marr actually meant it. That is that it embodies the arrogance that can often accompany being a member of the ‘Metropolitan Liberal Elite’. Some may mock at the description of the ‘Metropolitan Liberal Elite’, but that actually shows they don’t get it, they don’t recognize themselves; ourselves. That arrogance contributed in 2016 to both the Leave vote in the UK and the Trump Victory in the US. Even today there is an absolute failure to understand where the Leave and Trump votes came from, how so many working-class voters could embrace them and the demonization of those voters afterwards. Last month it was alleged that Labour MP Emily Thornberry said to a colleague from a ‘Leave’ constituency, “I am glad my constituents are not as stupid as yours”.
Most importantly, they don’t understand the reality of living with economic, and social, uncertainty. The middle-class ‘establishment’, centre and left, often comes at issues from a position of safety and financial security. It doesn’t have to worry itself with where the money for the rent or mortgage payment is going to come from or whether your card will be declined at the supermarket check-out. It can afford to prioritise ‘big picture’ issues because it doesn’t have to worry about the harsh reality of the day to day. This often means that its priorities look skewed to many working-class voters. A recent example was Labour’s grand idea for broadband. The multi-billion pound idea was to nationalise part of British Telecom and provide high-speed broadband for free. The policy, not surprisingly, received a frosty response from existing providers of broadband. However, leaving aside the cost, while there are arguably merits to the idea it didn’t especially fly with voters. I’d suggest that it was possibly that it wasn’t that much of a priority for voters. There were things that were far more important. Even last week Clive Lewis, an early candidate for the Labour leadership, suggested that there should be a referendum on the future role of the Royal Family. Is that really a burning priority for most households in Britain? I’m writing this just after the latest Democrat primary debate where the main talking point was the spat between Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders about what Sanders had said about the likelihood of a female candidate being able to defeat Donald Trump. Yes, it is an important issue, the US has lagged behind so many countries in never having had a female President. However, is it going to be the Number 1 burning priority around breakfast tables? Is it an issue that is going to convince someone in the US Election later this year to vote for a certain candidate, or even vote at all? Again, it is an issue of priority’s and the failure to focus on issues that in the eyes of many are simply of greater importance.
No issue highlights the middle-class/working-class wealth disconnect better than free trade. As a classical liberal, and as an academic, I profoundly believe in the benefits of free trade. Especially wearing my academic hat, I can afford to take the big picture view and consider the value that free trade brings. While free trade in many ways defines liberal ideology, it has also often been the fault line. In Britain the creation of the Liberal Party came about due to disputes over free trade. The repeal of the protectionist Corn Laws by Conservative Prime Minister Robert Peel came about despite the majority of his own MPs opposing it. His supporters, the Peelites who included Gladstone in their number, left the Conservative party and eventually joined forces with the Whigs to form the new Liberal Party. This may be an example from 180 years ago, but in reality, nothing has changed. Free trade can be extremely beneficial to an economy overall. To individuals as consumers it reduces the cost of goods. This was why there was in the 1840’s such strong public support for repealing the Corn Laws. However, from the perspective of the public as a workforce it can at times be highly damaging. This is the inherent fault line of liberal thinking. Is your priority the well-being of the population as consumers or as workers? At times the two aims are not compatible.
I am a fervent Remainer, I believe that membership of the EU saw enormous benefit to the UK. I likewise believe that trade agreements such as NAFTA are also broadly beneficial to the countries involved. However, this betrays my perspective and that from my position of relative financial security I can take the big picture view. I don’t have to worry about jobs leaving. The irony here is that at times the deindustrialisation observed wasn’t often due to free trade but rather due to more structural economic issues. I wasn't alone in being blindsided when it became apparent that in 2016 many people in the UK voted to leave the EU because they associated membership with economic decline. They took factors that in many cases merely happened to coincide in their timing and take a jump in assuming a causal relationship. This was a key factor as to why the old industrial heartlands largely voted Leave.
But the fault line still comes back to the priority of looking at the population from a consumer or worker perspective. This is the incredibly hard circle that needs to be squared. Many of those same people who feel, however correctly, that free trade has led to economic decline, also benefit from the lower cost of goods that free trade provides. Some middle-class progressives argue for tighter trade agreements to help support and provide better worker conditions and wages in those countries where goods are made. But this will, in all likelihood, lead to increased prices. Those progressives are again coming from a position of financial security that allows them to be willing to pay more for products if there is a benefit elsewhere. Low income families don’t have that luxury and therefore will be hit far more severely. It can also appear as though progressive politicians don’t have their interest at heart and are more concerned with workers elsewhere.
The other trap that the left often fall into is not only taking the patronising high moral ground, but to make it personal, to go beyond attacking politicians on the opposite side of a debate and instead attack and demean those who vote for them. Calling out an opposing politician for playing the race card, for example, is one thing but saying that all of those who vote for them are racist is totally different. One of the worst things I saw online during the recent UK election was a cartoon depicting working class Tory voters as Nobs.
It sent a message of a sense of entitlement, that they feel entitled to the working-class vote and that anyone who dares to think differently is a traitor to their class. It showed they hadn’t learnt the lessons of 2016. The more you demean and patronise and abuse opponents, the more you galvanize their vote. That arrogance fails to grasp the disenfranchisement that many feel. They feel deserted and let down. If the left have abandoned them, then where else do you think they will go?
Liberals frequently fail to understand why working class voters would support right wing politicians, after all didn’t the deindustrialisation seen especially in the eighties come under the watch of conservative governments? Thatcher in the UK and Reagan in the US. But if the working classes feel they are not being spoken to, their concerns aren’t being addressed then is it any wonder they have looked elsewhere. The greatest political feat of the likes of Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and Jean-Marie Le Pen is how they have managed to successfully portray themselves as anti-establishment figures. This is despite them all being archetypical members of the establishment. Trump is a graduate of Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsylvania, Johnson went to Eton and then Balliol College, Oxford, while Le Pen studied at the Sorbonne. While it is easy at times to be cynical about the motivations of politicians like them, the centre and left need to look at why they are popular. Undoubtedly, some of it is rhetoric, some of it panders to stereotypes and heightening distrust. But in some cases it is actually down to directly addressing concerns that the left aren’t considering, for example about the potential negative impact free-trade can have. Another good example of this at the moment is the debate about climate change and that many on the right are at best playing down its impact, if not being outright climate change deniers. It is certainly an issue that Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison is having to address in the wake of the bush fires. But also look at it from this perspective. If you worked in a coal mine in New South Wales or Queensland, who is looking after your interests more? The Australian Liberal Party who back the industry or the Labour Party who prioritise environmental concerns.
The other aspects where the left have often made misjudgments is concerned with nationalism. Middle class progressive are often uncomfortable with Patriotism. I will admit, I am one who always get slightly uncomfortable when flags are waived. My own unease with British and especially English patriotism due to its colonial past only deepened with living in Ireland for twelve years. However, the working class are often highly patriotic. This isn’t just a blind loyalty or naivety as some would make out. Nor is it the case that this is solely due to right wing politicians playing the race or immigration cards. In most countries the working class make up the majority of the armed forces. Middle-class progressive’s frequent uncomfortableness with patriotism runs the risk of appearing disrespectful and being tone deaf to the sacrifices that many have given. This was one of Jeremy Corbyn’s key flaws in the eyes of many. Irrespective of how well intentioned his efforts in the eighties to maintain lines of communications with Sinn Fein, it was easy for it to be perceived as supportive of the tactics of the IRA.
None of these are new issues. They didn’t come out of nowhere. The relative advantages and disadvantages, and misconceptions, about free trade go back at least two centuries. There aren’t easy answers or solutions. However, one unquestionable fact is that everyone in the centre and left needs to communicate better. There needs to be an honest realisation that there has been a fundamental collapse in communication and that many issues have to be discussed with far greater emphasis on people’s day to day priorities. The establishment of the centre and left need to go out of their comfort zone and put themselves in the shoes of those who don’t have the same level of financial and economic security and that their concerns and fears are legitimate and that currently the right is doing a better job of at least appearing to address them.