A history of hostility to power

An Intelligent Person's Guide to Liberalism
June 23, 2000

Conrad Russell is, as they say, vastly over-qualified to write this vivid and vigorous defence of "big-L" Liberalism. He is a frontbench spokesman for the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords; his ancestor William Lord Russell was executed in 1683 - judicially murdered is perhaps nearer the truth - for his part in the Rye House Plot; and he has a good deal of the talent for simplification that his father possessed. Even so, he makes his readers work; they need not only to be intelligent but to possess at least an outline grasp on British history, the philosophy of Locke and Mill, and on recent arguments over asylum seekers, judicial review and the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The author, as a distinguished historian of the civil war, might properly reply that it is the greater shame on them if they do not. And it is certainly refreshing to find something so thoroughly undemotic offered in defence of the programme of a contemporary political party. After Blair as messiah and Hague as street urchin, it is a particular relief to find oneself in the presence of argument. Russell's vision of Liberalism is, he says, not really historical, but he has a great sense of its pedigree nonetheless. Political authority should not be hereditary, and he welcomes the demise of the House of Lords; but past battles continue to have a certain resonance when it comes to political ideology. Some of us have never believed that Liberalism (or liberalism come to that) was ever more than contingently connected to laissez-faire in economics; for the unconverted, however, Russell wheels out some striking 19th-century examples - the insistence on publicly provided sewerage schemes being perhaps the most striking of them.

The two themes around which the exposition is organised are well chosen. Negatively, he argues the case for the continued existence of the Liberal Party - in its Liberal Democratic manifestation - by resisting the old, conventional view that the Labour Party of Attlee, Gaitskell, Roy Jenkins and the like had in essence inherited the Liberal mantle, and that the rise of Labour and the decline of liberalism was the inevitable result of the rise of class politics. Once the working class sought a distinctive political voice for itself, it would not be spoken for by the Liberal elite. Russell admits that the turn-of-the-century Liberal Party was not good at selecting working-class candidates; but it was extremely good at collecting working-class votes. What did for it was the conflict between the Lloyd George and Asquith wings of the party. Given the British voting system, such divisions tend to be fatal.

To put it another way, Liberalism is intrinsically classless, though markedly hostile to certain kinds of political and economic inequality. Since the working-class vote was always much less class conscious than the middle-class vote, there was no inevitability about the decline of Liberalism after the arrival of the working-class electorate. But then one must ask what the working-class voter would have been voting for. And this is the second theme of this intelligent guide. It is hard to express the basic liberal passions other than negatively, however it can be done. Negatively, of course, Liberalism has always been hostile to all forms of unaccountable power, whether that of kings, churches, parliaments, judges and more recently chief executive officers and the multinationals they head. Lord Acton's dictum that power corrupts is only the half of it. Even where it does not corrupt, it ought not to be exercised except with the consent of those over whom it is exercised, and in what they themselves conceive to be their interests.

What the target of the liberal suspicion of power will be at any particular moment is bound to vary, of course. In the 1680s it was the pretensions of Catholic monarchs who thought they were possessed of divine right that brought the Whigs into being. That struggle broadened out into the defence of religious liberty, and therefore into the defence of dissenters and the fight to remedy their exclusion from the political life of the nation. It cannot be said that everyone who tried to keep James II from becoming king and who rejoiced heartily in his departure in 1688 had a clear view of the implications, however, and one might complain that a liberalism that defines itself negatively in terms of resistance to the immediate threat of oppression is always likely to turn complacent once the threat is dealt with.

What positively fuels the liberal creed as understood by Russell is something close to J. S. Mill's On Liberty . On Liberty was not always the Liberal creed. Although Russell quotes Jo Grimond as saying that he kept up his passion for politics in the party's darkest hours by an annual re-reading of On Liberty , Mill scared the Liberals of the 1860s half to death. Milton's Areopagitica was more nearly their cup of tea. Nor can one imagine Gladstone reading with any pleasure Mill's strictures on the tendency of Protestant Christianity to enfeeble a decent pagan spirit of self-assertion. But modern liberalism - the liberalism that von Hayek and the fans of laissez-faire contrasted to its discredit with what they saw as "classical" liberalism - really is defined in Mill's essay.

Although, as Russell observes, readers of Mill spend an awful lot of time worrying about just what Mill thought he meant when he said that we should be allowed to do what we wished so long as we did not harm other people, he is surely right that it is the positive enthusiasms behind Mill's principles that give life to On Liberty . And this is where contemporary party politics start to get into the argument. Mill held that nobody could claim to have an opinion unless she could defend it in discussion - otherwise, it was merely mouthing other people's words. Equally, he wanted everyone to live their own life, and was utterly hostile to even benevolent nannying of adult human beings. Life is essentially an experiment, and Mill was eager that people should conduct their own "experiments in living", encouraged by other people and encouraged by institutions, but not narrowly supervised. The centralising, bossy-boots behaviour that appears to be a new Labour reflex is just what On Liberty opposes.

On the other hand, On Liberty is as uncommitted to the sanctity of private property as any enthusiast for Clause Four. Liberal economics is like Liberal politics, which is to say more interested in power than income. Liberal egalitarianism has always been inclined to give the underdog the benefit of the doubt, and that suggests a friendliness towards trades unions when they are defending underdogs and rather less enthusiasm when they are using their strategic power to extort concessions.Liberal free trade was, curiously enough, an example of just this - abolishing duties on corn so that poor consumers of bread were not taxed for the benefit of large landowners. In the modern world, there is more need of a careful eye on multinationals, and with that the need of a decent scepticism about the nation state and an imaginative approach to creating the international institutions that will be needed to check the multinational giants. Whether all Lord Russell's fellow Liberal Democrats will agree with this picture of liberalism, I do not know - it would certainly be unusual if they were all of one mind. But this is certainly the book it claims to be, and very worth reading by sceptics as well as the committed.

Alan Ryan is warden, New College, Oxford.

An Intelligent Person's Guide to Liberalism

Author - Conrad Russell
ISBN - 0 7156 2947 6
Publisher - Duckworth
Price - £12.95
Pages - 128

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