What does it mean to be a liberal? There's something about generosity, I think, in the word itself. "Liberal with her praise." "Sprinkle olive oil on liberally." "A liberal application of money." Something about giving more than is strictly required and doing it gladly. That seems to me, when I ask myself, to be what I think of when I call myself a 'liberal'. I believe in being open, not closed. In looking, therefore, forward not back, because a generous attitude is also one which thinks that things certainly could be better in the future, that we will not find the best things only by conserving our meagre stock of ideas and achievements, but by passing them around in the expectation that others will do the same.
And there's something too about being liberal with one's definition of humanity. I have believed for a long time in the expanding "circle of us". When Gladstone was born, his father made money from the slave-trade, and the circle of "real human beings" extended no further than adult Christian white men with property. Slowly we've moved that circle outward, expanding it liberally. Not just men with property, but all men. Not just white men but black men. Not just men but women. Not just Christians but also all faiths and none. Not just able-bodied, but also those who are disabled. Not just straight but also gay. Not just cis-gendered but also transgendered. That is what it means to be liberal. To open up the doors of power and influence. To make sure that we invite people in, because we know that our humanity is damaged when we start seeing other people as less-than-people.
It makes us weaker than the forces on the other side, of course. If you are a fundamentalist, if you're prepared to threaten people with exclusion from the circle if they don't toe the line, you'll get more loyal troops. But we're still right, and they're still wrong. I hope that the expansion of that circle is irreversible. Once you see someone as a person, maybe you can't go back to seeing them as half-a-person.
A friend of mine suggested to me recently that in 200 years time the "adult" part of the circle will be expanded. That children will have the same rights of property, self-determination and voting as adults. "Impossible," I thought, "absurd. How would they... they couldn't even..." But the thought is delicious; that we have further yet to go, that we will find greater and broader definitions of "full people" than seems imaginable to us today. That is what being a liberal is too: being willing to change your mind. Being delighted by the idea that you might be proved wrong.