It must be, after the experience of this Coalition government, a small “l” but the word, often used as a term of disparagement in the United States, is one that still resonates in Europe where it is almost always a term of praise.
It is the spirit which animates, in Gladstone’s century, works like John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty and Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy and its work is still not done because its antithesis – authoritarianism, hierarchy, power-worship, is still very much with us.
It is in two areas that liberalism matters to me (since I have little interest in economics): freedom of thought and freedom to live in the way one wishes. The liberal wants to permit, to allow, to grant freedom, believing that the very concept of toleration is in itself a social, moral and intellectual good. Pluralism, toleration, multiplicity, are, by contrast, what the illiberal mind finds odious. The authoritarian or the dictator is stirred by visceral feelings of hatred, resentment, anger at the proliferation of what it cannot control. The illiberal mind wants there to be only one way: its way.
Liberalism, by contrast, wants to see freedom, diversity, multiplicity, the absence of unnecessary constraint. It trusts people to work out their own salvation. The illiberal mind, often fuelled by religious or sectarian or race hatred is maddened by the prospect of free minds exercising themselves according to their own principles and values. The dictator is for this reason a ridiculous figure, a strutting absurdity who knows nothing beyond the limits of his or her own mind.
Liberalism is tolerant. It does not see any virtue in imposing only one way, in declaring some lifestyles, preferences, beliefs, practices to be impermissible. Liberalism, however, is weak – it can be seen to vacillate – when it merely tolerates and does not engage with what it knows to be wrong. Some beliefs and practices must be challenged and contested, but not with illiberal weapons of repression. Open debate, vigorous advocacy, dissent, challenge, dialogue are the tools of liberalism. Censorship, bullying, suppression, closure of debate, are the tools of its enemies.
I am a liberal because I want to live in a free society and live in my own way, in so far as this is compatible with social responsibility and respect for others. I am a liberal because I believe in human freedom, in the fathomless resources and creativity of the human spirit when it is unconstrained and can follow the laws of its own being. To be free is to be fully human.
Nicholas Murray's blog
Nicholas Murray's website