Thursday, 7 February 2019

Liberals Old and New

'Liberal' is a term much bandied about in what passes for political discourse these days. Especially in America, it has become a term of abuse in conservative circles, its perceived meaning encompassing globalism, diversity, multiculturalism, enforced and selective toleration, enmity to free expression, devaluation of family and traditional ties, and an all-encompassing approach that can look worryingly close to an enforced elite monoculture (what's not to hate?). Oddly, this form of liberalism can be the very opposite of what is sometimes called 'classical' liberalism, the Enlightenment-based liberalism that emphasises freedom and equality under the law, and has little or no kinship with the more regrettable aspects of the new elite liberalism (aspects of which have been characterised by John Gray as 'ultra-liberalism', liberalism that has overshot its sensible objectives and become something else altogether).
  There was a time when 'liberal' carried a sweeter and more idealistic connotation, and could describe followers of William Morris, living simple, creative lives, surrounding themselves with beautiful, hand-made things, making music, and believing that a better world was possible if more people lived like them and turned their backs on the destructive mechanical age that was all around them. A few such people were hanging on, marooned in a changed world, in the early 1950s, when John Betjeman wrote his touching poem, The Old Liberals...

Pale green of the English Hymnal! Yattendon hymns
 Played on the hautbois by a lady dress’d in blue
 Her white-hair'd father accompanying her thereto
On tenor or bass-recorder. Daylight swims
 On sectional bookcase, delicate cup and plate
 And William de Morgan tiles around the grate
And many the silver birches the pearly light shines through.

I think such a running together of woodwind sound,
 Such painstaking piping high on a Berkshlre hill,
 Is sad as an English autumn heavy and still,
Sad as a country silence, tractor-drowned;
For deep in the hearts of the man and the woman playing
 The rose of a world that was not has withered away.
Where are the wains with garlanded swathes a-swaying ?
Where are the swains to wend through the lanes a-maying?
 Where are the blithe and jocund to ted the hay?
 Where are the free folk of England? Where are they?

Ask of the Abingdon bus with full load creeping
 Down into denser suburbs. The birch lets go
 But one brown leaf upon browner bracken below.
Ask of the cinema manager. Night airs die
To still, ripe scent of the fungus and wet woods weeping.
 Ask at the fish and chips in the Market Square.
 Here amid firs and a final sunset flare,
Recorder and hautbois only moan at a mouldering sky.

[The Yattendon Hymnal, compiled by Robert Bridges, was an important collection that had a big influence on making of the English Hymnal.
To 'ted the hay' is to spread it out for drying.]


  1. "Liberal" is one of the least useful terms in American political discourse--which is well stocked with terms of little use. According to those who use it from the right, it can mean almost anything they disapprove of. Some of those using it in praise may do so to endorse policies minutely regulating economic activity or otherwise calculated to astonish the Liberals of the great age of liberalism.

    "Neo-liberal" is now a term of abuse from the left (which in America is either tiny or only so left). "Liberal" once was, as witness Phil Ochs's song "Love Me, I'm a Liberal".

    I'd ask of a cinema manager, but I don't know any.

  2. For me the confusion is understandable. One can trace the mutation in meaning to the time of the French Revolution and, in England, to the split between the liberals (Whigs) Charles James Fox and Edward Burke. Fox supported the ‘liberte’ of the Revolution while Burke saw it’s destructive dangers. And it wasn’t long before the waters got muddied further as Karl Marx appeared. Liberty and liberalism as absolute values are bound to go awry when not defined in opposition to pre-existing conservative visions. Liberalism is a response to over controlling conservatism and, thus, one side of a conversation. It needs a conservative vision as a context in which to operate. Marx et al swept away the very context in the name of liberty. Hence the muddying of the waters where liberalism now means the opposite of what it once meant.