Scraping the barnacles off liberal

I read a nice piece yesterday by firebrand Member of the European Parliament and YouTube star Daniel Hannan, who visited New Zealand last year and spoke at a Business Roundtable function in Auckland – see his excellent speech on why Britain should get out of the EU here.

In the blog Dan examines the origin and abuses of the word liberal and the need to restore its true and honourable meaning.  Like the terms left and right – labels to which I and many others strongly object (see my black holes speech) – liberal has been commandeered for all sorts of misleading purposes.  Dan Hannan’s preferred label for himself? – a Whig.  

Dan begins:

My old friend Sholto Byrnes asks at The New Statesman whether “liberal” is becoming a dirty word again. He recalls the way Michael Dukakis was bludgeoned to a bloody pulp by the epithet in the 1988 American presidential election, and cites two contemporary examples of liberalism in retreat, one to do with gay rights in the US, the other with multiculturalism in Germany.

If we scrape away the barnacles that have attached themselves to it, the word “liberal” is rather an attractive one. It means committed to freedom, generous, tolerant.

and ends with a stirring defence of the liberal tradition:

Like Sholto, I think the liberal tradition in Britain is an honourable one. It has great achievements to its name: parliamentary supremacy, religious toleration, meritocracy, votes for women, the legalisation of homosexuality. I am, as regular readers know, a Whig. I believe in British particularism, parliamentary sovereignty, personal liberty, small government and maximum democratic control. I’d have been for Parliament in 1642, for the Revolution in 1688, for Reform in 1832, for Gladstone against Disraeli. I’d probably have been one of those Whigs who broke with the Liberal Party when began its drift towards social democracy at the end of the nineteenth century (the “and Unionist” bit in my party’s title dates from the merger of these “Liberal Unionists” with Bonar Law’s Conservatives in 1912).

Because liberal, in the US, simply means Leftist, Americans who believe in maximum freedom took to calling themselves libertarians, a soubriquet that crossed the Atlantic in the 1970s, but hasn’t caught on here to the same degree. Call it what you will, it’s as persuasive and manly a creed as any on the market. I leave the last word to J S Mill:

The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it. Each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental or spiritual. Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest.

Click here to read the full blog

For those who haven’t seen it, and because I couldn’t resist, here’s Dan’s evisceration of Gordon Brown in the European Parliament last year:

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