Liberalism in an age of Trump

The Times – Red Box

The Trump era and liberalism
19 January 2016

The lessons of history are clear.

There has never been a successful government, a prosperous era, or a peaceful world that has not been based on liberal values. The opposite is true as well. If the world loses touch with these values then what follows is conflict, division and tyranny.

So it ought to worry us all that liberal values are now more endangered and under attack than at any time in my adult life.

Liberals – small l please note– believe not in the strong state, but the powerful citizen; we oppose equally centralised power, and the socialist notion of the supremacy of the mass. We believe in the free market, but as our servant not our master. We are internationalist and stand against protectionism, isolationism and nationalism. We celebrate diversity, not uniformity. We understand that the individual’s responsibility extends further than ourselves and our country to others beyond our borders and to future generations. We value the habit of compromise and depend upon the qualities of tolerance, compassion and respect for others.

I am struck – horrified actually – by the similarities between this age and the 1930s.

Then, after a depression and the failures of politics and government, there was a catastrophic collapse of confidence in the establishment, a fear that democracy wasn’t working and a hunger for the Government of strong men. Multilateralism, gave way to nationalism and isolation. Vulgarity trumped (no pun intended) decency. The harsh, ugly, voices were followed, while the counsels of reason fell on deaf ears. Many found it convenient to blame all our ills on the foreigner over the border and the stranger in our midst. Politicians found the extravagant lie, more tempting than the boring old nuanced truth. The rule was if you lie, tell a big one and tell it as often as you can. Stick it on a bus perhaps and drive it round the country.

I do not say that we are bound for the same destination as the 1930s. I cannot bring myself to believe that possible.

Nor do I claim that none of this is our fault.

I am much less interested in who is to blame, than what to do next.

The forces of the progressive centre in the 1930s were broken fractured, scattered and divided – and never got their act together. And so it is today.

Not all liberals are in the Liberal Democrats. There are many in other Parties – and many, many more who are as worried about what is happening as I am, but who do not wish to belong to any Party.

This last year, British politics abandoned the centre ground and spun away to the extremes. The Tories have moved onto territory indistinguishable from UKIP. For the first time in my life the official Labour Party makes no attempt to occupy the centre left, but is now proudly, avowedly 1950s style hard-line Socialist.

So what about those in the middle, where the true political centre of gravity of our country lies?

Hilaire Belloc has it perfectly:

The people in between
Looked underdone and harassed
And out of place and mean
And horribly embarrassed.

And, he might have added, scattered, dejected, lost and voiceless too.

Spare a thought for the lost tribes of Tory and Labour. What should those from the great Conservative tradition of internationalism do, now that their Party has abandoned them? What should those in Labour do, who believe in the free market now that their Party has explicitly rejected it?

What interests me most, however, is not the liberals, large l or small, inside formal politics, but the millions outside it.

The voiceless who found their voice in the Brexit and Trump elections were the left out and the left behind. They now have their voice. And a powerful one it is, with Trump as US President.

The moderate, liberal progressive majority are now the new left out and left behind – the new voiceless.

The phenomenon that astonished us these last years is the way that the most powerful instrument for change has not been those inside politics, but outside it. It is people’s movements now, not political parties who bring down Governments, colonise old parties, invent new ones and elect Presidents.

But why do all the people’s movements have to be for the ugly things, rather than the good ones.

2016 was the year that terrified us all because of the destructive populist forces it unleashed. Could 2017 be the year which will amaze us because the moderate progressive liberal voice in our country makes itself heard at last?

On that question depends whether or not we can turn the tide of destructive populism that otherwise threatens to overwhelm us. It is now up to those in politics, whether small l or large L, to put aside their tribalism and work together to make that happen.