Men of good and bad ideas: Burke, Peel, Marx, Disraeli | Image by David Scullion

Liberalism: a bad idea and how to cope with it

The piecemeal constitutional “reforms” of the last 20 years fall on the liberal side and the results have been predictably disastrous

Liberalism — kind, cuddly, herbivorous liberalism — couldn’t possibly be a Bad Idea, could it? Doesn’t it dwell in the centre ground of (especially) British politics and embody — in the face of the extremism of left and right — sweet reason and enlightenment? So self-styled liberals strive to present themselves. And so indeed most of us tend to think, when we think about it at all.

But the history of the idea, as well as much of its current practice, tell a very different story: that Liberalism is reason run riot and the Enlightenment run to seed. In short, that it is a very Bad Idea indeed. Used in a political sense, the words “liberal” and “liberalism” first enter the language in the early decades of the nineteenth century.

Like most political labels, they began as terms of abuse, pinned on the English supporters of French revolutionary ideas by their opponents. But the earlier, favourable usages of “liberal” in English meant that the names were readily embraced by liberals themselves and indeed became the formal designation of the Liberal Party in 1859.

The French Revolution of 1789 is the origin of modern political alignments. The American Revolution, which began the previous decade, used the same rhetoric of rights and equality.

But its practice was infinitely more cautious. Black slavery continued; the law and legal system inherited from England remained; and the machinery of the constitution kept the excesses of democracy in check. As, even in the age of Trump, it still does.

The French revolutionaries knew no such constraints. The Americans had separated church and state; the French aimed to destroy the church, dethrone God and remake mankind and the world.

A uniform grid of similarly-sized units was imposed on the ancient political geography of France; and everywhere — in social relations and forms of address, in law, morality, the currency, weights and measures and even the reckoning of time itself — the old and familiar was to be replaced by the new, “rational” and decimal: 10 hours in the day, 10 days in the week, and 10 renamed months in a year and all in the name of sovereign Reason, who, in the person of a scantily-clad actress of the Comédie Française, was ceremonially installed as the deity of the new regime on the high altar of the former cathedral of Nôtre Dame, now rededicated “To Philosophy”, on 20 Brumaire of Year II of the Republic (10 November 1793).

The wasteland made by this “new conquering empire of light and reason” inspired Edmund Burke, who had been a strong supporter of the American Revolution, to grand, prophetic denunciation. He published his Reflections on the Revolution in France in November 1790, exactly three years before the Festival of Reason and when the Terror, the Revolutionary Wars and the rise of Napoleon were all in the future. But he foretold them all.

The state, society and civilisation itself, Burke argued, were not a product of reason and individual will but of time, history and collective experience. Thus to attempt to replace the given of history with the infinite possibility of reason would lead, not to freedom and perfection as the revolutionaries promised, but to disintegration, despotism and death. Vindicated by events which he did not live to see, Burke, the erstwhile Whig, laid the foundations of modern conservatism, which is just as much a product of the French Revolution as its equal and opposite, liberalism.

Peel, with his arrogance and high analytical intelligence, had the natural temperament of a reformer

But conservatives can’t simply block change — though in early nineteenth-century Britain the Tories tried to do just that. However, the hotly- fought passage of the first Reform Act in 1832 ended the attempt. Reform had to be conceded, but how much? And was there a difference between conservative reform and liberal reform?

The resulting dilemma formed the key passage of the foundation document of the Conservative Party: Sir Robert Peel’s “Tamworth Manifesto” of 1834. In it Peel accepted the Reform Act itself as “final and irrevocable”. But he refused to concede the principle of continuous reform since it would have meant “we are to live in a perpetual vortex of agitation”, like a milder version of the French Revolution itself.

In the event, however, it turned out that Peel, with his arrogance and high analytical intelligence, had the natural temperament of a reformer. In 1846 he forced through, with opposition support, the repeal of the Corn Laws. This threw British agriculture to the wolves of international competition and split the Tory party. Peel’s followers supplied much of the intellectual leadership of the new Liberal party while the rump of the Tories were left for some 20 years in the wilderness of more or less permanent opposition.

The dominant figure of the Tory rump was Benjamin Disraeli: flamboyant, dandyish and Jewish by race though not by religion, he was both the least likely leader of the Conservative party and its real founder.

A student of Burke, he applied his lessons to the crisis of the 1840s, when the Industrial Revolution hit Britain with much the same force and with many of the same consequences as the Revolution had done France half a century before: an educated, liberal elite was entrenched in wealth and power; universalist principles of free trade became gospel; and old ways of life and work were sacrificed on the altar of a creatively destructive capitalism.

Marx understood the problem and his Communist Manifesto, written in 1848, the year of European revolutions, likewise consciously invoked Burke. Burke had lamented that the French Revolution had “rudely torn off … all the decent drapery of life”; Marx, even using the same figure of speech, complained that the bourgeoisie had “pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his ‘natural superiors’ [and] drowned the most heavenly exercise of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of Philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation”.

Disraeli agreed with these insights and fed them into his concept of “One Nation Conservatism”, as I described here last month. He also used them to shape a strategy of resistance. Having identified the People as the friends of conservatism, he necessarily deduced that the liberals were the enemy: “in the great struggle between popular principles and liberal opinions, which is the characteristic of our age”, he declared, “I hope to be ever found on the side of the people, and of the institutions, of England.”

And on this basis he defined a properly Conservative approach to reform. “In a progressive country change is constant”, he explained, “and the great question is, not whether you should resist change which is inevitable, but whether that change should be carried out in deference to the manners, the customs, the laws, the traditions of the people, or in deference to abstract principles and arbitrary and general doctrines. The one is a national system; the other is a philosophic system.” Sometimes he called it a liberal or a “cosmopolitan” one.

Here Disraeli was talking about his proposed changes to the franchise in what would become the 1867 Reform Act. It is instructive to apply the same test to the piecemeal constitutional “reforms” of the last 20 years: devolution, the Human Rights Act, the demotion and near abolition of the Lord Chancellorship, the Supreme Court and the Fixed-Term Parliament Act.

Without exception, they all fall on the wrong or liberal side, since every one of them has been made “in deference to abstract principles and arbitrary and general doctrines”, in particular the confected, unworkable and unBritish principle of the “separation of powers”, as I wrote in the November issue.

The results have been predictably disastrous: the Fixed-Term Parliament Act led to the parliamentary paralysis of the last two years, and the demotion of the Chancellorship to the hollowing out by left and right of the system of justice which has left law and order — the most basic responsibility of the state — hanging by a thread.

The Conservative manifesto for this month’s election contains an important and too-little noticed section promising to revisit all this: to repeal the Fixed-Term Parliament Act and revise the Human Rights Act and, above all, to set up a Royal Commission “to look at the relationship between courts, parliament and the government”.

Let us hope that its members are properly instructed in Disraeli’s doctrines and carry out their brief “in deference to the manners, customs, the laws [and] the traditions of the people”. Otherwise they will be worse than useless.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover