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Liberals aren’t their own worst enemies

Why do so many Western liberals behave as if they agree with Putin’s critique of Western liberalism?

Artillery Row

In June 2019, Russian President Putin declared liberalism to be “obsolete”.  Recent events suggest he may have been right.  From campaigns to remove statues of statesmen who embodied liberal values (Peel, Grey, Gladstone), to the contemporary equivalent of a heresy trial for J.K. Rowling (for the damnable blasphemy of TERFism), to actions which undermine universities as institutions of free debate and inquiry, we are witnessing liberal societies descend into farcical but fatal self-hatred.  Loud and insistent voices within liberal societies, it seems, agree with Putin.

In the face of such assaults liberal institutions, politicians and commentators have either cowered or colluded.  This is the result of a hollowing out of liberalism, as it has collapsed into itself, no longer possessing the philosophical means or moral determination to defend liberal values for fear of being accused of aligning with ‘dead white men’.  Little wonder, then, that the empires of Russia and China are convinced that the liberal order is dying, as they position themselves to establish a new order favourable to their authoritarian nationalisms.

Those of us who are conservatives, of course, might wonder what all this has to do with us.  We are, after all, talking about a liberal order.  This order, however, was not the creation of the doctrinaire liberalism which has flourished in the West since the collapse of communism, a doctrinaire liberalism promoting a nihilist hatred of the West, and overturning the civic conventions and moral convictions which had secured ordered liberty.  The liberal order which has sustained free societies had its roots in profoundly conservative convictions regarding ordered liberty and the rule of law.  It was shaped by conservative actions like Disraeli’s extension of the franchise to the urban working class in 1867 and a Conservative administration granting the right to vote to women on the same basis as men in 1928.  It was conservatives who defended the civic, liberal order from external foes, from Jacobin and Bonapartist tyranny to Soviet Communism – even as Liberal and Left-wing opinion often urged compromise or collusion.

The liberal order is the expression of Christian civilization. To ignore the well-spring is to risk atrophy

It is time again for conservatives to defend the liberal order, against both the new authoritarian empires rising on the international stage and those anti-liberal forces within our societies.  Key to this defence will be renewing the values of the liberal order, its confidence and self-understanding.  This means rediscovering that the liberal order is not an empty shell, a cold abstraction incapable of withstanding the heady ideological convictions of the new Jacobins within and the cultural power of the new nationalisms without.  

To renew the liberal order necessitates a return to its sources.  As Tom Holland has superbly demonstrated in Dominion, the liberal order is the fruit and an expression of Christian civilization.  To ignore the well-spring, however, is to risk atrophy.  Travel too far from the well-spring, and the liberal order becomes desiccated.  

Part of the wisdom of the conservative tradition has been to recognise the need to stay close to the well.  Burke declared “man is by his constitution a religious animal; that atheism is against, not only our reason, but our instincts; and that it cannot prevail long”.  For Disraeli, “the maintenance of a national Church” was a means of consecrating common life and shared allegiance in the polity, without which “our scheme of government should degenerate into a mere regime of police”.  Baldwin said that “the great Christian proof” at the heart of “ordered freedom” was “the essential dignity of the individual human soul”.  In the dark days of June 1940, Churchill explicitly described the struggle with Nazism as necessary for “the survival of Christian civilization”.  In The West and the Rest, Scruton argued that amongst the factors giving rise to the West’s liberal order, “the hitherto prevailing Christian culture must surely be counted as the most important”.

For the conservative tradition, then, Christianity has been the vital life-giving source for the civic liberal order.  That said, how contemporary conservatives might urge and facilitate drinking from the well-spring will not be straight-forward.  The examples of Poland, Hungary and the Christian Right in the United States offer no encouragement, defined as they are by an opposition to a liberal order.  The use of religion by authoritarian regimes in Russia and Turkey is explicitly anti-liberal.  Mindful of such examples, and of the secular character of much of British society, is it even possible to consider a British conservatism which encourages a re-engagement with Christianity as the source of our liberal order?

As Holland and others have pointed out, we need to remember that secularism itself is shot through with Christian assumptions about human dignity.  Similarly, those institutions which have a particular resonance in contemporary British society – the monarchy, the NHS, the armed forces – all have a significant relationship with Christianity: the monarchy defined by the Coronation service and by Her Majesty’s use of Christian discourse to explain public service; the NHS rooted in a Christian conception of the common good and a Christian history of care for the sick; the armed forces bound together by solemn oath, ministered to by padres, and shaped by ethics flowing from Christian just war teaching.  We might also point to the continued cultural resonance of Evensong, carols at Christmas, and dignified prayers at war memorials on Remembrance Sunday, all suggestive of a generous Christian tradition offering an experience meaning which secularism alone cannot.

In other words, there are foundations upon which conservatism can intelligently build a renewed recognition of and engagement with the Christian sources of our liberal order.  Drinking afresh from the well, we can begin to restore meaning and confidence to this order, recognize afresh its moral foundations, and ensure that its institutions, allegiances, and mores have roots which enable them to withstand challenges from within and without.

As this magazine’s most recent editorial put it: “It is no good right-wing cynics dismissing the progressive left’s mission as a ‘new secular religion’ unless those on the right are firm in their own basic creed”.  Similarly, Anglo-Saxon cynicism alone offers no alternative to Putin’s invocation of Orthodoxy and Russian nationalism: Western right-wing cynicism will be as ineffective as Western left-wing nihilism.  A culturally and spiritually meaningful alternative must be offered.

Part of the problem is conservatism forgetting that its “own basic creed” has not been classically defined by economics alone, or pragmatism, or electoral success.  The wisdom of the conservative tradition has, until recently, consistently recognised the need for our “liberal descent” (to use Burke’s words) to be sustained and renewed by a deeper, enduring spiritual vision.  If the liberal order is not to be torn down by the new Jacobins or overshadowed by rising authoritarian empires, it needs this moral purpose and substantive content renewed.  Against those who invoke the ‘new secular religion’ and agitate under its banners, and against the ambitions of authoritarian regimes, conservatives need to revitalise the spiritual strength of the liberal order, confidently proclaiming how it can secure the flourishing of free, just and prosperous societies. To use ancient words, “But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid”.

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