At last: a stirring defence of liberalism

Published by The i paper (21st November, 2016)

The Tory moderniser and former minister Anna Soubry was in magnificent form in a weekend newspaper interview, leaving journalist Decca Aitkenhead to compare an hour in her company to being caught in the path of a hurricane. ‘What’s happened to our country? We’ve lost the plot. We’ve lost the ability to be brave and stand up for what we believe in,’ thundered the former barrister, before going on to savage pretty much everyone in politics.

Soubry attacked the false prophets of Brexit, rightly pointing out how ‘the Borises, the Goves, the Carswells, the Farages of this world’ have led voters ‘down a garden path into a very dense, very dark, unpleasant forest of darkness’ that will leave them even more disillusioned with Westminster. She lacerated ‘betrayal of the liberal left’ by the ‘petrified’ and ‘frozen’ Labour Party. And she underlined the importance of immigration in an economy with almost full employment, along with the difficulty of reducing numbers.

What made the interview such a pleasure to read, apart from some silly sideswipes at the media, was the rarity in this fearful world to see such a stirring defence of liberalism. The rise of populism across the West, coming amid the emergence of a new world order marshalled by authoritarian regimes, has destroyed the confidence of the planet’s dominant political creed in recent decades. This has intensified in recent months with the shock of successful insurgencies with first Brexit, then the election of Donald Trump, in the world’s two most influential democracies.

Liberals of all political hues seem panicked in the face of resurgent populism, abandoning the fight for their beliefs in favour of appeasement with dark forces of demagoguery, nationalism, intolerance and racism. These are potentially perilous times. As one American writer put it, ‘the forces of disintegration are on the march’, shaking the foundations of our post-war world. Not just institutions such as Nato and the European Union, which must always be open to reform, but basic values of decency that shaped societies.

The crisis can be traced back to 1989, the moment of triumph for liberal democracies when the Berlin Wall crashed to the ground. The victory seemed so emphatic, there was talk of an end to history as democracy and free markets swept aside communism. The march of globalisation, enhanced by the rapidity of technological change, lifted billions from poverty, lengthened life spans and shrunk the globe. The world since then has changed hugely for the better, despite the pessimism propagated by self-serving populists and foolish fellow travellers.

Yet the scale of success induced arrogance and complacency. Western leaders sowed seeds of weeds that strangled our values by invading Arab nations to impose democracy, handing huge dollops of aid to despots and forcing differing economies into the straitjacket of a common currency. They focused on technocratic tweaks and pathetic tribal politics, while allowing corrosive forces such as rampant corporate greed, political corruption, tax dodging and widening inequality to go unchecked.

Now we see the alarming legacy: walls going up, protectionism revived, democracy challenged, insularity replacing collaboration. The new nationalists hail Vladimir Putin, even as his forces annex European territory and unleash horrors in Syria, while China’s modernist form of autocracy attracts admirers from Africa to Asia. Such is the fear of foreigners that European leaders bribe those they accused of genocide to stop flows of people, while families fleeing this century’s most terrible war are chucked into grim island camps.

We need liberal voices in politics to defy the whirlwind of fear and firestorms of hate. Yes, by all means tackle any problems caused in communities by forces of globalisation – but let us also challenge the myths. Trump’s takeover was not a popular revolt of common people, but a fingertip victory due to quirks of the electoral college system on the back of largely white anger in rural and rust-belt areas. Hillary Clinton won the support of most voters earning under $50,000 (£40,500) a year, as well as the third-highest vote in US history, while the distress and disenfranchisement of black communities has been ignored for decades.

Meanwhile in Britain, the idea that disadvantaged people will be aided by dislocation of the economy through withdrawal from the European Union and empty talk of control is pure fantasy. They will be the biggest victims of any disruption, inflaming the fury. As in other parts of the West, the anger comes largely from the old, the less-educated and those in areas untouched by migration. Net movement from poor to rich countries fell by 4 million between 2011 and 2015, while more Mexicans left the US than arrived. Yet refugees and immigrants absorb anger created by the failures of politicians.

If immigration is such a malign force, why has London grown so much faster than the rest of the nation and its schools been transformed in recent years? Indeed, why is the US the world’s biggest economy? Yet how few politicians are prepared to stand up for the forces that have proved so beneficial, to fight for free markets, unfettered movement, universal human rights and global co-operation. Canada shows how leadership and sustained investment can  move a nation from resentful intolerance to multicultural openness. Yet it requires courage, something sadly lacking among most Western politicians as they tremble before populists.

Soubry was right to warn that politicians are losing the bravery to stand up for basic British values, for our core beliefs in fairness, freedom and tolerance. The big question, as Western nations are assailed by snake-oil populists trading on fear, is whether we will learn from history and rediscover our humanity in time.

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