Tristan Mills has dug up a fascinating little quotation from the 1950s. Democrat politician Joseph S Clark, then Mayor of Philadelphia, misuses the word “liberal” to mean “one who believes in utilizing the full force of government for the advancement of social, political, and economic justice” – a big-state viewpoint which would unsettle many modern-day British liberals. For Tristan, the word “liberal” has been corrupted from both sides: on the one hand, socialists and statists have tried to claim it for their own; on the other hand, conservatives abuse it as a slur against the left in general.
You don’t even need to go back to 1953 to dig up examples. In his rather underwhelming documentary on anti-Semitism last week, Richard Littlejohn used the term “liberals” to describe the people who marched through London last year with banners praising Hezbollah – that well-known bastion of religious freedom and women’s equality. (Dynamite has a provocative review here.) Earlier on this year, Peter Hitchens wrote that “a modern British liberal will defend to the death your right to agree with him. Disagree, and he will call the police.” There certainly are people like that in Britain, such as the Diversity Officer at Wyre Borough Council, but they sure as heck aren't liberals. Are conservatives trying to smear genuine liberals by associating us with these cretins, or is it an honest case of mistaken identity?
The answer is far simpler – it’s lazy use of English. For right-wing commentators, it’s easy to throw the term “liberal” at progressive thinkers across the spectrum. It saves them the effort of exploring the differences between liberalism, social democracy and socialism. It lets them attack a broad range of opponents at the same time, without having to descend to the level of engaging with their views and providing a well-informed criticism.
But it isn’t just liberals who are the victims of this intellectual laziness. Throughout this article, I’ve used the terms “conservative” and “right-wing” indiscriminately, glossing over all the nuances. The “right” of British politics ranges from moralising traditionalists through to hardcore libertarians, and everything in between. The Conservative Party is the home of both Edward Leigh and Alan Duncan; of both IDS and Ken Clarke. On so many issues, they are poles apart: whether the state should be dominant or constrained; whether morality is a matter or private judgement or public interest. The term “right-wing” can’t possibly do justice to all this variety.
What’s more, I’ve held up Peter Hitchens and Richard Littlejohn as flag-bearers for conservatism. They certainly represent a particular brand of conservatism, but they’re individual commentators with their own views, and they can’t stand for every Tory in the country. Peter Hitchens would raise the age of consent for same-sex couples to 21; something tells me that Iain Dale probably wouldn’t. Just as liberals don’t chant the Guardian’s editorial line in unison, it can’t be fair for us to put the words of the Mail in the mouths all conservatives.
The trouble is not just this sort of laziness, but also the tribalism of UK politics. We’re all in little gangs, with our own logo and colour, and it’s very easy to think of ourselves as being “good” and our political opponents as being generically “bad”. As long as we know that we’re fighting the good fight, we’re not that bothered to know the fine detail of what we’re fighting against. It gives us a sense of comfort; it motivates us to get up and go campaigning; but it isn’t especially healthy for political debate.
Equally unhelpful is the increasing need for political parties to have a short and snappy message. With rolling 24-hour news, and increasingly professional and PR-driven campaigning, political parties have a very short space to get a quick and easy message across. Why get dragged into a balanced and detailed debate, when a lazy generalisation will win far more votes?
Tristan is right to complain about the misuse of “liberalism” to mean almost its exact opposite – but it’s far too simplistic to see this as a right-wing smear against the Lib Dems. It’s symptomatic of a far wider problem with the culture of British politics – a problem which severely threatens the quality of our national debate.