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Nick Clegg: Blaming liberalism for the world’s political turmoil is just too easy

January 14, 2017 11:20 AM
By Nick Clegg MP in The Evening Standard

Nick CleggCritics are using a misconceived version of the ideology to explain the financial crash and the rise of populism

John Stuart Mill would be spinning in his grave. British liberalism - of which he was the intellectual godfather - has been extolled around the world for generations as the font of fair play, political stability and individual rights. Yet now, all of a sudden, liberalism is blamed for the rise of Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen and every other form of angry populism across the democratic world.

Commentators who once embraced liberalism - a belief in individual rights, internationalism, democracy, fair treatment and equality before the law - now rush to disown it. Many claim they knew Brexit and Trump would triumph - forgetting how they threw their hands up in horror when it happened. Ah, the shameless wisdom of hindsight!

The rush to condemn liberalism is everywhere: "liberal" has long been a term of abuse rather than praise in the US, especially so in the era of Tea Party Trumpism. Then Theresa May declared herself against "laissez-faire liberalism". Shadow chancellor John McDonnell, like many on the Left, fulminates against the "neo-liberal straitjacket" and the Brexit press never misses a chance to give "liberal luvvies" a good kicking (Meryl Streep will no doubt get it in the neck this week).

Perhaps the most alarming condemnation was the recent outburst from Alexander Dugin, Vladimir Putin's ideological mentor: "We need a Nuremburg trial for liberalism, the last totalitarian political ideology."

So the anti-liberal bandwagon is on a mighty roll when Trump, McDonnell, the Kremlin and May all, rhetorically at least, agree with each other. Much though they differ on many things, on this they seem as one: liberalism is morally flabby, an elitist creed that reveres markets over people, globalisation over place. The "metropolitan liberal elite" (MLE) doesn't understand the common man and woman; liberals prefer to chinwag in Davos rather than look after those who have been left behind by the whirligig of change; MLEs created the 2008 banking mess, rolled out the red carpet to mass immigration without caring about society at large. It is time, in short, to roll back liberalism and reassert the state/the nation/the community (insert according to taste).

It's powerful, heady stuff. Except it's utter, baleful drivel

Mill and his modern acolytes did not create the sub-prime mortgage crash in the US, nor were they responsible for the reckless behaviour of global bankers. Indeed, I remember clearly in 2005, as a freshly elected MP, how my party, the Liberal Democrats, repeatedly warned the Labour Party against the dangers of an overleveraged banking system and heavily indebted households. We were loftily brushed aside by Gordon Brown as anxious Cassandras, bleating uselessly from the sidelines. It was the party of socialism, Labour, which was more guilty of rampant "neo-liberal" deregulation than anyone else at the time.

Much has been made of the "liberal" orthodoxy which has inflicted economic and social misery in parts of Europe, as weaker economies have suffered under unflinching austerity and the disciplines of the eurozone. But the flaws of the single currency are nothing to do with liberalism. The failings, such as they are, can be traced back to the political decision to allow countries such as Greece into the eurozone when it was clearly unprepared to live by its rules. This error was then compounded by Germany and France, which merrily broke the budget rules they now insist others must follow. That decision was taken by Jacques Chirac - a French Gaullist President - and Gerhard Schroeder, a German Social Democrat. So why is liberalism now in the dock for errors committed by people from the Right and Left?

And is it liberalism's fault that so many millions of voters in the UK have lost faith in the way our immigration system works (or doesn't)? Who promised over and over again that immigration would be brought down to the tens of thousands without the remotest clue how to do so? David Cameron and, er, Theresa May. Who dragged their feet in government, despite constant pressure from me and other Lib-Dem ministers, to implement proper exit checks at our borders so that we could chase visa overstayers? The Home Office and, er, Theresa May.

Perhaps the greatest body blow to public confidence in the security and wellbeing of society in recent years has been the Mediterranean refugee crisis and the terrorist attacks in Belgium, France and Germany. Is that liberalism's fault too?

Is the Sunni-Shia conflict across North Africa and the Middle East, and the vile extremism of Islamic State and the brutality of Russia and Assad in Syria, also a consequence of "Davos Man" and "Davos Woman"?

Of course the anger at the status quo now erupting across the democratic world should prompt searching questions about what has gone wrong. We need to ask why liberal values suddenly appear to be so fragile, and why "us and them" populism is proving to be such a compelling alternative. But we also need to get things in perspective. My own view remains that years of stagnant wages, a shortage of affordable housing and growing intergenerational unfairness are more compelling explanations than so-called flaws of liberalism.

My schoolboy history taught me that while Mill was a man of the 19th century he also espoused remarkably progressive causes - free speech, feminism, the environment and workers' councils. My guess is if he was alive today he'd be on the barricades in favour of a mass, state-funded housing programme while defending Britain's long tradition of internationalism, including our place in Europe.

But I would say that, wouldn't I? For much of my political career people have either ignored liberalism, falsely espoused it (remember "liberal Conservativism"?) or, as we see today, used it as a catch-all for the world's problems. It's high time liberals answered back.