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Liberalism is in a fight for its life but each of us can defend it

Boris Johnson - Credit: PA

To read the papers at the moment is to watch the concept of truth decompose in front of your eyes. The debate over the Withdrawal Agreement is the kind of thing which makes you question your sanity.

We’re told that the document is intolerable. It’s the result of European “dirty tactics”, according to the Sun’s political editor. It “never made sense”, according to the front page of the Daily Telegraph. The government says it is a threat to British sovereignty and that it has to trash it – to knowingly break a treaty it only just signed.

But just a few months ago we were told this was an “oven-ready deal”. When Boris Johnson signed it, he said it was a “fantastic moment” for the country. He repeatedly insisted that the deal entailed “no checks for stuff being exported from NI to GB” – the very fact which he now says warrants his attempt to undermine it.

He spent an entire election campaign urging people to support it. The great phalanx of pro-Brexit commentators united to defend it and smear the motivations of those who raised objections to it.

There are two interpretations to this. The first is that the government is so inept it signs legal documents it does not understand. The second is that it is so cynical it signs legal documents it does not intend to uphold. In either case, it turns the UK into an international basket-case, a country which simply cannot be trusted to stick to its word.

But the most important element of what is happening is not about strategy. It is about psychology.

It is extraordinary to watch people – politicians, journalists, online commentators – turn 180 degrees so suddenly, seemingly without any awareness that they are contradicting themselves.

The very same people who just weeks ago were loudly proclaiming how wonderful the deal was are now stressing how terrible it is and they don’t appear to even recognise that their position has changed. This is what it makes it feel as if you’re going mad – having people say one thing and then another without acknowledging the switch.

This psychological phenomenon isn’t happening by chance. It isn’t some sudden deterioration in the standard of our debate or our capacity for memory. It is the result of a political project.

The notion of objective truth has been downgraded throughout Brexit, from the purposefully false statements in the referendum campaign to the turgid years of nonsense about WTO-deals and frictionless borders in the period which followed. Dominic Cummings and Johnson operate on the basis of made-up narratives in place of reality.

Britain isn’t unique in going through this. The rejection of truth as a core value in political debate is one of the chief qualities of nationalist governments. It allows them to portray their failures as victories. It means they can avoid scrutiny. It expands their power.

It is happening around the world. In the US, Donald Trump lies more easily than he breathes. The Washington Post estimates that he has made more than 19,000 misleading claims during his presidency. In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro repeatedly insists that there is no coronavirus crisis, even as it runs rampant through his country and his own body. In Hungary, Viktor Orban held a referendum on an apparent plan for open immigration by financier George Soros, despite the fact that it never existed.

In Poland, Andrzej Duda portrays anti-bullying education initiatives in schools as the “sexualisation of children” in order to further his militant anti-gay agenda.

Sometimes, when you watch these events take place, it feels like the world is falling out from under you. They lie. They get away with it. There is no sense of honour to keep them to their word. The values we assumed would always be there have started crumbling away.

Taken day-to-day, it is hard to make sense of it all. But when you take a step back, it becomes clearer. What we are witnessing is not just bog-standard political cynicism. It is an ideological assault. It is the triumph of nationalism over liberalism.

My book, How to be a Liberal, published this week, is an attempt to address that. It’s a reminder of what liberalism is, how it freed us from superstition and absolute executive power, and how we can grasp it now to turn back the nationalist tide. When we go back to first principles, we find the way to fight back.

Here’s one example. On November 10, 1619, the French philosopher René Descartes had a nightmare. His later recollection of it was a jumbled-up mixture of strange visions – a storm which wouldn’t let him stand up, a loud explosion, a weird conversation with a stranger by a table. But whatever the content, it really shook him up. And he was unnerved, most of all, by how lifelike it felt, how there was no way to prove at any given moment that he wasn’t dreaming.

So he developed a weird obsession. He spent the rest of his life in a quest for certainty, for things which he could say without doubt were true.

In the end, he came up with something quite remarkable: the self. He did it with one of the most famous sentences in philosophy: “I think, therefore I am.” You can doubt pretty much anything, but if you’re doubting, then you definitely exist.

The self had at least one quality. It was thinking. It was only through thinking that it knew it existed. And it wasn’t just thinking any old thing. It was thinking logically. It was using reason. These two elements – the self and reason – emerged as the only certain things in a world of doubt.

Descartes then added one final piece to the jigsaw. In his period, people used to think that the things they saw or felt in objects were part of their substance. So blood, for instance, had the quality ‘red’ in it. It was a completely human-centric view of the world.

Descartes rejected that. He believed that the object and our experience of it were different things. What we perceived was just our own subjective experience, not something innate to the object. This was a revolutionary thought, one which would help bring down the era of religious control.

Because if your experience of something is different to its real quality, you will need to come up with hypotheses and develop instruments which can test them on the basis of evidence. And by the time you’re doing that, you’re doing science.

This picture Descartes had drawn became the standard operating unit of liberal politics: The individual self, using reason, and applying it to empirical reality. It was a form of political thought designed for people who thought independently. People who thought for themselves, who would not turn with the flock when the wind blew in a different direction.

Around 300 years later, the English journalist George Orwell was pursuing the same idea in the book Nineteen Eighty-Four. He imagined a world of complete totalitarian dictatorship, in which the Party controlled all aspects of people’s lives. And the only source of resistance he could find in such a world was precisely the one Descartes had discovered – independent minds who based their assessments of the world on objective fact.

The Party felt differently. It knew that it would only have full control if people had no grasp of objective reality, no way to assess if what it was saying was true or not. “Whatever the Party holds to be truth,” one of its agents said, “is truth.”

It was this which allowed it to constantly change the identity of the regimes it was at war with, without anyone in the public even seeming to realise that a shift had occurred. “Oceania was at war with Eastasia,” Orwell said in one of the book’s most famous passages. “Oceania had always been at war with Eastasia.”

Actor John Hurt in costume, on the set of the film ‘1984’, England, 1984. (Photo by Express/Archive Photos/Getty Images) – Credit: Express/Archive Photos/Getty Images

This same principle applies now. The Johnson administration demands that you forget everything which you think you remember about the months between October 2019 and September 2020. All those comments about how good the deal was and why you needed to support it are gone in a flash. We have always been at war with the Withdrawal Agreement.

There is nothing more dangerous to this government than independent minds who base their views on evidence. And that is why liberalism was established on precisely those values: because they pose a threat to power, because they challenge, scrutinise and restrain it. The moment they fade, power can do whatever it wants.

We’ll never defeat right wing populists by emulating them, or respecting them, or compromising with them. We will defeat them by rediscovering our principles and using them to fight back. And to do that, we need to go back to core principles, back to our primary convictions, and use them to turn back the nationalist tide.

How to be a Liberal: The Story of Liberalism & the Fight for its Life is published by Canbury Press. Find out more here.

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