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As a Lib Dem I’ll always defend real liberalism

George Orwell. Picture: Ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images - Credit: ullstein bild via Getty Images

Former Lib Dem leader TIM FARRON on ‘intolerant liberals’ and others he says are wrongly adopting the l-word.

On the Unherd website recently, the writer Peter Franklin laid down a challenge: why won’t liberals defend liberalism?

He wanted to know why self-professed liberals are not speaking out against the damaging ‘cancel culture’, where people are vilified for expressing opinions by those who find them offensive. He pointed out that liberal values such as free speech, fairness, equality and reason are under attack, but that ‘mainstream’ liberals refuse to defend the fundamental right to disagree.

And, he said, staying silent over attacks on extreme views is simply the thin end of the wedge because now the cancel culture is starting to come for people with hitherto mainstream views.

Well, as a liberal to my fingertips, I want to take up the challenge and defend the existence of real liberalism in social and political debate. At first glance, liberalism appears to have won in our society today.

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Even members of the Conservative and Labour parties now call themselves liberals. But the increasingly dominant form of liberalism that Peter Frankin is challenging isn’t true liberalism at all. Anyone can defend those they agree with. But the moment we block someone who has sneaked some views we dislike into our Twitter bubble, we show ourselves not to be liberal.

At a time of post-Brexit bitterness, with a government that is stoking the fires of populism to appeal to the new voters it won in 2019, the dividing lines in our country have become starker. In our discourse we see liberals condemning those who don’t conform as nasty and hateful, whilst the right condemn liberals as fragile snowflakes.

How have we got to this position? In the post-enlightenment, post-modern West, we have rejected the major unifying narratives of faith and history, and are increasingly encouraged to look inwards for our own truth and values. Our self-worth is found in being true to ourselves and asking others to accept us on our own terms.

My values may be different to yours, but that’s OK as long as you don’t try to force your values on me. But inevitably, my truth will clash with yours at some point, and I may find your views offensive. If this offence strikes at the heart of my identity, then I am naturally going to feel hurt and threatened by the existence of your views, and you by mine. Then whose opinion takes precedence?

This is why we need to reclaim a genuine liberalism in our debate. Real tolerance and diversity involves fighting for the rights and freedoms of people you don’t like or don’t agree with – not banning or ‘cancelling’ them. Simply fighting for your own rights is never enough, because liberalism fights for the rights of those with different views to be heard.

It takes time to listen, seek to understand other perspectives and only then – if both sides maintain their positions – agree to disagree respectfully.

We need to tell a new story about disagreeing well; one about attitude, tone and conduct. It’s about how we think about one another, speak to one another, act towards one another, listen to one another.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to do this without causing personal hurt, and I am sympathetic to that pain: there is an incredible intolerance on both sides of so many debates which leads to people feeling that a denunciation of their position is tantamount to erasing them as a person.

But there is a gentler way. Authentic liberalism has its source in Christianity; in its belief in the inherent value of each person and the gift of saving grace. It takes the sting out of the identity politics driving a lot of today’s intolerant liberalism, by relieving the immense pressure we put ourselves under to create and sustain our own validity. It reminds us that we do not need to do this all by ourselves and that we are full of significance and dignity, whatever the world tells us.

In discarding Christianity, our society has kicked away the foundations of liberalism. We should not then be surprised when what we call liberalism ceases to be liberal. Instead the so-called ‘liberal elites’ feel empowered to attack individual liberties such as free speech, and to destroy institutional liberty. Tribal politics set people against one another and politicians resort to dog whistle rhetoric that divides us into ‘us and them’.

We need to remind ourselves again of the innate worth of each of our fellow humans. The followers of liberalism, as of Christ, should stick up for marginalised groups. When do I hear those of you who claim to be classical liberals (you’re not!) standing up on Twitter for the vast majority of asylum seekers who do not commit assault? When do I hear populist commentators, in arguing that ‘all lives matter’ (of course they do) also acknowledging that black lives need to be particularly noticed and valued at this time because of the pain and disadvantage so many have suffered?

As a liberal politician, I believe that every person should be free to live as they see fit, to hold their beliefs, their conscience, their world view and to express them as they wish. I reject forced conformity whether that comes from the law or from social pressure.

At the heart of a liberal society should be a commitment to uphold that we have a right to offend and a duty to tolerate offence. George Orwell said ‘if liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear’.

In a pluralistic culture we have a duty to tolerate those we find intolerable. We should stand behind those we find offensive and accept with grace the offence we may feel in return. This is the only way we will redeem liberalism against both the intolerant left and the populist right.

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