Article

Is liberalism really to blame for Britain's (and America's) ills?
Published in Guardian on 2016-11-17T08:57:03+00:00

Are we turning our backs on the age of enlightenment? Reading the rightwing press in Britain would suggest we have. Its editors and commentators have sought to turn liberalism, the enlightenments political gift, into a dirty word.

Newspapers have derided liberalism and all its works, ridiculing those who espouse it and praising the people for rejecting it.

As evidence, they point to the peoples revolt in Britain against the European Union and the peoples revolt in the United States against the political elite.

The Brexit vote has unleashed a storm of anti-liberal tirades. The liberal left are political orphans: their entire world-view is in tatters, wrote Allister Heath in the Daily Telegraph.

US voters who plumped for Donald Trump were protesting at a complacent liberal elite that had ignored them for too long, wrote Dominic Sandbrook in the Daily Mail. And they were also rejecting multiculturalism, militant feminism, internationalism and social liberalism.

Trump recognised that it was the liberal elite in Washington who were guilty of denying citizens the opportunity to succeed, wrote Jacob Rees-Mogg in the Times.

On both sides of the Atlantic, there has been a backlash against a prevailing liberalism, wrote Rod Liddle in The Spectator.

In addition, plenty of newspaper leading articles since the EU referendum have scorned liberalism for its supposed failures. And, at this point, you may well think I am about to scorn the scorners. I am not.

I do not share their distaste for liberalism. But, like all good liberals, I seek to understand and not to decry. And I think Heath, Sandbrook, Rees-Mogg, Liddle and assorted anonymous leader writers do raise concerns that we have tended to ignore.

It would appear that the fracturing of the British population, as exemplified by Brexit and the erosion of the two main political parties, notably Labour, is a failure to sell liberalism. Now there is common cause between the ideologues of the right and the majority of the working class.

In two previous postings, one in December last year and another in June this year, I attempted to get to grips with the disconnect between the Labour party at Westminster and its traditional working class voters (now, I suspect, former voters) across the country.

I have been provoked to go further down that road after reading a controversial essay by Joan C Williams for the Harvard Business Review, What so many people dont get about the US working class.

I dont go with her all the way, but her polemic contains insights that are applicable to the development of the British working class. Anyone who spent hours trudging from door to door on council estates in the early 1970s trying and failing to persuade residents to join a Marxist party and make revolution, as I did, will recognise the sad truth of Williamss analysis.

It was apparent that large swathes of the British working class did not have a socialist bone in their bodies. Nor, it transpired, were they turned on by social democracy. On the doorsteps, there was a clear lack of empathy for liberal political ideals, with overt racism and sexism.

By that time, more than a generation on from the post-war Labour landslide, many people were voting Labour out of habit rather than conviction. And many were, of course, voting Tory, the much derided cloth cap Conservatives.

A large number, embracing the meritocratic spirit unleashed in the mid-1960s, were eager to climb the social ladder. If unable to accomplish it themselves, then they were happy to help their children up the rungs.

But not all of them, and arguably the majority, were necessarily interested in adopting the ethos of the middle class. Their cultural values remained intact. Money counted more than refinement.

Although keen to earn more, they were unconvinced that trade unions were much help. Organised labour was giving way to individualism, a change grasped by the Sun from the mid-1970s onwards and totally misread by the Daily Mirror.

However, there was also a significant section of the working class that was not interested at all in advancement (and, some would say, not much interested in work either). Famously described by Marx as the lumpenproletariat, they were rare and reluctant voters, although I suspect many did vote in the EU referendum.

Meanwhile, the Labour party at national level was gradually becoming, for want of a better phrase, professionalised. A growing number of its university-educated MPs were no longer as recognisably working class as the people who voted for them.

Tony Blairs electoral success stemmed from his engagement with the middle class. Despite introducing reforms that benefited the working class, New Labour was not as appreciated as it should have been, partially because of the liberalism that accompanied the policies.

As for the Tory party, its Westminster intake was also changing. The grouse moor was past. Many Conservative members had been educated in state schools and/or were drawn from business backgrounds. Plenty were identifiable as having working class backgrounds.

Over time, working class voters would come to perceive little difference between Labour and Tory MPs (despite the divergent policies of the parties they represented). Westminster was growing ever more remote from the majority of the population they represented. An elite was under construction.

In the US, according to Williams, a social class movement was also occurring in somewhat similar fashion. Starting in 1970, she writes, many blue-collar whites were voting Republican.

Her essay refers only to Americas white working class but, in many respects, the political attitudes she traces echo the British experience.

Referring to a class culture gap, she argues that class migrants (white-collar professionals born to blue-collar families) adopted a new outlook towards politics and, as importantly, the people inhabiting senior positions, whether at their own workplace or in the professions.

The white working class (WWC), she writes, did not dream of becoming upper-middle-class, with its different food, family, and friendship patterns; the dream is to live in your own class milieu, where you feel comfortable just with more money.

Im unsure whether it holds for the British working class but I suspect there is something to it. More pertinently, there is a shared resentment towards professional politicians. Hillary Clinton, writes Williams, epitomises the dorky arrogance and smugness of the professional elite.

Williams then moves on to another point that might well make feminists bridle: Manly dignity is a big deal for working-class men, and theyre not feeling that they have it. Trump promises a world free of political correctness and a return to an earlier era, when men were men and women knew their place.

And the breadwinner role remains important because many men still measure masculinity by the size of the pay packet. Look, writes Williams, I wish manliness worked differently. But most men, like most women, seek to fulfill the ideals theyve grown up with.

She argues that WWC men arent interested in working at McDonalds for $15 per hour instead of $9.50. What they want is... steady, stable, full-time jobs that deliver a solid middle-class life. (Class categorisation in the US does not match that in Britain).

And then there is the immigration issue. Again, its possible to see shared attitudes across the ocean, most obviously an antagonism towards the combination of liberal politics and global capitalism.

The loss of manufacturing jobs has hurt the working classes in both countries. But there has been a reluctance to accept the replacement - low paid and, just as importantly, low status jobs.

Those jobs have been taken instead by immigrants. The indigenous white working class are not found in either the fields of California or the fields of Lincolnshire.

That has tended to fuel anti-migrant opinions alongside the anti-Muslim feelings generated by fears of terrorist attacks. There are few divides between the working class and liberals greater than their opposing views over immigration, race and multiculturalism.

But does all of this really amount to a failure of liberalism itself, as rightwing critics contend, or has it more to do with a failure to educate? Or is it a case of liberalism taking the blame for capitalisms failure to deliver economic satisfaction?

And where do we go if liberalism is consigned to the dustbin of history? Is it not frightening to imagine a society which rejects such an enlightened political philosophy?

Article Properties
Controversy
97%
Topicsparty
0.18
white
0.47

Negative Comments

Sentiment
-0.75
outisodyssey:
The death of liberalism will make the poor, poorer and the rich slightly less rich. The Economist provided a wonderful overview a few weeks back. Happy Graunsters?

Sentiment
-0.62
Sunset Blue:
Nope. Still ignorance and stupidity to blame.

Sentiment
-0.5
Gerard Dijkstra:
How dare the working class want steady stable jobs !

Sentiment
-0.37
YinxxXing:
The powerful and wealthy are doing what they always have: Trying to hold onto their power and wealth. Thus they are ushering the narrative away from poor vs rich and towards poor vs poor. Make them compete hard enough and they will turn on each other, rather than the real cause of their misery. So instead of poor vs rich (socialist narrative), we have poor vs poor (scapegoatist narrative).

Sentiment
-0.37
Tarlew:
Not liberalism so much as the contemptuous, hypocritical, crony laden liberal mafia.

Positive Comments

Sentiment
0.44
dirtygumshield:
As an aside, the Delacroix is a fabulous painting.

Sentiment
0.38
dee011:
As far as I can see, it's all going classic 1939.

Sentiment
0.38
SirJoshuaReynolds:
Clinton won the lower income voters. Trump won the higher income ones.

Sentiment
0.27
ohforgoodnesssake:
The word 'liberalism' covers a multitude of sins. The reluctance of some to separate economic liberalism, being in favour of globalised and deregulated free markets, from social liberalism, being in favour of not being a dickhead, is a big part of the problem.

Sentiment
0.25
ID2054014:
It's amazing how quickly White Middle Class 'Liberal' men want to throw feminism and multi-culturalism under the bus!

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