It is often said that England and America are divided by a common language, and you might as well throw in Australia too. Table a motion in Australia, and it’s up for discussion; table it in America, and you’ve as good as killed it. It’s the same with liberalism. In the United States, Hillary Clinton is the arch-liberal matriarch of the Democratic party, but she doesn’t seem to have much in common with Australian Liberals like John Howard and Tony Abbott. What gives? Will the real liberals please stand up?
Australia has a Liberal party full of conservatives that, in the words of its founder Robert Menzies, was from the beginning ‘determined to be a progressive party’. In the United Kingdom, the Liberal Democrats trace their origins to an unholy alliance between old liberals and new socialists. In the United States, the Republican party has turned ‘liberal’ into a dirty word for ‘Democrat’, despite the fact that some of its most famous intellectual luminaries (Theodore Roosevelt, Fiorello La Guardia, Henry Cabot Lodge) were out-and-out liberals.
Conservative icon Edmund Burke was a Whig (a pre-Liberal) who sat in opposition to the Tories in Parliament. Ramsay MacDonald, the UK’s first Labour prime minister, only joined the Labour party after being passed over by the Southampton Liberals. Closer to home, the University of Sydney’s Liberal Club, the alma mater of John Howard, Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull, has split into three: a Liberal Club, a Conservative Club, and a Libertarian Club. Who can blame them? It seems everyone and no one wants to be called a liberal.
The problem is that the US, UK and Australia all have political systems that squeeze three different political traditions – liberal, conservative, and progressive (or laborite) – into just two major parties. In the era of universal suffrage, liberals have never been numerous enough to win elections on their own. So they co-opt conservative and progressive parties instead. The only way they can stay in power is by pulling the strings from behind the scenes. After three centuries of practice, they’ve gotten so good at it that the language itself has lost sight of the hidden masters of Anglo-Saxon politics.
Liberalism was the first coherent, well-articulated political philosophy in the English-speaking world. Born out of the Parliamentary party of the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution of 1688, liberalism is the party of individual rights and the rule of law. Sociologically speaking, it is the house philosophy of the educated middle class. The professions – all professions – are chock-full of liberals.
Conservatism grew out of Toryism, but it got its first real mission statement in England with Robert Peel’s 1834 Tamworth Manifesto, in which he lauded ‘the respect for ancient rights’ that was ‘more powerful than either law or reason’. English progressivism (or laborism) arose even later. It didn’t find a strong institutional voice until formation of the Labour Representation Committee in 1900.
In British political history, both the Conservative party and the Labour party were born as offshoots of the Whigs/Liberals. That’s because as England emerged from the Middle Ages, the main opposition to the Crown was liberal. That’s very different from the situation on the Continent. In France, liberals like the Marquis de Lafayette were quickly pushed aside in the French Revolution, with disastrous consequences. As a result, all of France’s revolutions (not to mention Russia’s revolution) ended in terror and repression.
The French revolutionary terms ‘left’ and ‘right’ – representing the radicals and reactionaries who sat on opposite sides of the National Assembly of 1789 –just don’t apply in Anglo-Saxon political systems. We don’t have a simple spectrum of opinion that runs from a communist left to a fascist right. For us, communism and fascism are equally abhorrent. Anglo-Saxon conservatism is not ‘fascism-lite’; it has nothing to do with fascism at all. Ditto Anglo-Saxon progressivism. Australian Labor, British Labour and the American Democrats want higher wages for workers, not death to capitalists.
The tyranny of French philosophy has given us political oxymorons like ‘the Labor right’ and ridiculous tautologies like ‘the liberal wing of the Liberal Party’. We have a different political landscape from France, and different problems. In the Anglo-Saxon world, the educated middle class professionals who run all of our political parties tend to be liberal. In Australia, the Liberal party rank and file may not have voted for gay marriage, but you can bet that most of its party staffers did. The Labor party may depend on unions for financial support, but its activists celebrate the multicultural immigration that puts its members out of work.
The challenge for the professional managers of both major parties is that most voters don’t share their priorities. So the liberal elites of the Labor party have to pretend to care about ordinary workers – while pushing through their agenda of free trade, multiculturalism, sexual liberation, and the increasing bureaucratisation of public life. Meanwhile the liberal elites of the Liberal party have to pretend to care about families and religion – while pushing through their agenda of free trade, multiculturalism, sexual liberation, and the increasing bureaucratisation of public life. Either way, the voters lose.
Hillary Clinton, Malcolm Turnbull and Kevin Rudd belong to the same liberal club, in more ways than one. They’re all welcome at New York art openings and film premieres. They’re all highly respected among the kinds of people who are highly respected. And they’re all bitterly resented by ordinary voters in their own parties.
Liberals can never win an electoral majority on their own, so they muscle in on other people’s parties instead. The resulting dominance of liberal policy priorities has created a new kind of authoritarianism: the liberal authoritarianism of the professional class. It doesn’t matter much who you vote for these days. Either way, you’re electing the same bunch, and they don’t represent you. They represent the educated professionals who run political parties. In other words, they represent themselves.
Salvatore Babones is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Sydney. His book ‘The New Authoritarianism: Trump, Populism, and the Tyranny of Experts’ was named in the Top 5 politics books of 2018 by the WSJ