It has become fashionable in recent years to talk of the death of liberalism. But as crowds high on the octane of generational self-righteousness rampage through major cities, the evidence mounts. The growing intolerance of freedom of thought, the inability to talk across divides, the way that most of the British establishment, police included, feels the need to pledge fealty to the cause — as though all terrified of ending up on the wrong side — points to a crisis of more than confidence. It is evidence of an underlying morbidity.
Each day the cultural revolution is picking up a pace, with the iconoclasts who attacked the Cenotaph and the statue of Winston Churchill looking for new focuses for their rage. The University of Liverpool has announced that its Gladstone halls of residence will be renamed after protestors pointed out that the former prime minister’s father had owned slaves. So there goes the ‘sins of the father’ ethic too. Nervous broadcasters have started removing programmes ahead of any stampede, with the BBC withdrawing Little Britain and HBO taking out Gone with the Wind from their streaming services in case the woke eye of Sauron flashes on them.
What we are seeing is nothing more or less than the death of the liberal ideal.
Of course ‘liberalism’ was always a broadly defined term; a definition made only vaguer by Americans making it synonymous with ‘left-wing’. But in the truest political sense it encapsulates most of the foundations of our political order, including (though not limited to) equality, the rule of law and freedom — including the freedom of speech that allows good ideas to win out. In the past few years, left-wing critics have been keen to identify what they see as the erasure of liberal democracy by popularly elected leaders on the political right. But in our own country, the much more serious assault on political liberalism comes not from the conservative right, but from the radical left.
Over the past couple of weeks, well-meaning people have poured almost a million pounds into the coffers of Black Lives Matter UK in the belief that they are helping a movement that will help black people. In fact they have funded a deeply radical movement. On its own fundraising page, BLM UK describes its aims as: ‘to dismantle imperialism, capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy and the state structures.’ So as well as dismantling a nonexistent menace (‘imperialism’) it intends to bring down the economy and completely alter relations between the sexes (negatively characterised as ‘patriarchy’). This is not liberalism, but far-left radicalism of a kind that has become very familiar of late.
Some people watching events of recent days will have been surprised by how far and fast such sentiments have run. By the sight of a mob in Bristol tearing down a statue and then jumping on it. By a Labour MP saying: ‘I celebrate these acts of resistance. We need a movement that will tear down systemic racism.’ By the ranks of British police who could find no way to respond to this behaviour other than (in a newly invented act of faith) to ‘take the knee’ before it. And then there is the media, which has chosen to provide cover for such violence and purge from their ranks not just people who dissent from it but, in the case of the New York Times a few days ago, anyone who helps publish someone who dissents.
As one of the last liberals left at that newspaper, Bari Weiss, explained it last week, the over-forties in the news business (like so many others) imagined that the people coming up under them shared their liberal worldview. Then they discovered that these young people believed in ‘safetyism’ over liberalism, and ‘the right of people to feel emotionally and psychologically safe’ over ‘what were considered core liberal values, like free speech’. Actually the divide is even bigger than that, and now encompasses nearly everything. Where the liberal mind is inquiring, the woke mind is dogmatic. Where the liberal mind is capable of humility, the woke mind is capable of none. Where the liberal mind is able to forgive, the woke mind believes that to have erred just once is cause enough to be ‘cancelled’. And while the liberal mind inherited the idea of loving your neighbour, the woke mind positively itches to cast the first stone.
Readers of The Spectator have known this was coming. When this magazine first wrote about the Stepford Students, it was asked why we take this so seriously — surely the students would grow up? And they did: but they didn’t change. The virtue-signalling of large corporations — the growing legions of diversity officers and ‘implicit bias training’ — was also written off as the silliness of the corporate world. When we described the mandatory requirement in government to prove a ‘commitment to diversity’ in order to be eligible for any public appointment, it was greeted with the same dismissal. As the American journalist Andrew Sullivan (himself now seemingly muzzled, if not cancelled) put it two years ago: ‘We all live on campus now.’
Step by step, the UK came to have a public and private sector dedicated to the implementation of views which are barely distinguishable from those of the protestors who took to the streets in the past week or two. It’s an ethic which demands that our society play a set of impossible, unwinnable games of identity and ‘privilege’ that not only subvert but end any idea of tolerance.
All of this emanates from those who come out of university educated to loathe our society, believing it to be characterised by the oppression of certain groups by other groups: a shameful history and a shameful present. Today these people head into professions where their language of aggressive superiority (‘Educate yourself’) is used to intimidate their elders, force every-one to agree with their point of view and otherwise make themselves unsackable.
As with all movements that catch, they aren’t on to nothing. Inequalities and inequities do exist, here as in all societies. Reasonable people disagree about how to address this. But the new illiberal radicals do not share that worry. For them, every inequity that exists (financial, familial, social, neurological) is the result of the same thing: discrimination. A thing we must ‘tackle’, ‘eradicate’ and otherwise cleanse from existence. There’s an awful lot of work to do.
Even the woke analysis of history that now sees them scouring the land for more statues to assault is radically different from that of the liberal mind. Liberals understand that people in history acted with the knowledge they had at the time, and that the task of those looking back is to look on it with understanding, not least in the hope of being understood in turn. The woke mind abhors this. It knows that it is right, and that everybody before this year zero was a bigot. After the weekend’s vandalism against London monuments, the capital’s Mayor, Sadiq Khan, announced that his ‘Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm’ would sit in judgment on all racist statues in the capital. Within hours, the Museum of London had already brought in the cranes to remove an errant statue on West India Quay.
In such ways has the free exchange of ideas about our past and present been replaced by a series of demands and assertions that demand everyone else’s compliance. ‘Silence is violence’ is one favoured line, meaning that if you do not agree with the radicals, you are perpetrating an act of violence. Naturally this assertion comes from the same people who have spent a lot of time asserting that words (such as ‘mis-gendering’ someone) are violence. While the violence of the past few days is not violence.
It is on the lip of this trap that our representatives and public figures have teetered over the past week or two, unable to work out how they can avoid a step they intuit to be deadly. What they need to do is pause and fundamentally change the terms, basing their appeal not just on reason but on a truly liberal spirit. It should be one which emphasises that the claims being made are unjust. It is unjust to portray the whole of American society, in all of its complexity, as typified by a policeman who is awaiting trial for murder. And it is even more unjust to think that his actions reveal some deep truth about the British police, or the British state, let alone everybody who is white. Equally, it is not just unjust but vindictive to pretend that any contradiction of your world view is merely a display of ‘white privilege’, ‘white fragility’ or ‘white tears’.
Unwittingly or otherwise, those who use these terms subvert one of the last great additions to liberal thought: that aspiration expressed by Dr Martin Luther King half a century ago. For when Dr King talked about the need to judge a person by the content of their character and not by the colour of their skin, he gave us something that was not just a great moral insight but — in an increasingly diverse society — the only solution. A year before his death, Dr King gave a speech titled ‘Where do we go from here?’ in which he said: ‘Let us be dissatisfied until that day when nobody will shout, “White Power!”, when nobody will shout, “Black Power!”, but everybody will talk about God’s power and human power.’
The people who have come after Dr King have spent years busily inverting that dream. In the name of black agency they try to deny white people agency. In the name of assailing white supremacy they end up by asserting black supremacy. And in order to make up for the sufferings of people who are no longer alive they demand vast wealth transfers today based on racial grouping. It is hard to imagine a more divisive programme, all carried out in the name of anti-racism. What they are actually doing is busily re-racialising our societies. Which is how you come to the situation where a cabinet minister is quizzed on Sky News about the precise ethno-racial composition of the British cabinet and certain ‘anti-racists’ can be found on social media noting with disapproval the number of people of Asian descent in the cabinet.
Any movement that says ‘Things are so bad that this whole thing needs to be pulled down’ should be encouraged to realise, before they have to experience it, the cost of what they are abandoning. And to remember the central truth about how much easier it is to pull down than it is to build. They must be responded to by people of every skin colour and background with a polite but firm ‘No’. Not just because the things that they are attempting to pull down include the only things that are capable of holding us all up. But because if everything that got us here was so bad, then what we are living in wouldn’t be so unusually good.