Blaming Liberalism for the World's Political Turmoil Is Just Too Easy; Critics Are Using a Misconceived Version of the Ideology to Explain the Financial Crash and the Rise of Populism

The Evening Standard (London, England), January 10, 2017 | Go to article overview

Blaming Liberalism for the World's Political Turmoil Is Just Too Easy; Critics Are Using a Misconceived Version of the Ideology to Explain the Financial Crash and the Rise of Populism


Byline: Nick Clegg

JOHN Stuart Mill would be spinning in his grave. British liberalism of which he was the intellectual godfather has been extolled around the world for generations as the font of fair play, political stability and individual rights. Yet now, all of a sudden, liberalism is blamed for the rise of Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen and every other form of angry populism across the democratic world.

Commentators who once embraced liberalism a belief in individual rights, internationalism, democracy, fair treatment and equality before the law now rush to disown it. Many claim they knew Brexit and Trump would triumph forgetting how they threw their hands up in horror when it happened. Ah, the shameless wisdom of hindsight!

The rush to condemn liberalism is everywhere: "liberal" has long been a term of abuse rather than praise in the US, especially so in the era of Tea Party Trumpism. Then yesterday Theresa May declared herself against "laissez-faire liberalism". Shadow chancellor John McDonnell, like many on the Left, fulminates against the "neo-liberal straitjacket" and the Brexit press never misses a chance to give "liberal luvvies" a good kicking (Meryl Streep will no doubt get it in the neck this week).

Perhaps the most alarming condemnation was the recent outburst from Alexander Dugin, Vladimir Putin's ideological mentor: "We need a Nuremburg trial for liberalism, the last totalitarian political ideology."

So the anti-liberal bandwagon is on a mighty roll when Trump, McDonnell, the Kremlin and May all, rhetorically at least, agree with each other. Much though they differ on many things, on this they seem as one: liberalism is morally flabby, an elitist creed that reveres markets over people, globalisation over place. The "metropolitan liberal elite" (MLE) doesn't understand the common man and woman; liberals prefer to chinwag in Davos rather than look after those who have been left behind by the whirligig of change; MLEs created the 2008 banking mess, rolled out the red carpet to mass immigration without caring about society at large. It is time, in short, to roll back liberalism and reassert the state/the nation/the community (insert according to taste).

It's powerful, heady stuff. Except it's utter, baleful drivel.

Mill and his modern acolytes did not create the sub-prime mortgage crash in the US, nor were they responsible for the reckless behaviour of global bankers. Indeed, I remember clearly in 2005, as a freshly elected MP, how my party, the Liberal Democrats, repeatedly warned the Labour Party against the dangers of an overleveraged banking system and heavily indebted households. We were loftily brushed aside by Gordon Brown as anxious Cassandras, bleating uselessly from the sidelines. It was the party of socialism, Labour, which was more guilty of rampant "neo-liberal" deregulation than anyone else at the time.

Much has been made of the "liberal" orthodoxy which has inflicted economic and social misery in parts of Europe, as weaker economies have suffered under unflinching austerity and the disciplines of the eurozone. …

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