Monday, 25 December 2017

Liberalism: what a great idea it was. Wonder whether it will make a comeback? You can’t really tell, can you

A few days ago, the EU announced it would be instituting disciplinary measures against Poland in view of new measures signed into law by its president Andrzej Duda. These 13 new laws would make it very easy indeed for the government pretty much to take over the country’s judiciary, appoint all the judges and run the courts as it likes. Poland’s government is, at present, formed by the nationalist Law & Justice Party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwosc, or PiS) which two and a half years ago won 37pc of the vote against the 24pc won by the Civic Platform, the main opposition party, and has a 4 seat majority in parliament. Civic Platform, which is as pro-European as PiS is anti- might, of course, regain power at the next general election and choose to overturn those new laws.

On the other hand, it might not, though many Poles took to the streets to protest against the new laws. If things get worse and Poland doesn’t do the EU’s bidding, the next step is for the EU to suspend Poland’s voting rights. Ominously, Hungary’s Viktor Orban, another nationalist with an eye on the main chance rather than fair play, has promised to oppose the EU over the matter.

Elsewhere in the EU, a member state has, for only the second time in the EU’s existence, a far-right party in government. In Austria, the far-right Freedom party is in a ruling coalition with the centre-right People’s party and was given the defence, foreign affairs and internal affairs portfolios, arguably three of the four most important portfolios in any government, and althought the Freedom party governed in coalition between 2000 and 2005, that was crucially before the financial shenanigans of 2008 and subsequent — one might even suggest consequent — increase in support for nationalist parties throughout Europe.

An article in the New Statesman last March highlighted the rise of the nationalist far-right in Europe and charts to progress of parties such as Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland, Jobbik in Hungary (further to the right than Orban’s Fidesz, which is already rather further right and ‘centre-right’ might imply), Golden Dawn in Greece, the Front National in France, The Finns in Finland, the Sweden Democrats, the Danish People’s Party and the Swiss People’s Party. This graphic from a BBC report on the rise of nationalism in Europe is illuminating.

This is now, as 2017 turns into 2018. So cast your minds back 20 years to October 1997 when the EU’s Treaty of Amsterdam was signed and to pretty much all observers the EU was sailing in supreme triumph into an eternally golden future. The liberal values at the core of the idea of a European Union had finally triumphed, it was felt by many, although certainly not by all.

Yet those few sceptics were regarded almost universally as reactionaries, oddball naysayers, cranks, malcontents who might very likely be expected to object even to the Second Coming of Christ, men and women who just ‘did not get it’. Arguably, the — pretentious word alert! — Zeitgeist in the late-Nineties was that liberalism had finally been consolidated in Europe. This was it: on all fronts — economically, culturally, socially, morally — progress and the liberal values of progressives were triumphing and the rise of the EU — the institution, the more starry-eyed euro-zealots declaimed, which had ensured peace in Europe for the past 40 has played and was playing no small part in that triumph. But as I say, that was then, this is now. And I wonder what the British historian Herbert Butterfield would have made of the then apparent to all triumph of liberalism.

NB Later - 27/12/2017: This might illuminate matters a little. From the UK’s Guardian.
. . .

A few years ago, I came across, or rather heard about, The Whig Interpretation Of History by Butterfield (pictured). The link was a 30-minute talk by a well-known political journalist called Simon Heffer, a Conservative
and, I don’t doubt, a man who would not in the slightest be upset to be described as reactionary, though it would be unfair to call him a ‘right-winger’ as some do and thereby already rather muddy the waters. In my view the terms ‘right-wing’ and ‘right-winger’ are rather uselessƒ in the context of British politics (rather, that is, than in European politics) in that there is any number of different – I won’t say definitions – but notions on what constitutes ‘the right-wing’. For example, the main body of the Tory party might by some be described as ‘right-wing’ if Labour, the usual opposition, is described as ‘left-wing’.

On the other hand all too often here Britain when many hear the description of ‘right-wing’,  their thoughts pretty much immediately turn to believing that it is just code for ‘fascism’ and they suspect that those described as ‘right-wingers’ are to all intents and purposes ‘fascists’. Those ‘fascists’, though, the explanation goes, are disinclined to show their true colours because ‘fascism’ isn’t ever popular in Britain, except with those who shave their heads (and, oddly, are often ostensibly and ostentatiously homophobic but in fact closet gays. But I don’t want to side-track myself). I most certainly doubt that even though the most reactionary Tory would have much truck with out-and-out fascism. So in that sense describing someone as ‘right-wing’ could well be very misleading.

I once recorded in this blog that my father, possibly a life-long member of Britain’s secret services rather than a life-long BBC journalist or equally possibly not at all and merely someone who, by his own admission a few short years before his death in 1991, ‘helped out’ the secret services on occasion, described me as ‘dangerously liberal.’ I was about 30 at the time, and a young, rather immature 30 at that, and was very amused to be thought such. I imagined there could be nothing at all wrong with ‘being liberal’ (and I mean it with a small ‘l’) in that ‘being liberal’ was synonymous with being tolerant, being open to new ideas, not slavishly holding on to the past, being aware of other cultural norms, accepting that even if the views of others contradicted ones own, they were (unless wholly outlandish) worthy of being taken seriously. I still think those values hold true, but I don’t think they are necessarily ‘liberal’.

I think I now understand what my father meant: that a certain thoughtless laissez faire liberalism can lead to gullibility if one is not careful; that a generalised and non-critical acceptance of much can, if you are not careful, make you wide open to political exploitation and to becoming what Vladimir ‘Vlad the Lad’ Lenin (who was no political slouch whatever you think of his politics) described as ‘useful idiots’. For the record I don’t think I have moved a jot from the position I then held as, in my father’s view, ‘dangerously liberal’, but I do like to think – or at the very least hope – I am not, or better no longer, too gullible and can spot a political wrong ‘un as best as the next man.

I once asked my father what he was politically, and he told me he was a ‘right-wing radical’. I didn’t know what he meant than and almost 30 years down the line I still don’t. What, I asked myself then and still ask myself can a man who was most certainly not in the slightest bit ‘fascist’ mean by that description. And that is partly because the term ‘right-wing’ is distressingly vague.

As I say, my father was most certainly no fascist, but despite an essential kindness in his nature, he wasn’t the most tolerant chap, either, especially when it came to the political views of others if they were contrary to his. But as he died in 1991, and as I was still then rather less intellectually assured and confident than I am now, I didn’t seek out any political discussions with him. They would most certainly have ended in rows, not least because my father would have picked me up on some grammatical solecism of which I was then and probably still am guilty or making.

. . .

Broadly, and such dichotomies in general discussion are most certainly broad, there would seem to be a distinction between ‘progressives’ and ‘reactionaries’ in politics as in many other spheres. And broadly viewing the world in such a way is simplistic verging on nonsensical. Many who regard themselves as ‘progressive’ are often anything but. And often those regarded as ‘reactionary’, who perhaps see themselves protecting their country, their society and their against thoughtless change for the sake of change are often on individual issues rather progressive.

An example here in Britain might be that it was ironically a Tory government which first introduced civil partnerships and then marriage between those of the same sex – ‘gay marriage’ – where incidents of homophobia have occurred among those ‘on the left' (as well as, allegedly, anti-Semitism). But undeniably there are many ‘reactionaries’ who are intent on conserving the status quo solely because that is in their best interests and everyone else can go hang. Similarly many ‘progressives’ really do want to change society in ways to end discrimination against those who hitherto have had a pretty raw deal. But I must repeat, a broadbrush distinction between ‘progressives’ and ‘reactionaries’ is at best useless and at worst dangerous.

As I understand him (and that is a necessary caveat) Butterfield objected to the view among many of his fellow historians that history was simply an unstoppable and necessary progression towards a brighter, better world (and I suspect it would be hard to deny that was exactly what ‘progressive liberals’ felt in the heady days in October 1997 when the EU Amsterdam Treaty was signed). Specifically Butterfield objected that many of his fellow historians judging the incidents and occurrences in history by their contemporary standards. No, he said (I think), we must see history in context and in the context of then contemporary morals, values and standards. A short book I read recently while on holiday last week in Morocco called A Very Short Introduction To The First World War might well be a case in point.

These series of Very Short Introductions are useful and very worthwhile in that they can give you an overview of a topic, and the so far 140-strong series covers many disparate subjects. And once you have an overview, a practical context, you can go on into greater detail. In the case of the First World War a broad and common view is that it was pretty much a case of a militaristic Germany with a view to far greater dominance starting the war and well-meaning Britain, France and eventually the United States putting paid to its ambitions. Well, as the man said, up to a point, Lord Copper

 It was, instead, the result of many factors, not least European countries fulfilling what they regarded as their obligations under already formed alliances, but also all participants, not least Britain, primarily protecting their international interests. And, as far as I am concerned, dishonesty ruled all round. Pretty much everyone, from the Brits to the Krauts to the Imperial Russians to the, by then disintegrating, Austro-Hungarian empire, thought they were in the right and would win and that they were following their ‘national destiny’. Shame that it cost the lives of several million ordinary saps to prove them wrong. But were you to ask anyone today what lead to that conflict and they are bound to revert to the ‘Brits, French and Yanks standing up to Germany’. But that is to view that conflict in hindsight using contemporary standards (though I must concede the the Germans did behave appallingly when they went for France by invading neutral Belgium).

. . .

Butterfield was only 14 when the First World War broke out and wrote his pamphlet, which is pretty much all it was, The Whig Interpretation Of History in 1931 when he was still relatively young.  He has his critics, and here is one, though notably two cheers is better than one or even none at all.

I should confess immediately that although after I heard Heffer’s talk on Radio 4, I ordered the book, but apart from starting it I didn’t get very far. It is very densely argued. But I do believe I get his drift and must admit that instinctively rather than intellectually – I am most certainly not intellectual – I am rather drawn to what I believe he wanted to say. It seems to me that for every new ‘good’ achieved, a new ‘bad’ is likely to be introduced. It’s as though for every step forward we take, we also tend to take a step back.

From our vantage point of affluence and privilege we like to think we are creating a ‘better’ world. Well, ask the families of those who have been killed in South America and Mexico as victims of the various drug cartels providing the affluent West with cocaine – the numbers are in the hundreds of thousands over the years – whether life is getting better. It would be interesting, although admittedly impossible, to know how many lives were lost for each toot of coke sniffed by our Western yuppies.

I suspect that Mr Butterfield made a good point. And I suspect he would have felt that his views were not only vindicated by the unexpected, by many, reversal in the fortunes of European liberalism, but it might even rather have amused him after all that triumphalist huffing and puffing.

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