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Sunday, February 25, 2007

A call for militant liberalism

Oliver Kamm considers himself a man of the left and there is no doubt that there are plenty of points on which we would disagree with him. Nevertheless, he manifestly understands the need for the promotion and defence of liberal values in the world with a clarity that eludes other self-defined liberals on the left, notably the leader of the Liberal Democrats Sir Menzies Campbell (and the great majority of his colleagues in that party).

Kamm writes (for Prospect magazine):
The dominant conflict of the last century was not between left and right. It was between open societies and competing absolutisms. In its most enduring form - the cold war - the protagonists were not progressives and reactionaries but different legatees of the Enlightenment: those of Jefferson and Rousseau, respectively. What comes next is less convoluted, because one side in the conflict of our age is explicit in its aims. Critical inquiry, freedom of conscience and the separation of civil and religious authority are the target of a violent theocratic fanaticism born and sustained in the middle east.

That movement's apocalyptic language is so far outside the conventions of western debate that many are tempted to rationalise its demands as rhetorical code for something else: a plea for the Palestinians; a cry for global justice. But the ideology is atavistic. It is part of modernity only in the sense that its adherents harness technology to millenarian ends. The most potent conflict in the international order - one that makes urgent the task of countering nuclear proliferation - is thus between the Enlightenment and those who seek its repeal.

Within the western democracies, heightened political disagreement is likely and desirable. But this is not about left vs right either. The strangest political phenomenon of our time is a convergence of isolationisms: nativism on the right, allied to identity politics and anti-Americanism on the left. Against such an adversary, liberalism will, I hope, become more militant in its own defence.

In every respect Kamm is spot on. Compare and contrast, however, the contribution of Sir Menzies Campbell, cited by Kamm but quoted here in full from Prospect:

Liberalism vs authoritarianism is fast becoming the philosophical divide within developed societies. 9/11 and other terrorist atrocities have heightened a sense of anxiety about security in an increasingly globalised world. The response from governments has been to try to gain ever greater knowledge and control of the lives and activities of their citizens. The British government is one of the worst offenders. Identity cards, the excesses of the DNA database, and a relentless drive towards extending the period of detention without trial are all symptoms of its authoritarian tendencies.

There is no "war" against terrorism. The terrorist is a criminal and should be treated accordingly. The creeping power of the state is the order of the day, but terrorism thrives where civil liberties are denied. Liberals must make that point forcefully and oppose and reverse the trend towards authoritarianism.
While we would agree that the balance of civil liberties and security is, and should be, a constant matter for vigilance in free societies, we note Sir Menzies Campbell's failure to grasp Kamm's key point. The global reach of terrorism is now at a greater level than ever before: whether or not we regard it as a war, formally or informally, the War on Terror remains symptomatic of a wider ideological struggle - in Kamm's words "a battle between the Enlightenment and those who seek its repeal". It is a matter for shame that the Liberal Democrats, with their dubious foreign policies and willingness to ally themselves with the most illiberal elements of the left (the opportunistic failure to defend free expression during the Danish cartoon row, for example - Sarah Teather MP chose to denounce the cartoons as "racist") find themselves too often on the side of the opponents of the Enlightenment.

The defenders of freedom in this country are not, by and large, to be found among the ranks of the dismal leftist sect called the Liberal Democrats (there are exceptions - Lord Ashdown is one). There are, however, the stirrings of a revival of true liberalism both on the left and right of centre. Oliver Kamm, the Euston Manifesto Group, the Henry Jackson Society, are all manifestations of this. The New Party also seeks to place itself in the vanguard of a new liberal movement. To paraphrase Oliver Kamm, the fight is not between left and right, but between those who will stand up for liberal values and those who would see them betrayed.