Monday 15 July 2019 5:44 am

Liberalism is not dead, but it is far sicker than you realise

When my colleague and I published a book entitled “The Death of Liberal Democracy?” in August 2016, many friends were shocked that we would dream up such a title. It was near sacrilegious.

A couple of weeks back, in an interview with the Financial Times, Vladimir Putin declared liberalism obsolete. A torrent of outraged commentary flooded every corner of the press, the blogosphere, and all other conceivable outlets.  

And therein lies the problem.

In what today passes for political debate, outrage has replaced thoughtfulness and self-reflection.


Here’s my take: liberalism is not dead, but both liberalism and our liberal democracies are afflicted with a severe ailment. It remains to be seen what the outcome will be – a full recovery, a chronic and debilitating illness, or a slow death?

Let us look at the evidence.

The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index showed that, in 2018, fewer people lived in some form of democracy than in previous years. In fact, only 4.5 per cent of the global population live in a “full democracy”. 

Today’s second largest economy – China – is a repressive, authoritarian state. Authoritarians are becoming more confident, forming alliances with each other (look at China, Russia, Turkey, Iran, and Syria), and expanding their influence across the globe. 

Even some EU member states, such as Hungary and Poland, have been accused of dismantling some of the fundamentals of democracy. Political strongmen (and they do mostly tend to be men) are on the rise, winning elections or doing enough to pull previously moderate political forces towards the extremes.

And we don’t have to look far from home. In the UK, the Brexit process has undermined long-established democratic norms. 

Our government tolerated judges who were doing their duty being labelled enemies of the people. It handed out billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money to Northern Ireland to stay in power – pork barrel politics at its worst. The idea that democracy is not mob rule by the majority but finding a reasonable balance between the expressed wishes of the majority and the interests of the minority has been thrown out the window. 


And now we have a prospective Prime Minister considering proroguing parliament without an ounce of shame.

What of liberalism? Some who still have the impudence to call themselves liberal have become political vigilantes. They police the airwaves and everybody’s utterances for that which might be considered offensive to their own chosen brand of identity politics. They wish to impose their own interpretation of politically correct thought and speech on everyone. 

They demand the no-platforming of those whose opinions they prefer to suppress rather than having the gumption to engage and win the argument. And they have no qualms about mounting social media campaigns to destroy the lives and careers of those accused of certain offences before they have even been investigated, let alone proven. 

Anyone who, in the face of all this, still believes that liberalism and liberal democracy are not ailing is living in some alternate universe.

How has it come to this point? The one-word answer: arrogance.

For decades, we in the west believed that our particular sort of liberal democracy was the highest human attainment. That its benefits were so plain and obvious that the whole world would inevitably be consumed by it. That it was, maybe, “the end of history”.

As it so often does, arrogance turns into complacency, then hubris. We stopped believing that liberal values and the functioning of our democracies had to be continually nurtured, evolved, and fought for to be sustained. 

Instead, we tolerated political and financial crises, sustained inequalities in wealth, wellbeing and opportunity, environmental destruction, a culture of wild-west individualism that has led to the breakdown of communities and social cohesion, and an extreme globalism that has undermined the nation state as a cohesive force. And we are struggling with an economic system that might have served us well in the past but is clearly running out of road.

Rather than reacting to President Putin’s comments with outraged self-righteousness, we would be better off looking in the mirror and realising that, if liberal democracy is to survive it must be renewed and revitalised. 

In our book, we recommended a new, fierce liberalism, one that is both prepared to fight for what it believes in, and willing to embark on the much-needed radical, top-to-bottom reform of our institutions – government, education, our economy, how markets work, and much else besides.

Putin’s comments hurt. But the main threat does not come from him. It comes from those who react with outrage and then proceed to do nothing but defend the failing status quo. 

They should remember that the comments that hurt most are those that contain grains of truth. 

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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