Some people think liberalism is about principles but its true guiding principle is realism. When a doge of Venice, Martin Falier, appeared autocratic, Stefano Ghiazza said, ‘Dangerous beasts must be tied up; if they cannot be controlled they must be destroyed’; and that is the reality of liberalism: without constraints on power, rebellion is inevitable. People who go too far make others go further. Without liberalism, both tyranny, and anarchy (and not in a good way), follow. The untied beast creates chaos. Liberalism seeks to tie it up in knots, instead.
At some point liberalism got rather full of itself and re-conceived its reason for being as extending rights, not, preserving them. Now rights were granted where power did not make them real, such as human rights to housing or water in a world where human beings deny each other these realities — whereas rights had been extended before because it was impossible not to do so. People clamouring for rights before had to be admitted into politics, both because politicians saw in that some advantage to themselves and because it needed to be done for the safety of the system. The UK’s Reform Acts took shape, both, from fear of excluded groups, and, because rearrangements of seats in the House of Commons suited different factions inside the House. Liberalism did not grow as a democratic project: it grew by co-option.
This was not ‘democratic’; it is the way that all oligarchies swell in number. To keep power, the liberals felt, we must admit this or that interest group to our political nation. Of course, this was dressed up in principle and of course, some believed that; sincere virtue-signalling is no news; but politics was at best a forest within which principle could seek clearings for its actions. Politics was never made of principle. The point of politics was the point of diplomacy, too. Perhaps things might be accomplished over time, with words, deals and transactions, but the real point of politics is to keep hope alive that by words, deals and transactions somebody can be persuaded to acknowledge things that are in another person’s interest; because, once that hope dies, competing interests continue, and violence will follow.
Even though a realist account of that kind would once have been taken for granted, and the liberalism we had achieved, greeted as a good, liberals have been engaged for a century and more in a secularised kind of spiritual ambition. They have aimed to recreate the world in some perfect but humanly created way rather than to preserve liberalism as a way to survive in the world. Real liberals sound today, as a result, like conservatives, when both the so-called liberals and the so-called conservatives sound like radicals. There used to be a right to be wrong; it used to be no offence, to be offensive: these were acknowledged as the limits of what could be achieved without taking the carpet up from under our own feet. It was that humility (or lack of that secular ambition, if you like) which left people free to group together in a public sphere to make a difference to things that could be measured in bread, water, pounds, and pence.
The real point of liberalism was to keep discussion and ideas alive. No one since Cromwell had been overreaching to a rule by the saints, and this was the same mistake in secular style. It was radicals, not liberals, who imagined you could impose principles on the world before ‘the real world’ had developed the conditions that embodied them. Once British liberals imagined themselves as good, and secular missionaries to ‘the Rest’, at the height of empire, by a kind of pride they thought they could make history. This was Iraq, and it was Afghanistan. It has also been the virtual reality of our schools and universities, where one person’s rights tie another person’s rights up in knots. But it was empire that was the history, and gave ‘rights’ force — and not universally.
You have to be doubtful about the extent to which our present ways of thinking are training us to see our real conditions with any sober sense. The powerful interests that do continue are potentially dangerous beasts, but so is that general self-righteousness left by new liberalism.