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The International Writers Magazine: Comment

British Liberalism
• Tom Kilcourse
In 1964 I travelled to Oxford to take my place at Ruskin college afforded me by a trade union scholarship. I was a twenty-seven year old activist in my union and the Labour Party. That journey by bus from Stockport to Oxford proved to be life changing. I moved from a world of physical effort into one of ideas, and was enthralled.

J S Mill

During the next two years I absorbed the thoughts of, among others, Keynes, Ricardo and Smith in economics, and Hobbes, Locke, Bentham and Mill in political philosophy. Of these, I was most impressed by Keynes and J.S. Mill. I recall reading Mill’s ‘On Liberty’ from cover to cover in one sitting, as well as his thoughts on Utilitarianism. Mill caused me to reappraise my views on class and to think more in terms of the individual.

Now, fifty years after I first encountered these thinkers, I wonder how Mill, and Dickens too perhaps, would regard the society that they originally inspired. Would Mill approve of what today passes for liberalism? I seriously doubt it, and that is more than a gut feeling. Mill’s concern was with liberty of the individual, to a degree that I occasionally disagreed with. Liberalism today in Britain is not of the Mill kind, but is perhaps better described as paternalistic socialism. It is a philosophy promoted by a remote elite presuming to know what is good for the masses, hence the word ‘paternalism’.

Today’s liberalism conflicts directly with the kind of liberty envisaged by those nineteenth century intellectuals. It is about control, about imposing a pernicious egalitarianism on the population, about creating a classless society by people who are almost exclusively from one class. In their eagerness to pamper the presumed unfortunates, educated zealots such as Shirley Williams and Anthony Crosland did their best to destroy the grammar schools, so slamming the door on bright children from the class they purported to care for. Their attitude and behaviour was distinctly illiberal.

The egalitarian philosophy and antipathy to competitiveness that they promoted is a cancer in our society, sapping all sense of self sufficiency. In our schools, streaming is taboo, so that we have mixed ability classes in which many teachers focus on preventing the failure of the less bright, while more able children endure boredom and risk losing interest. Such a climate does not prepare youngsters for the world of work, in which progress depends on the readiness to use individual initiative. The mixed ability class has become an even greater handicap because of the influx of children whose first language is not English.

Incapable of learning from their errors, some ‘liberal’ minds recently suggested that British universities should accept lower entry standards from applicants educated in state schools. This is akin to the notion of positive discrimination that raised its head on the race issue some years ago. If this is imposed on the universities the outcome is predictable. Every working class youngster who gets into university will be presumed to have achieved that as a favour, rather than on intellectual merit.

In accord with some perverted view of fairness modern liberals have shifted from equality of opportunity to equality of results, and in the process have turned against selection on a broad front. A facility that sets mankind apart from lower animals, discrimination, has become a dirty word. As a result, measures of support for the disadvantaged have been generalised so that benefits can be offered irrespective of recipients’ means. The latest example of this is Nick Clegg’s decision that all children of a certain age group should have free meals at school, regardless of parental means. So, we have the meals of a banker’s child subsidised with taxes collected from a dustman.

The result of this general largesse is likely to render such benefits increasingly unaffordable so that eventually the genuinely needy will be deprived of them. Therein, we have the irony of liberals contributing to a social reversal possibly leading back to the very conditions that their nineteenth century predecessors fought to eliminate.

However, the modern liberal agenda has taken a direction that Mill would clearly have disapproved of. His objection to the tyranny of the majority was unambiguous, so it is difficult to believe that he would not have disapproved with equal vigour of the modern tyranny: that of the determined minority. He was against the generally accepted social norms being imposed on minorities or individuals. What we have today is the imposition of minority interests on the majority by vociferous militants. In consequence, we have a society in which people can lose their jobs or their business by causing offence to a member of these minorities.

Mill grew up in an atmosphere of Utilitarianism, the greatest happiness principle, propagated by his father, James Mill, and his friend Jeremy Bentham. Leaving aside the awkward question of how happiness could be measured, Utilitarians judged any action by its effect on the general level of happiness. So, if the majority harmed a minority, thus making them unhappy, the general level of happiness would fall. It is clear, therefore, that by denying homosexuals liberty to follow their preferences, the general level of happiness would be reduced. Likewise, discrimination against people on grounds of race or sex would make the victims unhappy and, for the sake of argument, their unhappiness would outweigh any rise in happiness the majority enjoyed by that action.

We now live in a society in which the majority of people believe it wrong to act against others because they are of a different race, sex, sexual orientation or religion. The social climate in which Mill argued no longer exists. Partly thanks to his efforts we have greater tolerance of difference than did our forefathers, or so we like to believe. So, the happiness of the majority is not diminished by having in our midst various minorities. However, is the happiness of the majority equally unaffected when those minorities demonstrate intolerance towards others?

cake What is the effect on the majority when they see militants from a minority impose their rights over the rights and interests of others? What happens to the general level of happiness when homosexual zealots target business, whether a hotel or bakery, run by people whose deep religious belief prevents them from complying with the demand. As I write, a bakery in Northern Ireland is in trouble because the management refused to express support for homosexuality in icing on a cake.
The bakery owner is a devout Christian.

A little while ago it was the Christian owners of a small hotel who were more or less bankrupted as a result of refusing to allow two men to sleep in the same bed. Many people believe that these cases do not arise by chance, but are the result of deliberate targeting, and it makes them angry.

Whether or not these people were targeted, their actions raise interesting issues. I recall somebody remarking that the hotel owners were running a commercial operation and, therefore, could not impose their personal values on potential customers. The bakery in Northern Ireland is a commercial operation, so are we to believe that they cannot refuse to meet a customers demand to put a message on a cake? What if a republican had asked for ‘down with the monarchy’ in icing, or a religious bigot demanded the words ‘Islam is Evil’? The bakery did not refuse to bake a cake for their homosexual customer, but merely to make a statement that was profoundly against their belief.

Turning to another issue, race, the majority of people in Britain do not believe that an individual should suffer discrimination on racial grounds, a quite separate matter from suspicion of alien cultures. There are unquestionably racial bigots in our society, but I know of nobody who would support the establishment of a club, trade union or any other association that was expressly for ‘whites only’. Yet we have such bodies established in our police service and elsewhere that are expressly for black people only, and use the word ‘black’ in their title. A glance through a writers guide such as the ‘Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook reveals publishers interested only in black writers.

People who resent such examples are not necessarily ‘racist’ or ‘homophobic’. Rather, it is their sense of fairness that is offended. It is their recognition that a nominal increase in tolerance may be no more than a shift in intolerance to other targets. They have a point. Mill believed that my freedom ends where your nose begins. My freedom is acceptable, desirable indeed, so long as it does not harm others. His definition of ‘harm’ explicitly excluded mere offence. That my actions offend someone is no valid reason to curtail my freedom, according to the father of liberalism, just as my being offended is no reason why someone else should be constrained. Yet that view conflicts sharply with today’s reality, and it is why what we now call liberalism is more about control than liberty.

© Tom Kilcourse July 9th 2014

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