In yesterday’s speech to commemorate 12 months of the coalition, Nick Clegg
promised a stronger liberal identity in the future. His party was ‘not left, ‘not right’ but ‘liberal’ and would judge other parties by their commitment to liberalism.
Above all, and despite professed disavowal of tribal politics, he claimed that the Lib-Dems were ‘more committed at heart to fairness than the Conservatives’.
Critics of the coalition on the Tory backbenches are often dismissed as the Tory Right, a term intended to paint them as disgruntled reactionaries who can’t reconcile themselves to
partnership with the Lib-Dems. But a closer look at the issues being raised by the Tory rebels shows that it would be more accurate to characterise them as the only true liberals in parliament.
They defend democratic self-government against encroachments by Brussels. They champion the right of the people to make their own laws instead of having them imposed by the unaccountable Strasbourg
Court. They see crime as one of the main threats to personal freedom and criticise the coalition’s attempts to weaken public protection. They criticise the government’s weak efforts to
encourage economic growth, not least the continuation of high personal and corporate taxes, which frustrate the increase in output urgently needed to pay off the rising national debt. They
disapprove of the government’s plans to allocate university places according to social class rather than merit.
These concerns all derive from ‘liberalism’, as that term has been understood in Britain, and yet the Lib-Dems are on the other side: against national self-government, for
Strasbourg’s defiance of parliament, in favour of reducing protection against crime, in favour of high taxes, and in favour of undermining the integrity of university admissions.
The differences can be explained by recalling the two liberal traditions, and especially their views about human nature, that emerged during the French Revolution: the liberalism of the Jacobins
and the critical liberalism of Edmund Burke. They had in common their initial rejection of the authoritarianism of the pre-revolutionary years, which took the view that people were innately sinful
and needed to be controlled by authority if chaos was to be avoided.
Jacobins, under the influence of Rousseau, were optimistic about human nature, holding that people were innately good and peace loving, a view often associated with the term ‘noble
savage’. If people did not behave peacefully then they must have been corrupted by society, in which case social institutions must be forcibly changed.
Critical liberalism also rejected ‘original sin’ and thought people potentially capable of the highest accomplishments. But they were conscious of human imperfections, which meant that
self-interest could lead to the abuse of power and the limited understanding of rulers could cause catastrophic mistakes. Consequently they asserted the safeguards described by Locke at the time of
the Glorious Revolution in 1688 and 1689. Power should be limited and subject to checks and balances. Civilisation should be advanced through private experiments in a spirit of competition and
mutual learning to avoid monopoly.
The majority of the Lib-Dems have a touch of the Jacobin about them and their approach to social mobility exemplifies the mentality. We have all found ourselves in the middle of puzzling disputes
that seem to be immune to facts. Usually it’s because unspoken and perhaps not even fully recognised assumptions about human nature are being made. Edmund Burke explained the mystery at the
time of the French Revolution.
One view of human nature is that individuals are born with equal personal qualities. From this assumption the conclusion is drawn that there must have been an injustice if some people end up less
well off than others. Perhaps it was because the system was corrupt – the bourgeois property system as Rousseau thought – in which case it should be smashed. Or perhaps the successful
individuals had cheated or rigged the game to give themselves an unfair advantage, in which case they should be punished. As history reminds us, the Jacobins seized on the excuse for some righteous
The rival liberal view is that we are all unique: that is to say unequal. A fair system will allow our personal qualities to be reflected in diverse ways. The mere presence of unequal outcomes is
not proof of a corrupt system or of self-serving behaviour by the victors. If people start out unequal, then a fair system that gives everyone a fighting chance is likely to produce unequal
The egalitarian view of human nature, which maintains that unequal status must have been unfairly attained, has continuously poisoned human relations. It was the mentality of the Russian communists
that slaughtered the successful peasants, the kulaks; it was the mentality of the Maoists who humiliated teachers and intellectuals merely because of their accomplishments; and it was the mentality
of the Nazis and many before them who persecuted Jews for being too successful.
Today pushy parents with their sharp elbows are in the dock. If they are not buying up over-priced houses in the catchment area of a good school, or fixing up an internship for their daughters by
having a word with a chum down at the tennis club, they are pretending to be churchgoers to get into the local C of E school.
The animosity being stirred up by Mr Clegg’s accusation that Conservatives don’t care about an ideal as fundamental as fairness is a milder version of the hatred that Edmund Burke first
identified, but it is the result of the same mistaken assumption about human nature. And it leads to an atmosphere of accusation and blame where none is deserved.
David Green is Director of Civitas