Reprimand Liberals, Don’t Repudiate Liberalism

Theresa May is right that liberals have been aloof. That doesn’t mean they’ve been wrong on the issues.

British politician Theresa May gives a speech in Manchester, England, October 7, 2009
British politician Theresa May gives a speech in Manchester, England, October 7, 2009 (Conservatives/Paul Toeman)

I argued here last month that Britain’s Conservatives could alienate liberal voters if they lurched to the right. Theresa May’s speech on Thursday to a party conference in Birmingham did nothing to alleviate my concern.

The prime minister spoke at length about the issues that matter to “ordinary” people and berated elites for ignoring them.

“Just listen to the way a lot of politicians and commentators talk about the public,” she suggested.

They find your patriotism distasteful, your concerns about immigration parochial, your views about crime illiberal, your attachment to your job security inconvenient. They find the fact the more than seventeen million voters decided to leave the European Union simply bewildering.

Well, yes. And that is a problem. There is a real disconnect — not just in Britain, but across Western societies. I, per Andrew Sullivan, have been calling this the blue-red culture war. The Economist characterized the same divide as between those who want to pull the drawbridge up and those who want to throw it down. Britain’s EU referendum in June made a lot more people aware of this split.

May’s challenge is closing the gap. Not only because that’s how Conservatives win elections; for the sake of British democracy, there cannot be a permanent 50-50 split on major issues.

Contradictions in terms

It’s for that reason that the Brookings Institution’s William A. Galston praises May’s efforts. He writes that if the Conservatives want to be the party of working people, they must take populist concerns on board without surrendering to the populist agenda.

Working-class conservatism can be nationalist without being nativist or isolationist, Mrs May insisted. It can reassert Britain’s control over immigration without endorsing prejudice against [immigrants]. It can reassert sovereignty over Britain’s laws and regulations without withdrawing from Europe or the world. And it can respect success in the market while insisting that the successful members of society have commensurate responsibilities to their fellow citizens.

Can it, though?

Nationalism without the nationalists? Nativist policies without fueling nativist sentiment? Withdrawing from the EU without turning one’s back on Europe? Protectionism without damaging growth?

It rather seems to this liberal commentator that those are contradictions in terms.

In defense of liberalism

Alex Massie writes at CapX that there was “a hint of Richard Nixon or Pat Buchanan” in May’s speech “when she lashed those who supposedly sneer at the common man.”

The Economist worries that the British consensus — “free-market liberalism with broadly permissive cultural instincts” — is under threat. May is rejecting the way the country has been governed for the last few decades, the newspaper’s Bagehot columnist, Jeremy Cliffe, writes.

Like it or not, Britain’s strengths are its open, flexible, mostly urban service economy and its uncommonly mobile and international workforce. That fact cannot simply be wished or legislated away.

Cliffe does recognize that this summer’s vote for Brexit was a revolt against globalization and that elites have been complacent. It is not enough for liberals to shake their heads at May’s populism. “They have to grapple with the reasons for its appeal.”

I agree. As I have written before, some grievances (about immigration, about lost jobs) are legitimate; taboos in politics are almost always counterproductive; and sudden change, imposed without much empathy or patience for traditionalists (for example, marriage equality and racial justice), tends to rub people the wrong way.

When all those things happen at once, otherwise decent people are pushed over the edge and vote for Brexit or a Donald Trump.

The onus is on us, the liberals, the globalists, to persuade the rest.

We haven’t done a good job at that. May’s criticism hurts because there is truth in it. It is easy to look down one’s nose at the unsophisticated. It takes an effort to listen and understand.

But that doesn’t mean we have to accept May’s alternative to the liberal conservatism of recent years. What she offers is starting to look and sound like surrender to the other side. That’s not what a contemporary center-right movement can be about.

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