Monday, April 22, 2013


Liberal Mondays 1: Alfred Russel Wallace #LibDemValues

If you saw Bill Bailey’s Jungle Hero on BBC2 last night, you’ll suddenly know quite a bit about Victorian naturalist and natural selection theorist Alfred Russel Wallace. You may not know that he was a prominent Liberal, contributing to Andrew Reid’s 1885 Why I Am A Liberal. I’ve just re-read Duncan Brack’s 1996 follow-up collection Why I Am A Liberal Democrat, which includes extracts from the earlier book. So, followed by my reaction to that edition, here’s Mr Wallace’s Liberal creed – with ideals familiar to modern Lib Dems, even down to complaining the party doesn’t live up to them…
“Although very slow to act upon its convictions, the Liberal Party recognises fundamental principles as a basis of reform, and aims at unbought justice and equal freedom for all as the ultimate goal of political progress.”
I’ve always loved the Why I Am A Liberal Democrat selection, and, Duncan, if you’re reading – or Mark Pack, perhaps – isn’t it about time there was a new edition? Regular readers will know that I’ve been asking a related question of today’s Liberal Democrats, and will I hope soon be publishing more of them: both the Nineteenth and the Twentieth Century versions of the book carried a lot of crossover between the personal testaments and the statements of what the party stands for.

Although Alfred Russel Wallace’s line is probably just an excerpt, as I don’t have Mr Reid’s book and Duncan’s is clearly selective in his reprints of earlier contributors and their contributions, I was inspired by the coincidence of having come across him on the page mere hours before the documentary about him on the telly (the second half next Sunday). So this may be the first in a series of Liberal quotations… Or it may not, as I’ve been worse than usual recently, horribly ill and knocked out and not written anything at all for three weeks.

Andrew Reid’s Why I Am A Liberal Vs Duncan Brack’s Why I Am A Liberal Democrat

I won’t review Why I Am A Liberal Democrat – there are 155 entries, and I’d feel like commenting on all of them – but, though it and the Victorian original are long out of print, it’s worth searching for and, again, could really do with a new edition. I did notice a few interesting things about each, though.

Both books had several Liberal ideas in common for many of those writing, over a century apart – an emphasis on freedom, first, on equality, and on not being in the pay of classes or other groups. Both were internationalist, though it was the 1885 version that was strikingly more in tune with the passionate anti-aggression of Liberal Democrats from just a few years after 1996, in the wake of Labour’s illegal invasion of Iraq. But there were differences, too.

Andrew Reid’s Why I Am A Liberal is rather grandly subtitled Being Definitions and Personal Confessions of Faith by the Best Minds in the Liberal Party, and from that you can deduce that it has a far higher religious content than that from more secular Britain a century later, with many of the writers seeing their faith as the wellspring of their politics. As I’ve said, for the Imperial power of the time there was great scepticism of using that power in military adventures, and – rooted in the history of the time – a clear opposition both to Tories (I have to admit to a double-take on seeing an entry from the MP George Osborne… [next line] …Morgan) and to revolutions. The plain Why I Am A Liberal Democrat saw a much greater passion for Europe and proportional representation, each of which I suspect might be lower down in the mix were a new edition to be gathered today. But for me the most interesting difference was in the favourite ideological line of the time; quite a few contributors saw the purpose of politics as:
“The greatest happiness of the greatest number.”
By contrast, the most-quoted line of 1996 Liberal Democrats was my own favourite (with Duncan’s afterword, like my What the Lib Dems Stand For, written largely around the three words):
“No-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.”
In this change of repeated rallying-cry, you can see a change of generations of favoured Liberal philosophers. In part literally, from James Mill’s utilitarianism to his son John Stuart Mill’s Liberalism. I have to admit I have my own problems with the superficially attractive summary of utilitarianism: its implicit ‘the ends justify the means’ puts a chill up my spine. To me attempts to quantify happiness to ‘give’ to a majority sound at best more like New Labour – targets for what can be measured rather than what actually matters to people, and dumping people who don’t fit – than Liberal. It’s clear that the party has gone through a similar evolution to that of John Stuart Mill, who while not openly abandoning the word and his dad kept trying to make it mean something very different. When he stopped listening to Jeremy Bentham (not that one) and started writing with Harriet Taylor, modern Liberalism was born. From Mill and Taylor we get freedom rooted in knocking down conformity; rather more from the New Liberals of the early Twentieth Century we get the cry against poverty; and from both, opposition to ignorance. Between them, that universal appeal to freedom is social Liberalism, and it’s no surprise that still, today, it’s at the heart of the Liberal Democrats.

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