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Liberty and the Broken Society

Part of me feels that those who have helped to bring the country down — venal politicians, false educators, degraders of the media, thieving privatisers of the public domain — need to be fought to a standstill, here on this battlefield, by those with the energy, strength and clarity of mind to do so. For no one wants to believe that the country of his birth, language, upbringing and way of thinking cannot be redeemed.

So starts an article in the Spectator by David Selbourne, arguing that, all things considered, we have reached tipping point and those who can leave the country should seriously think of doing so. Of course, it is rather more likely that his words are chosen for rhetorical effect than any heartfelt longing for distant shores, since the piece was originally delivered at a Spectator debate entitled ‘Too late to save Britain. It’s time to leave’. Still, the article is well worth a read, not least because its central insight is perfectly sound; that one cannot expect civil and political society to be transformed, unless one also surveys those ideologies and habits that have come to degrade it.

Something which the Conservatives, in that fleeting moment when they dared address the ‘Broken Society’, started to grasp at. Alas, all that stopped the moment they began to realise where their thinking was slowly leading them – the pernicious effects of social and economic liberalism. For so long, the liberals had claimed moral neutrality in their dealings with market, state and civic society, and the ‘modernised’ Tory brand wanted to appropriate this social liberalism as a trendy compliment to their historic economic variety. Yet, the fallaciousness of that claim to neutrality has become clear for all to see – liberalism is being rejected as an particular ideology, not a neutral methodology. And in so enthusiastically embracing it, the Tories have clambered aboard a sinking ship.

Just as the tentacles of that ideology, both social and economic, are to a great extent inter-reltaed, so a denunciation of the one can quite often be linked with a qualified rejection of the other. So it is that we can read ‘Britain has been impoverished by the mismanagement of the national economy, the running down of manufacturing, and the voraciousness of free-market ethics,’ standing cheek by jowl with New Labour’s ‘grand Nonconformist moral inheritance ravaged by Blairism and Mandelsonisation.’  Similarly, Selbourne can write of a ‘free country degraded by its freedoms,’ immediately before attacking the corrosive actions of Goldman Sachs and BP. Or, in Selbourne’s words, ‘The difference between freedom and licence has been unlearned,’ and this is true in both the social and the economic realms.

The irony is that what Selbourne refers to as the ‘self-degrading moral and market free-for-all which has been unleashed upon the land’ is a pretty neat summation of just what the new ‘modernised’ Tories claim to believe, and what its new armies of trendy followers tend to look like. They have kept the worst bit, the unrestrained markets of the Thatcherites, and ditched the socially conservative bit, thereby largely embracing the philosophy of unrestraint in the social realm, too. Which is precisely the wrong way round.

This change has been effected largely to reflect the whims of a happy band of metroliberals who, with their inane philosophies of ‘freedom’, have decided that the new conservatism means a rejection not of unwarrantable power, but of all objective authority whatsoever. As such these ‘phoney philosophers’, to use Roy Hattersley’s phrase, have decided that any form of restraint, ideological or otherwise, must be to some degree an offence to ‘freedom’ – though they rarely stop to ask if it is also the protector of others’ freedom, too. As such, this happy band of libertarian Tories will say that they are economically to the right and socially to the left; which means, roughly speaking, that they reject the possibility of objective external limitations on their liberty. It is this atomistic freedom, based on contractual accounts of liberty,  that gives the authoritative state its warrant.

Which makes the libertarians not only wrong-headed but short-sighted. Or, to leave the final words to Selbourne himself,

For the greater the scope of unregulated moral freedom, of laissez-faire, and of individual rights, the greater the need to manage the chaotic outcomes of their abuse. It applies as much to the City as to the streets. This is a philosophical not a party point. Burke knew it. ‘Liberty,’ he declared in 1774, ‘cannot exist without order and virtue.

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