Liberalism is the reason why Western democracies are the best places in the world to live. But it is under threat from the left and right– Dr Paul Arnell
Things appear bad. Covid-19, of course. Brexit and its aftermath. The prospect of Donald Trump and his sexist, racist and populist demagoguery returning.
Drownings in the English Channel, the return of sleaze to the UK Parliament, accusations and denials in the current and former leadership of the Scottish government. Attacks on the freedom of expression from right and left. I could continue.
In pondering these developments, my view that liberalism is absolutely critical has been reaffirmed.
In the midst of interminable negative news and prophecies of doom, it is essential to remember that the most important individual and societal attributes are liberalism and tolerance. Indeed, they are the bedrock of Western democratic societies. It is what has made them the best places to live on the planet.
The acceptance and consideration of different ideas, perspectives and people lead to a process whereby society continually develops and challenges itself. Something akin to the checks and balances in US constitutional law, this openness and questioning is a sine qua non of progress, and indeed the survival of life as we know it.
How and why has liberalism and tolerance come under threat? Cost is one of the main drivers. These principles are not free, or inexpensive. They both entail a considerable financial and psychological cost.
Financially, tolerating dissent and protest obviously entails the cost of policing demonstrations. More significantly, it requires compromise. Policies adopted to reduce the cost of the welfare state or streamline criminal and civil justice are rightfully met by the voices of those most affected. Judicial review and human rights law may operate to require reconsideration or limitation of the original plans.
Psychologically, one has to accept that there are many different and opposing views, that compromises are necessary and that the ultimate solution may be messy. Democracy is far from perfect. Indeed, it must be protected from itself. This is the role played by human rights and the rule of law.
Another source of the threat to liberalism is opportunism. Individuals and groups are only too keen to take advantage of the avenues given them through tolerance and the freedom of expression for their own benefit. Evidence of this is aplenty, from Trump’s election to Extinction Rebellion’s obstruction, liberalism necessarily contains the seeds of its own destruction.
Thankfully, there is the Council of Europe. Over-shadowed by the EU, it has in a sense been a far more successful European inter-governmental institution. Its core mission is the protection and promotion of democracy, the rule of law and human rights. The latter two in particular act to prevent the excesses of populism and liberalism. Together with democracy, the rule of law and human rights are the building blocks of a modern liberal country.
The Council of Europe has concluded 200 treaties in pursuance of its aims. From perhaps the most important, the European Convention of Human Rights 1950, to the arcane, the Landscape Convention 2000, it has developed rules to protect vitally important facets aspects of European society and governance.
The European Court of Human Rights is a creation of the Council of Europe. The leading international human rights court, it decides issues affecting 800 million people. Its judgments have protected persons from human rights abuses for over half a century. They have also irritated politicians and governments.
Votes for convicted prisoners and the imposition of human rights obligations on the armed forces whilst serving abroad are two areas that have raised hackles. Former Prime Minister David Cameron famously said that the thought of prisoners voting made him physically sick.
The rule of law provides no one is above the law, and that no one should be outside it. As with human rights, the doctrine comes into play at the margins of society. On the one hand, there are billionaires and Cabinet ministers who through their privileged positions may feel that the law does not apply to them. On the other are refugees, homeless people and drug addicts who either may not be able to access their entitlements or, more worryingly, may not be protected under the law.
I grew up assuming that citizens in the West adhered to basic liberal tenets. Defending liberalism and tolerance, I thought, was not needed. The position was beyond reproach. Speaking out in favour of liberalism was unnecessary, there were other pressing issues demanding attention. US foreign policy, global hunger and nuclear Armageddon were instead in the front my mind.
But I was wrong to assume that liberalism and tolerance had, in the West, prevailed over all else. I had followed the thesis in Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Law Man in 1992 before it had been published. With hindsight and the wisdom of age, I see that liberalism had never fully won, nor was even its partial victory permanent.
Inequity, racism and sexism have existed all along. They were mitigated and clouded by the growth of the middle class, universal healthcare and the welfare state. The battle against the enemies of liberalism and tolerance was never really victorious even if they were, by and large, kept in check by a liberal consensus.
Times have changed. The internet and austerity are largely to blame.
Instant and constant information has increased the stress and dissatisfaction of many people. Purveyors of hate and misinformation have huge captive audiences. Austerity has given sizeable numbers of people grounds for anger. The disparity in wealth and standards of living has grown considerably. They are also more evident than ever, simply through the click of a link on one’s phone.
It can only be hoped that the silent majority of people in Scotland and the West more generally continue to appreciate how critical liberalism and tolerance are. If so, this is merely a reminder. If not, we must all speak up and defend them. They are the best and only alternatives.
Dr Paul Arnell, Law School, Robert Gordon University
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