The Left versus Liberalism

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Nick Cohen has written another of his hack pieces in the Observer today about how wicked “liberals” are blaming the Iraq War for terrorist atrocities, and how this proves they’re a dreadful shower, etc. As Matt points out, this contrasts with his pre-Iraq War pieces when he condemned “liberals” for supporting a war in Iraq, warning that it would make us a target for terrorists.

I’ve always found it curious how the Left Commentariat tend to use the term “liberal” to mean ostensibly progressive but deeply mistaken people. Cohen isn’t the only one, indeed, I first became conscious of it in the writings of his Observer colleague Cristina Odone. Tony Blair was famously known during his earlier days as “The Liberal” by his then-Shadow Cabinet colleagues. Paddy Ashdown took this to mean he was someone with whom he could do business, misunderstanding that this was less a description of Blair’s views as a casual (if affectionate) insult. Indeed, the latest issue of Progress has an article on how the “liberal-left” is its own worst enemy, citing *ahem* (you will forgive my mild amusement) George Galloway, Ken Livingstone and in an historical tangeant, Stanley and Beatrice Webb, as examples. When you are reduced to describing the Webbs as liberals, your argument really is beginning to look shaky.

That article highlights all too acutely that the real problem lies in shaky socialist thought, not liberalism. Cohen, Odone and Progress would never betray the left’s party line by admitting it, but it is nonetheless the case. The faulty collectivist logic that leads Galloway into the arms of Saddam Hussain and Livingstone into the arms of Yusuf al-Qaradawi is the same collectivist logic that directs Blair and Christopher Hitchens into the arms of George Bush and Nick Cohen and Hitchens into the arms of Ahmed Challabi.

Far from being The Liberal, Blair proved early on in his leadership that he was a member of the left. The battle over Clause 4 may well have been a fight between Old and New Labour, but the new version is unmistakably socialist. What liberal would be comfortable being a member of a party which defines itself as:

“…a democratic socialist party. It believes that by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone, so as to create for each of us the means to realise our true potential and for all of us a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many, not the few. Where the rights we enjoy reflect the duties we owe. And where we live together, freely, in a spirit of solidarity, tolerance and respect.”

There is no room individual endeavour there. The one reference to “freedom” is included almost as an afterthought, and with the caveat that no dissent from “solidarity, tolerance and respect” will be tolerated (George Orwell eat your heart out).

New Labour’s headlong rush towards Anti-Social Behaviour Orders, detention orders, a national database, CC-TV all chimes entirely with Clause 4. Reading Clause 4 ten years later, it almost seems like this is exactly what Blair planned all along. The only antidote to it is liberalism, not a “purer” version of socialism. Cohen can blame liberals all he likes, but the reality is he is defending an ideology that has reached a dead end.

UPDATE: I forgot to include this.

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