Rob Davidson

Liberals: march towards the sound of gunfire

The Tories have just announced a new "free speech champion" and have set new demands on student unions to guarantee a platform to any visiting speaker. Layla Moran, calling this out as a distraction on Question Time, was immediately attacked by the libertarian press (see Spiked Online's take) as "proof" that Liberals aren't truly Liberal. The attack was so swift and loud that Lib Dem HQ deleted their tweet of the clip, much to the glee of right-wing blogs.

It's a shame to see Liberals running from a fight (even if the phrasing was a little clumsy). There is a war going on and, although it's been called a culture war (or a 'war on woke'), it's actually a fight to redefine Liberalism along simplistic, libertarian lines. Liberals must not shy away from it any longer.

Boris Johnson has been very keen to promote a particular type of liberty. He's not alone but he does have the biggest platform. Recently he even went as far as to say that Britain's poor covid response is entirely down to Brits being a 'freedom loving' people, unlike our European neighbours who managed to save more lives with their "timid" adherence to restrictions. This new example of British exceptionalism was Johnson's way of framing the entire country as libertarian, anti-lockdown, covid-skeptics. It was not just rhetoric but part of an ongoing strategy.

Back during the Brexit campaign and related general elections, it was common to hear Farage, Johnson or Rees Mogg attack the 'liberal' elite - but it is not odd that we now hear Johnson claim to be a Liberal, it's just the second prong in his attack.

As ever, the Tory leadership are supported by a network of media outlets. When Twitter banned Trump from their platform the Telegraph ran an opinion piece that used the phrase 'true liberal' three times, while redefining Liberalism as a very particular strain of libertarianism that believes in free speech above all else. The more traditional concept of British Liberalism as a social Liberalism was reframed as 'metropolitan' and even 'statist.' And just to rub it in, the Liberal Democrat party was denounced as neither 'truly Liberal' or democratic.

Here's the big problem - there may be a culture war, or even a "war on woke" but ultimately it's a war to define liberty. The new-right know that their oligarchist policies, their cronyism and unrestrained capitalism will not be popular unless they can wrap them up in a noble sounding concept. That concept is 'freedom'  - but only if they can successfully redefine and rebrand the common definition from a Social Liberalism to libertarianism.

The sad thing is that in this brawl, the Liberals aren't throwing any punches.

For the people waging this war, whether it's at Spiked or the Telegraph or Guido Fawkes or The Daily Mail or Daily Express or any number of 'new media' platforms, free speech and freedom are paramount: a one-dimensional libertarianism that even denies the life saving benefits of restricted movement during a pandemic that has killed millions globally, perhaps the most deadly disease mankind has ever known.

When education secretary Gavin Williamson announced his new 'free speech champion' the examples he gave for why this role is necessary were: a man who declared the LGBT community an 'abomination', an academic with anti-trans views, and another academic with links to far-right extremists. This libertarian freedom means the freedom to abuse, the freedom to ignore or even trample the rights of others. This is its very appeal for those that have power, for how else can you accumulate and wield excessive power?

Of course, at other times, these would-be defenders of liberty are happy to crack down on free speech. Like when Johnson realised obesity is a public health crisis and announced he would tackle fast food advertising. Or when the Conservatives said that you could deliver fast food leaflets but you couldn't deliver (anti-government) political leaflets. Their oh-so-staunch principles are only immutable when it serves their own advancement.

The problem perhaps is that this isn't a battle between libertarians and Liberals. The government is conservative and the official opposition is socialist. It's libertarians attacking Liberals while socialists also attack Liberals. The Liberals have been relegated to the sidelines, their sharpest attack, it seems, is to delete their own tweets.

Perhaps there is not much to be done until the Lib Dems have gained more seats: there's a good chance of doubling numbers in 2024 and perhaps doubling them again in 2029 - still to be a minor party, but more respectable, better resourced, and with a chance of being the kingmaker once more.

And yet, it seems like Liberals used to make their own news and platforms. There was once a magazine called The Liberal with a stated mission of promoting Liberalism. And once there was an external, supportive thinktank called Centre Forum. But there is now nothing to speak of (with the exception of the fledgling efforts here at justLiberals of course).

As the Tories and their cronies wage a war to redefine Liberalism across as many channels and platforms as they can, Liberals seem to have confined themselves to their own party institutions. It's almost as if Liberals in the Lib Dems expect other Liberals to come to them - despite political party membership being an increasingly uncommon thing.

In 1963, Liberal leader Jo Grimond said he would march his Liberals 'towards the sound of gunfire.' Liberals need to engage with this fight and we need to take it to our enemies instead of hiding within our own shrinking territory. The bare fact is that if we want a future that has equal freedoms for all, then we can't let the Tories define liberty, freedom and Liberalism any more.

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