Thursday, September 10, 2015

When “Liberal” Was Lost

We find ourselves using the term “classical liberal,” to distinguish from what is now understood as “liberal.”

“Classical liberalism" is the term used to designate the ideology advocating private property, an unhampered market economy, the rule of law, constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion and of the press, and international peace based on free trade. Up until around 1900, this ideology was generally known simply as liberalism.

Doesn’t sound too bad.  What happened?

The qualifying "classical" is now usually necessary, in English-speaking countries at least (but not, for instance, in France), because liberalism has come to be associated with wide-ranging interferences with private property and the market on behalf of egalitarian goals. This version of liberalism — if such it can still be called — is sometimes designated as "social," or (erroneously) "modern" or the "new," liberalism.

Was it due to some nefarious plot, designed to bastardize the language of freedom?  Maybe.  But there may be a simpler – yet no less destructive – story.

From A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East, by David Fromkin:

Between autumn 1916 and autumn 1917, the Ottoman Empire held firm while the governments of its adversaries, the Allied Powers, collapsed.

In each of Britain, France, and Russia the governments that began the war were overthrown.  To follow the history of the term “liberal” perhaps it is instructive to follow the British experience.

The Prime Minister who had brought Britain into the war was the first Allied leader to fall victim to it.

This would be the (classical) Liberal H.H. Asquith.  He was to be replaced by the (once-was-but-no-longer-classical-instead-just-plain-new) Liberal David Lloyd George.

Asquith apparently prosecuted the war while respecting liberal traditions (to the extent such is possible).  For example despite the military catastrophes in Mesopotamia, Gallipoli and on the western front he refused to initiate compulsory conscription.

Lloyd George, in dramatic contrast, made the conscription issue his own.  In taking the lead on this issue he showed how much his political position had changed….Traditional Liberals, who had always opposed compulsion, felt that Lloyd George was going over to the other camp.

Having lost many of his former political colleagues due to his completely changed views, Lloyd George found some new ones.  Most notable (to me at least) was Alfred Milner – the champion of imperialism. 

Alfred Milner, 1st Viscount Milner KG GCB GCMG PC (23 March 1854 – 13 May 1925) was a British statesman and colonial administrator who played an influential leadership role in the formulation of foreign and domestic policy between the mid-1890s and early 1920s. He was also the key British Empire figure in the events leading up to and following the Anglo-Boer War of 1899–1902 and, while serving as High Commissioner, is additionally noted for mentoring a gathering of young members of the South African Civil Service, informally known as Milner's Kindergarten who, in some cases, themselves became important figures in administering the British Empire. In the later part of his life, from December 1916 to November 1918, he was one of the most important members of David Lloyd George's War Cabinet.

And his "kindergarten”?

Milner's Kindergarten is an informal reference to a group of Britons who served in the South African Civil Service under High Commissioner Alfred, Lord Milner, between the Second Boer War and the founding of the Union of South Africa. They were in favour of the South African union and, ultimately, an imperial federation of the British Empire itself.

Milner and Rhodes were joined at the hip on this project of a global, Anglo-imperialism, according to Stead.  According to Maurice Hankey, the most influential group in Britain at the time was the Round Table group, and Milner was the leader.

Milner was a key figure in the launching of the Boer War in South Africa; at the time, Lloyd George “vigorously opposed” this venture, as any self-respecting liberal (as the term was properly understood) would have done.  No more. 

Lloyd George, the “pragmatic, intuitive opportunist” was now in the hands of Milner, who was “methodological in action and systematic in thought….”  Daily, the “dictatorship of two” would meet at 11:00 AM, along with Hankey and the Chief of the Imperial General Staff.  Only after this, at noon, would they meet with the other members of the war cabinet. 

With Milner as an ally, Lloyd George set out on the transformation of the term “liberal”:

It was a sweeping, revolutionary change in the way the country was governed.  Arthur Balfour, the former Prime Minister who became Foreign Minister in the new government, remarked of Lloyd George at the time: “If he wants to be a dictator, let him be.  If he thinks that he can win the war, I’m all for his having a try.”

Lloyd George was the last Prime Minister of the Liberal Party.  Thereafter, the office alternated between “Conservative” and “Labour.”

And that’s what happened to the term “liberal.”


  1. This is good. I'll share it. I assume you saw this?:

    1. I had not seen it before, and thank you for sharing it. It is very good.

  2. Instead of a classical liberal, I prefer to call myself a true liberal. It's a great conversation starter.

  3. A quote attributed to J.F.Kennedy:
    “If by a "Liberal" they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people-their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights and their civil liberties-someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a "Liberal", then I'm proud to say I'm a "Liberal.”

    Notice that "civil liberties" is mentioned apart from "civil rights", jobs, education, housing and health, and that there is no mention to responsibility, freedom, money, home, family, traditions or property.

    This is just authoritarianism, but with fewer syllables.

  4. 'The qualifying "classical" is now usually necessary, in English-speaking countries at least (but not, for instance, in France) ... With Milner as an ally, Lloyd George set out on the transformation of the term “liberal” ...''

    Nice try, but wrong - because Lloyd George failed in that (to the extent he even deliberately tried anything that far sighted; he was into short term expediency and demogoguery). The British Liberal Party split and eventually regrouped, with all of that tendency moving over to the Labour Party and its affiliates, so "liberal" still means just what it always did in all English-speaking countries other than the U.S.A. In fact, Australia is currently being governed by a Liberal Party which is conservative (also a term used in the non-U.S. sense).

    1. Australia's Liberal Party can be characterized as holding "the ideology advocating private property, an unhampered market economy, the rule of law, constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion and of the press, and international peace based on free trade. Up until around 1900, this ideology was generally known simply as liberalism."?


    2. Yes, really, to the extent that any politicians ever live up to their promises. That is to say, that is just precisely what Australia's Liberal Party was founded for and what it holds itself out as - and it's not just an archaic nineteenth century wording used for historical reasons either, as it was formed in the 1940s, long after you fancy the language shift hit the English speaking countries.

    3. You are correct, the Liberal Party says: “In short, we simply believe in individual freedom and free enterprise.”

      This is a very good classical liberal definition, and one that today’s liberals (at least in some other parts of the world) would run from.

      When I read further details of their platform, it gets a little dicey. Further, I don’t find any evidence that they govern this way – from what I read, overall they can scarcely be distinguished from politicians in other English speaking lands – but at least they do say these words.

      Vietnam War, support for the arts, equal pay for women and men, support for a GST – this is what I see.

      Is the term “liberal” defined by what they say without concern for what they do?

    4. 'Is the term “liberal” defined by what they say without concern for what they do?'

      No, it is not defined by either.

      You have confused cause and effect, and so taken your eye off the ball: what "liberal" means in non-dialect English. Do you remember the saying "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery"? Well, the Australian Liberal Party deliberately sought to associate itself with that concept and tap into voters who supported it. The fact that they turned into "whisky priests" who fell far short of the ideal - just as did Australia's later Democrats, founded on the principle of "keeping the bastards honest" - doesn't mean that the concept flows from them at all, whether from their conduct or from their claims, but it does show what they are pushing and what is generally understood by "liberal".

      If you like, you can trace out the similar link between the term and the party in the U.K., particularly if you track the fate of the various split groups that claimed to be the genuine article between the world wars; you will find that the wolves in sheep's clothing eventually labelled themselves socialist and joined those parties while the rest came together again. (In recent decades that party merged with the Social Democrats who had split from the Labour Party, but that's another story that doesn't affect the history of the term "liberal" - the merged party is the Liberal Democrats, a name which implicitly concedes that it is qualifying the concept "liberal".)

  5. See also "Liberalism and Progress" by Orestes Brownson in Kirk's "The Portable Conservative Reader". Brownson was a New England intellectual and had been a leftist and a Transcendentalist before conversion to the RCC in the early 1840s. The essay, as I recall, was written at about the same time as Abe Lincoln's war.

  6. By the way, corruption of British Liberals by Imperialism had begun much earlier, in the time of the Opium Wars. The old-fashioned Liberals, like Cobden, were dead against this war, the younger embraced it,

    1. No, thus:-

      - Cobden wasn't an "old-fashioned Liberal" at all but one of what was a new breed when he came along; the term had only just been coined and ideas of free trade were only just being thought out, but the term got applied to a very old group, the Whigs, as just then constituency elections started needing party machinery (just as "Conservative" started being applied to the Tories).

      - Being against empire was a new and unusual thing in Cobden's day, so it was not a matter of those who came after him being corrupted into pursuing it but of reverting to type; traditionally it was the Whig merchant interests that wanted colonies and spheres of interest but the Tory landed interests that didn't want to pay for overseas wars they got nothing from (remember, this wasn't about keeping but getting overseas holdings, and it was before anyone knew about any approach but mercantilism).