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Nigel Farage and Nick Clegg: The latter's brand of left-liberalism has opened the door to the former (credit: Getty)

I have just read a book so good I want to read it again. But I also want to read (or write) a more complete version of it that is less solicitous of its subject and more concerned with the failures of modern liberalism — as evidenced by the recent success of UKIP and other populists across Europe. Edmund Fawcett's Liberalism: The Life of an Idea (Princeton, £24.95) is an attempt to give form and shape to the elusive political idea that has dominated the Western world for almost two centuries. And to someone like me, half-familiar with many of the ideas in it, it is an intellectual page-turner made even more readable by its personal, sometimes quirky, style and its seamless mix of philosophy, history, biography and history of ideas.

There is an unresolved tension that runs through the book between liberalism's restless refusal to be fixed and Fawcett's aim to do just that. But although there is something unavoidably arbitrary about the author's definitions he gets away with it, thanks in part to the subtlety and looseness of his framework.

Liberalism is currently the most elastic and confusing word in the political lexicon. There are four uses in common circulation, at least partly in conflict with one another (and that does not include the dictionary definition of liberal as an adjective meaning generous or broad-minded). First, there is probably the most technically correct, but least used, form of the word referring to the long history of political struggle to apply checks and balances to monarchical and propertied centres of power. Second, with the prefix economic it refers to the small-state, free-market economics of the 19th century revived in very different circumstances in the 1980s. Third, there is the "new" liberalism associated with state intervention to tame economic liberalism associated with the New Deal in the US. And finally there is the liberalism associated with the 1960s rights revolution and the gradual spread of the idea of equality of treatment and opportunity for those previously excluded from power — in particular women and ethnic minorities.

By chance the book is also structured around three "foursomes". Fawcett selects four ideas to constitute the fluid core of the liberal idea: the permanence of conflict in a society, distrust of power, faith in human progress and respect for people whatever they think and whoever they are. He then discusses the evolution of the liberal idea in four countries (the US, Britain, France and Germany) in four different time periods: 1830 to 1880, emergence and rise to power; 1880 to 1945, coming to terms with democracy and almost imploding; 1945 to 1989, a second chance; and post-1989 reflections on contemporary liberalism.

The four core ideas are held together by one bigger liberal intuition: liberalism is the cheerleader of restless change whereas its two main rivals — conservatism and socialism — desire more fixed social orders. This is a source of great strength for liberalism but also condemns it to travelling light, to going with the flow and to being — in the caricature — no more than the agreement to disagree.

Fawcett tends to shy away from such judgments and claims to be merely identifying the contours of the idea rather than examining it. But his own bias is pretty clear. The son of a President of the European Commission for Human Rights, and himself a long-standing Economist journalist (where he was way to the left of the newspaper's free-market consensus), he does not subject his own left-liberal values to critical scrutiny.
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Commentator
June 19th, 2014
11:06 AM
I would go further than this. I went to Fawcett's talk at the Oxford Literary Festival and tried to draw him on the way in which modern American "liberalism" has morphed into an authoritiarian secular theocracy where dissident voices are smeared, demonised or worse. He didn't want to acknowledge this and tried to be flippant as a way out.

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