The time has come to explain this blog's name. Some, I’m sure, have been waiting with bated breath. I should start by saying the my first idea was mores liberales. But that looks on screen like a case of Manuel’s Fawlty English. There are certainly mores liberales in heaven and earth than some would credit. But the Latin noun ‘mores’ is also an English noun which you’ll recognise – customs or habits. And so, with a slight change of case in order to avoid confusion (for that we would not want, would we?), we have: ‘about liberal habits.’
I see at the back of the class an objection from our Blairite friend in Liverpool. He’s waving his arm about, eager to make his point –‘but liberalis isn’t the same as liberal.’ Thank you for that intervention and it is a point well-made. It is here that the dread e-acute word makes a re-appearance.
For, the term liberalis comes from a time when there were free men and those not so free. A liber was a free man in contrast to a slave. ‘Liberalis’ and thus liberal is merely the adjective which derives from that. Even in the classical world, however, a ‘liberal custom’ was not just what a free man would do, but what he (excuse the gender imbalance for the moment) should do. It was implied that a free man should act in certain ways and, most particularly, be educated in certain skills. The concept is still with us or, at least, with our American cousins when they talk of the liberal arts (which we call the humanities, as in those skills which are needed to achieve the full potential of a human – a very Renaissance concept).
But, as everyone is now free, what is liberal is what is suitable for every individual. Quite so, but let’s not lose sight of how recent that insight is. And here’s the point: go back to John Stuart Mill, writing On Liberty in the 1850s, and you’re in an era where the majority still lacked the vote. He might have wanted to alter the gender imbalance by ensuring both sexes had the vote, and he might have been in favour of universal suffrage but he wrote in an age where only the few were ‘citizens.’ And all citizens, he said, should be entitled to debate any issue, as long as they had informed themselves. That is, all citizens should be educated – and the State should compel that education but not be, he suggests, the main provider of it.
So, this brings us back to that feared e-acute: if those who can (and should) be fully involved in political society are the ones who are informed enough to add to the debate, then few would be allowed. Mill was the voice of a liberalism before democracy was achieved. Half a century later and the debate had moved on: the issue becomes how to ensure that everyone can engage in political society, irrespective of their background. Liberals recognised that, at times, that could only be achieved by the intervention of the state. Liberalism, in other words, is about achieving an equality of opportunity and striving for social justice through all the means available.
The reason for this long posting may now be clear: it’s to make it clear, early in my time here, where I stand politically. Mill is a formative influence on Liberalism, but he can not be its guiding light. Later thinkers from T. H. Green to L. T. Hobhouse should take the credit. When the Adam Smith Institute praises my ward colleague, he’s right to take umbrage at having given succour to the suckers. Their idea of ‘classical liberals’ [sic] is an impoverished concept, still-born when the term was invented. They talk of liberals when they actually mean libertarians. But, as we accept, ‘liberal’ has historical resonances of freemen, but certainly not of Friedman.