Tuesday Book: Yes, but what are the Liberals for?

An Intelligent Person's Guide to Liberalism by Conrad Russell (Duckworth, pounds 12.95)

THE TEASING question asked by Bernard Shaw at the beginning of the 20th century - "What are the Liberals for?" - is still a question for its end. The answer is even harder now. It has been a bad century for liberalism and in Britain a catastrophic one for Liberals. With their old causes gone and new ones taken up by others, they have been left as the party of illustrious ancestors.

Conrad Russell has more illustrious ancestors than most. Son of Bertrand, great-grandson of Lord John Russell, the scholarly Liberal Democrat peer wants to persuade us that there is a coherent Liberal tradition that goes back over 300 years, and that it is more relevant than ever.

The blurb on this little book describes it as "polemical", but the author describes it as a work of political philosophy - in fact, in a characteristically Liberal way, it is neither. Russell is too fair-minded to produce a party polemic, while the attempt to do so prevents any serious philosophy.

Yet this does not diminish its interest. It proceeds by repudiating the idea of a common liberal tradition ("if there is anything in common between the `liberalism' of Milton Friedman and that of JK Galbraith, it is not apparent to me"), cheerfully concedes that most British liberals are not Liberals, and proclaims that "many of the best Liberals" came from the Social Democrats.

It is disarmingly honest about Liberalism's great 20th-century failures. It did not understand the nasty side of nationalism. It was immobilised by its lack of an economic philosophy. By refusing to adopt working-class candidates, it made a mockery of its beliefs, helping to ensure its replacement by Labour.

As an adjective, "liberal" has triumphed. As a noun, liberalism has foundered on the difficulty of reconciling its economic and political versions. And as a party, it has declined.

It is a messy and complex story. Trying to turn it into a seamless historical and intellectual journey is doomed to failure. All political traditions gloss over their contradictions, but with liberalism it is an especially bogus enterprise. Finding the spirit of Milton and Mill in the antics of some of today's Liberal Democrats is a challenge too far.

Such accounts may talk about the past, but their real focus is the present. Conrad Russell is no exception. He wants to refute the notion that there is a "centre left" in Britain in which the Liberal Democrats are merely junior partners. The denial is bad history, even if it may seem to be useful politics. For the intermingling of the "new" liberal and ethical socialist traditions in Britain in the early part of this century produced the basis for a powerful progressivism. JA Hobhouse even called it "liberal socialism", just as some now describe Blairism as "social liberalism".

It never found its effective political expression, much to the delight of the Conservatives - until now. It required a realignment of political forces of the kind that Liberals such as Jo Grimond advocated. That is what has happened - except that it happened within the Labour Party. Those in search of the origins of Blairism should read Grimond's The Liberal Future (1959). For Liberals to bemoan an outcome that they have spent their political lives arguing for might seem eccentric even by Liberal standards - especially when they have been so warmly invited in from the cold.

The reviewer is Labour MP for Cannock Chase and joint editor of `The New Social Democracy' (Blackwell)

Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne with his Screen Actors Guild award for Best Actor

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rowan Atkinson is bringing out Mr Bean for Comic Relief

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project