Why has Britain found it so difficult to modernise itself since the end of the Second World War? Because as a nation we have gone soft, comes the fashionable answer. The 'hard men' of the new political generation, who have made their mark by preaching economic liberalism or market solutions as the answer to our ills, identify social liberalism as the motor of British decline.
We have suffered from too much liberalism, they say, and proceed to identify liberalism with permissiveness, lax educational practices, rising crime, the decline of family cohesion and so forth. I think they are wrong. And their self- righteous judgements reveal something important about the real source of British malaise: it springs not from too much liberalism, but too little - or rather, from an inadequate, class-based conception of 'liberalism' that has outlived its usefulness and become a deadly threat to the future of this country.
What set Britain apart from other major Western countries in the last 50 years was the extent to which an aristocratic society survived here - a society in which order depended on class identities, related in a complex, subtle way, so that people's self-understanding and aspirations were derived not from general principles or constitutional rights applying to all equally, but from irresistible pressures which led some to see the market as their poodle, others to see it as their companion, still others to see it as a devouring monster.
The first attitude can be assigned broadly to the upper- and upper-middle classes, the second to the bulk of the middle class, and the third to the working class. The manners and cues that enabled these classes to co-exist did not depend upon general or shared ideas. The genius of the old British social structure - and of the unwritten constitution which expressed it - was that it had incorporated equality before the law without compromising the radically different class identities descended from the ancien regime in Europe. Property rights and a constitutional and legal system resting on precedent enabled formerly privileged social groups to adapt to change without losing their de facto dominance.
In the rest of Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries, the ancien regime was undermined by liberalism, which was above all a social creed or doctrine aimed at founding personal identity on the idea of fundamental or 'natural' rights belonging to all equally.
Yet in this country that creed became fractured into a narrow economic liberalism and a narrow legal approach to reform. There seemed no need for liberalism to become a pretext for constitutional change; rather, in the British context, it was infiltrated by a soft-spoken, elegant paternalism which presupposed that, however the economy and law might change, society would still consist of essentially superior and inferior classes, and that social order would continue to rest on the class identities thus sustained.
Now, however, that traditional social order has been decisively undermined. Thatcherism was a powerful, if unwitting, agent in the process of change. It turned the free market from an economic theory into a social ethos - and in the process liberated large sections of society from the weight of deference and lack of self-confidence that had previously kept them submissive.
Unfortunately, the narrowness of Thatcherism as an ethos keeps alive some features of the old order and prevents British society from becoming a fully developed liberal order. For, in one respect, Thatcherism retained the impress of an older corporate society. It failed to recognise the need to establish personal identity in a post-corporate society on a charter of rights, on a constitution that embodies liberal idealism. Thus, it failed to make clear that liberalism imposes duties as well as rights, and lays an utterly different burden of self-control on citizens than that of a society where 'knowing one's station' provided the crucial form of social control. In espousing economic liberalism, Thatcherism remained complacent about the sources of social discipline.
Thatcherite liberalism presents society as a cockpit, where the interplay of personal ambition and money within a legal framework result in outcomes that cannot be morally challenged. But that deprives liberalism of a concern for citizenship, public welfare and self-
restraint which have characterised it at least as much as an emphasis on competition.
Liberalism, properly understood, is a stern moral doctrine. By contrast, the narrowness of the Thatcherite interpretation perpetuates a crucial feature of aristocratic liberalism: it removes liberalism's strong emphasis on reciprocity, and consequently its moralising potential. It is permissive rather than idealistic. It plays down issues of self-respect and equality of opportunity - which might point to the need for major social reforms - and contents itself with short-term solutions to long-term problems.
Its vision is utilitarian rather than liberal. It does not criticise existing patterns of wants, or the resentments created by relative deprivation, in the name of a coherent vision of society affording dignity to all its members. It preaches will without vision. The stunted nature of this vision sets Britain apart - to its terrible disadvantage - from other Western societies today.
The destruction of an aristocratic society has revealed the inadequacies of the British constitution - the manifold ways in which the monarchy, Parliament and the courts perpetuate subtle humiliations based on precedent and precedence, and fail to foster the autonomy and citizenship required in a democratic society. That is what underlies the profound sense of disillusion in the country today.
But narrowly economic liberalism can do nothing to provide a remedy. Unless a rights-
based doctrine which fosters self-respect and self-discipline is given a formal, entrenched public status, Britain will have lost one social code without developing another. It will have abandoned aristocracy without becoming democratic.
The author is a faculty lecturer in politics at Oxford University and fellow of Keble College.Reuse content