A nostalgic backlash against liberalism

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'SOCIALISM is a dirty word; we would like liberalism to be a dirty word.' Thus a Tory strategist, quoted in the Sunday Times, explained the thinking behind John Major's leaked memo to his Cabinet colleagues, in which he exhorts them to base government policies on traditional values, common sense and a concern for the citizen.

The immediate politics of Mr Major's initiative are widely understood. He must, first, assert authority over an ideologically diverse party and, second, do so in a way that voters recognise as relevant. Reasserting or repudiating Thatcherism are equally dangerous, as the past year has proved. But a generalised campaign against liberal trendiness and theorising can be accepted by radical Thatcherites as a coded acceptance of their anti-welfarist, anti-state agenda; and by traditionalist Tories as an unexceptional repackaging of old verities.

Declaring war on 'liberal orthodoxy' wherever it may be found does not solve the big arguments dividing Conservatives about the future of the welfare state or the value of public service. The Downing Street memorandum is no more a satisfying response to those issues than the Maastricht opt-outs were to the future of European Union. But it offers, as Maastricht did, ceasefire terms which members of the party can reject or accept. Given the trauma of the past few months, they may accept them gratefully.

(Or so logic suggests. It is always possible, given the party's bickering proclivities, that a junior minister may yet resign in protest at the introduction of common sense into Government thinking - 'quite outrageous . . . a betrayal of all we have stood for . . .' - but this seems, on balance, unlikely.)

On the face of it, Downing Street's anti-liberalism need not be taken too seriously, at least thus far. It seems more of a tactic than a change of personality by the Prime Minister - handy for internal reasons, handy because it plays to Mr Major's political nostalgia and handy because it can be used to knock the dangerous Liberal Democrats. It leads, however, into deeper waters.

It is entirely possible that we are at the early stages of a more dramatic backlash against liberalism than we have so far appreciated. Certainly, admiration for more socially authoritarian Asian societies and economies now runs beside widespread middle-class fears about crime and decline at home. Condemning more and understanding less had become popular before Mr Major spoke of them.

We seem to be turning inwards. Nationalism is becoming more popular in Europe as is its ugly twin, xenophobia. In my darker moments I wonder if, in a decade's time, we won't be arguing about multiculturalism as well as immigration and hanging as well as imprisoning.

A return to a more authoritarian, intolerant, illiberal order is not, I'm sure, what Mr Major had in mind as he sought to unite Tories and assert 'common sense values'. But it is as well to remember that this relatively minor political event takes place in the foreground of a much wider ideological landscape. That being so, it is mildly cheering that a Tory campaign against liberalism, rather than against crime, or duff educational methods, would be difficult in practice.

The Conservatives are already grappling with a deep public confusion between what is liberal and what is traditional. There are clear signs that the Prime Minister is not yet quite happy with the tone of his 'back to basics' message. With a touch of defensiveness, the Downing Street memo insists that Mr Major wants to create a future, not recreate the past: 'Respecting tradition does not mean indulging in nostalgia.' So why those references to Britain in the Fifties and all that stuff about old maids supping warm beer as they bicycled across cricket pitches to Holy Communion?

Nostalgia is indeed an essential and potent ingredient of the conservative cast of mind, perhaps its most important ingredient. ('Tradition' is just nostalgia walking about fully dressed in public.) The feeling that things used to be better, and the hope that we are still the same people as we were back then, are hugely attractive - particularly in an ageing, worried nation such as this one. But these conservative instincts do not necessarily help struggling post-Thatcher Tories.

For British nostalgia can be quite liberal: we are as likely to be misty- eyed about the idealism of the Welfare State as the Empire. We mourn the loss of neighbourliness, community spirit and 'mucking in' more than the workhouse or county boundaries. We hark back to high standards in public life and selfless public service; some even fondly recall a principled readiness to accept refugees. This could be called nostalgia for the liberal tradition. And it is clear - and it is ironic - that Mr Major partially shares it.

What is still not clear, however, is which side he is really on. Liberal nostalgia will cause Thatcherite reformers such as Michael Portillo problems on the social field, just as economic nostalgia caused problems for Thatcherite radicals during the previous decade. Nostalgia is Britain's first line of defence against a chillier, harsher world; and yet it is where Mr Major has placed his leadership.

Some of these problems can be solved. If liberal society is to be defended, liberalism must be better understood as a tough-minded belief in self-discipline and social order - without which freedom cannot prosper. Toleration of others, the acceptance of diversity and a belief in social progress survive best in a society with a framework of strong and widely supported rules. Liberalism thus understood, distinct from licence, transient dogmas or intellectual follies, is a system which every serious politician has a duty to defend. For the alternative to liberalism is illiberalism; and the day that liberalism becomes a dirty word will be a bleak, cruel and intolerant one.