Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: A lecture on post-enlightenment values won't help me

What does it mean to be liberal? If I say there is no absolute freedom of expression, do I become a censor?
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The Independent Online

We know the world loves a true sob story – the more agonised the better. As old codes of privacy are chucked, adults write with ever more startling candour about broken and betrayed childhoods or death of parents, and the books zap up the bestseller lists. Buttoned-up Britain has become more emotionally open, and a very good thing too.

Less appealing and understandable (to me) are the new stalls in this market selling sorrowful confessions of a wholly different sort (perhaps cashing in on the growth of the poor-me genre). In sum the typical outpouring goes like this: Was once an idealistic, trusting, nice, leftie liberal bloke. Am now irrecoverably wounded. Wandering on the heath, my bleeding eyes grasp the painful truth they could not previously. I have suffered a tragic "loss of innocence": I now realise my ideological family has been treacherous.

Maybe it is just a mid-life turn, I thought at first, or just another bunch of progressives shuffling towards conservatism. As they do. Honest apostates relocate and do not obfuscate; those with less clarity and sincerity slash and burn the places they have escaped.

I then started to think about what it means to be (or to have once been) a liberal. Liberalism has so many guises, so many permutations, so many presumptions, so many political postures and positions that it is no wonder its sons and daughters are so muddled. I am too. And don't think you can help me by giving me a lecture on post-enlightenment values and philosophers. That was liberalism then.

Today, like everything else, it is a basket of contradictory ideas, with geographical divergences that do not travel any distance. Is a liberal, by definition, left of centre? If so – and if at the heart of liberalism is the concept of pure freedom – how does s/he defend the curtailment of individual liberty by, say, hate speech laws? How does a true liberal defend an illegal war to promote liberalism? We saw how many underpants got into a twist on that one.

Writing in the London Review of Books the American academic Tony Judt believes: "Liberalism in the United States today is the politics that dare not speak its name". The US subconsciously fears the word and many of the freedoms it promotes. And yet Americans adore Margaret Thatcher, who would describe herself as the Boadicea of economic liberalism. The more I think about it the less I understand. Ken Livingstone is one kind of liberal, Boris Johnson an entirely different sort. Peter Hitchens believes in liberty and disagrees violently with his now neo-con brother Chris, a passionate liberal.

Andrew Anthony, one of the wretched who has been writing on his bitter awakening, says the war of ideas at present is between hard liberal values – freedom of expression, rule of law, secularism and rationality – and the values that are inimical to these self-evidently noble virtues – censorship, mob rule, religious law and privileging of emotions. So if I am not "a liberal" in the sense he wishes to define it, does that make me a supporter of "mob rule"? If I say there is no absolute freedom of expression, that there are always limits – otherwise the BBC would run propaganda tapes made by Osama Bin Laden, and pro-Hitler views would be given air time on French broadcast channels – does that make me a "censor"? Anthony and others are using the name of liberalism just as Muslim fanatics use the name of Islam to bend creeds to their own particular neuroses and interests.

Roy Jenkins was a social liberal, and an admirable one, because he saw no contradiction between holding to the best of classical liberal traditions (freedom of the individual) and a hyperactive state that protected minorities and ensured equality for all citizens. Sadly, like so many others, he became less liberal as the years went by and paranoid about the Turks and Muslim immigrants in Europe. Immigrants sorely test the finite and conditional tolerance of intellectual liberals. Most of them who can only afford large properties in places like Hackney and Acton, find that their white, middle-class life feels perilous instead of blessed.

Then there are the gruesome right-wing liberals, economic and social libertarians really, for whom taxation and the welfare state, laws against racism, drugs or paedophilia, too, are an institutionalised violation of personal liberty. Something tells me that Anthony would rather drink tea with me than them, these liberals who follow the logic of liberalism and get further than he or Martin Amis or Nick Cohen can ever hope to go.

I am not a "liberal" but I am committed to many liberal principles of personal liberty and autonomy. I am happy to be living in a liberal society and not in one where they would bury me in a shroud. My Islam is based on my liberal values as much as old tenets. I believe the law and some non-negotiable principles must apply to all citizens equally. But I detest unregulated economic liberalism; I want state intervention; I am worried by what happens to a society where personal liberty alone drives action and there is no restraint, and I deeply mistrust contemporary lefties who are building fortress liberalism to stand firm against anybody who cannot absolutely belong, most of all the strangers who have darkened their shores.

We immigrants have to be either with the liberal soldiers or against them. But I am both with them and against them, and I want us to talk. Any fanaticism is a failure of the imagination. And it seems we must all be fanatics now.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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