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THE Government was adopting a "more liberal approach" to arms sales in 1989, says Sir Richard Scott's draft chapter leaked to the Independent last week; a letter to Baroness Thatcher from the Ministry of Defence spoke of a "more flexible interpretation of the guidelines". We seem to have liberal in one of its seedier moods here, suggestive of the nudge and wink. I can't help thinking of William Hamilton's New Yorker cartoon showing a group of shady businessmen, one of whom says knowingly: "Our auditor will be observing accepted accounting practices, if you know what I mean."

Liberal began nobly enough, meaning no more, in its happy dawn, than "to do with freedom". Free men pursued the liberal arts while others not so free slaved at the sciences, or "useful arts", which kept the free men alive. Then 19th-century liberals declared that freedom should be universal, and greatly improved the word's image by campaigning against prejudice and cant. But it was tarnished by people who confused freedom with licence and thought liberal-mindedness meant broad-mindedness which in turn led to wicked tendencies, if not to actual sedition. Indeed, in the States it has never recovered, and is used as a term of abuse. In Britain, conversely, it has been a hate-word with the left. Rebellious students used to tell me they couldn't stand liberals because they were too reasonable to be argued with.

Liberal can't win. We speak of dissolute hosts who are too liberal with the drinks, or of ladies, built, we say snidely, on liberal lines. Its Old English equivalent free is just as vulnerable: if you say a man is too free with his opinions you mean he's being impertinent. Compare pious, once a good word meaning devout, now a bad one meaning smug. What cynics we all are.

Nicholas Bagnall