Regular readers of this blog will by now be well aware that if Mediolana CSO Asad Yawar is reading anything, there’s a decent chance that it’s a copy of the Financial Times; a recent piece by political columnist Janan Ganesh demonstrated once again the power of the beige-papered publication of record to inspire. In Strange death of a more liberal Britain (25th March 2013), Ganesh notes that as well as economic growth, ‘the looseness and openness that has historically accounted for much of the UK’s success – and appeal to outsiders – is also in danger of being misplaced’. Citing (i) the recent mooting of a restrictive press law; (ii) the ever-tougher and now cross-party rhetoric on immigration; and (iii) the repeated ‘wounds’ received by the City of London from Westminster and Brussels, Ganesh laments the loss of tolerance for ‘tolerating real messiness in economic and public life’.
There is little doubt that in many basic ways the United Kingdom (as at least partially opposed to London) has become (and will probably continue to become) a much less ‘liberal’ place than it previously has been. But why is this? After some contemplation, we feel that this trend can be largely explained by the loss of the ‘three cogencies’ of liberalism in the local (and to some degree, global) context:
1. Economic Cogency. With the ongoing and epoch-defining financial collapse which began to make itself felt in 2007, (extreme) economic liberalism has begun to resemble communism: a nice theory that doesn’t necessarily work very well. Rapid-fire financialisation, self-regulation and endless credit were once synonymous with Progress. Now it has become abundantly clear that implementation of these previously unquestionable tenets of (post-)modern growth can in fact destroy economic value far faster than they create it, it is scarcely surprising that to many observers, economic liberalism has lost its appeal.
2. Social Cogency. The cold, hard statistics consistently show that non-UK nationals are a much lighter burden on the state than UK nationals; that they are more entrepreneurial and very significant sources of inward investment; and that if your economy is not attractive to immigrants, you are probably in big, big trouble. But none of this matters if large sections of the media and public taken as a whole prefer to ignore these ‘dry facts’. In a country of increasing economic insecurity and an ever-diminishing global status, the truth is often simply unpalatable for much of the population.
3. Intellectual Cogency. With Francis Fukuyama’s End of History thesis broadly accepted at face value, liberal theoreticians and practitioners alike have been busy fulfilling his ‘prophecies’ with unerring accuracy. Ever-expanding albeit rather selective social freedoms – to marry someone regardless of their gender, to purchase alcohol in a bar 24-7, to never stop shopping – have not papered over the crisis of meaning (and since 2007, sustenance) that has become all-too-apparent since the end of the Cold War. If liberalism can no longer say anything profound about the world or remedy any of its most pressing problems, we should not be surprised at its atrophying – however regrettable this may be.