How social liberalism’s triumph is turning to defeat

It has often been said that while the right has won the economic battles of the last few decades, the left (in its various liberal and pseudo-liberal forms) has conclusively won the social war. This seems incontrovertible in Western Europe and America at least.

I won’t go into the political triumph of economic liberalism here because: 1) it’s not what I’m talking about here and 2) it’s a bit technical and boring. But it’s good to reflect on social liberalism’s success, which is largely the story of a basic positive and righteous progression of politics from ‘not-so-good’ to ‘a lot better’. In Britain we are much better off, or perhaps better to say we are more civilised, for the reforms and changed social attitudes that have come with the triumph of social liberalism during the last Labour governments.

From free museums admission, the ‘right to roam’, free bus travel for pensioners and civil partnerships for gay couples, we have been freed up to live our lives more how we choose, and without any question of harming others. This is also the case with the decline in racist attitudes, the continuing rise of girls through the education system and women in the workplace, and the broad social acceptance of openly gay people as part of mainstream society.

The great 19th Century liberal John Stuart Mill would have been proud, for many of the battles he fought largely without success in his own time have now been won. Now, for the most part, sensible and genuine social liberals have gone home and turned their minds to other things, like gardening.

Yet what I would call ‘pseudo-liberal’ movements are still going strong and are if anything getting stronger in mainstream politics. You might see the success of the battle for gay marriage as an example of this – a reform that built on the existing civil partnerships and which increases freedom but also stepped on the established institution of marriage and changed its meaning, causing some people quite considerable concern and offence in the process.

Gay marriage is perhaps a relatively small ‘issue’ and has not been mightily contentious, but I think it is indicative of how those who now carry the flame of ‘rights’ – traditionally a liberal term – have jumped over the fence of liberalism by seeking not just to increase freedom of people they claim to represent, but to reduce freedom of others – for example by enforced diversity quotas in certain favoured professions.

This sort of authoritarian social liberalism is nothing particularly new; it was bubbling away throughout the last Labour governments, but now it is pretty much the only ‘liberal’ game in town on the left – and it is completely dominant within the present Labour Party. Emboldened by past successes, strengthened in their organisation and full to the brim with self-righteousness, these extreme elements have claimed the mantle of progress and taken hold of mainstream leftist politics.

As a result, the left is now on the wrong side of pretty much every major existential issue now facing Britain. We don’t have a story to tell about the future of the country and our politics, except of more change through more immigration and more of the Orwellian ‘Equalities’ agendas which protect certain people from the consequences of wrongdoing, while not facing up to the rise of an intolerant and increasingly confident Islamist politics.

The change in outlook and attitude and the liberal reforms promised by a new Labour government in 1997 put the left firmly on the side of the good, and going with public opinion not against it. The picture is very different now.

For more on similar themes, see Identity politics and the left page.


  1. Excellently put, this rise of 'the totalitarian left' the 'PC morality, thought and discussion police' 'certain sectors of feminism in particular' coupled with students becoming enthusiastic about 'no platforming' speakers.
    Is clearly having a detrimental effect on UK politics, I mean I keep finding myself actively agreeing with the spectator (which I tend to read to see the opposing viewpoint and stay informed) I find this odd, as politics has gone so far left, that the moderate right, well they're at least moderate.
    The Greens debacle in Brighton is sadly damning as well, it shows why, except for protest voting, protest parties are almost never any good in power, this also applies to the lib dems, sadly.

    1. Politics has gone so far left, what ever your taking I need to get some fast.

      Miliband and labour the pink party sums them up perfectly labour is not to the left and it has not been even before Blair.

      I'm listening to Miliband now and oh god the lad is lost.


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