A Short History of the “L” Word

The American poet Robert Frost was only partly joking when he said a Liberal was definable as ‘a man too broad-minded to take his own side in a quarrel.’ Liberals of both (or more) genders have of course historically taken a side: their own. Now that a new decade has begun, and another important anniversary is being marked today, and there are question marks over how much longer liberalism is likely to last, now seems as good a time as any to have a quick look at what has arguably been the world’s most influential political ideology over the past two centuries.

In the English language the word “liberal” makes an appearance in the King James Bible – specifically in Isaiah, in which ‘The vile person shall be no more called liberal, nor the churl said to be bountiful.’ – by which the word means generous, open-handed and magnanimous. Political liberalism in the English-speaking world evolved amid the ongoing struggles between an over-powerful Crown and increasingly assertive Parliaments in Scotland, Ireland and England in the 17th Century. The ideological struggle continued overseas in the form of the American Revolutionary War. There was similar conflict in France after the Revolution of 1789. In all three cases those who rebelled against royal government were concerned with protecting personal freedom, which they feared was under threat by a tyrannical and/or incompetent monarch. The very first time the word “liberal” was used specifically to describe this political movement was, though, not in Britain, Ireland or America, but actually in Spain in the early 19th Century.

In 1812, while Spanish guerrilla forces were fighting against Bonaparte’s French soldiers occupying most of the country, four years after their invasion, most of the Cortes (parliament) deputies who could assemble met at Cadiz – then outside French control – and drew up one of Europe’s first modern constitutions, in which rights like absolute male suffrage, freedom of the press, and free enterprise were guaranteed. The monarchy was to be retained, but King Fernando VII would henceforth be a constitutional monarch and be expected to share power with his ministers. Fernando was at the time a captive in France, and in 1814, after the French had finally been kicked out of Spain, he immediately abolished the Cadiz Constitution.

At the same time as the drafting of the original Constitution came the first attempts by Spain’s South American colonies to break free of Crown control, partly inspired by the Spanish liberals. Fernando’s ill-advised attempt to crush a political movement that had the support of many army officers who had been trying to restore him to the throne that he had been forced off by the Bonaparte family led to more than five years of tension and argument between liberals and conservatives, and which culminated in the Cadiz Mutiny of 1 January 1820. Initially sparked off by rows over pay and conditions, the mutiny was led by three generals, including Rafael del Riego, who demanded the restoration of the Cadiz Constitution. Initially meeting with indifference among the general population, the uprising turned bloody in Galicia, and eventually soldiers in Madrid surrounded the royal palace, after which Fernando agreed to restore the Constitution.

General Rafael del Riego (1785-1823) – the first Liberal?

This somewhat underrated European revolution would ultimately fail, as Riego’s government (known as the the Trienio Liberal – the Liberal Triennium) was crushed three years later after a French invasion, with Riego himself being publicly hanged, but it proved far more consequential to Spain’s empire – and the wider world in general – than the home country itself. The historian Edwin Williamson explains:

[T]he Cortes of Cadiz had provided in the 1812 constitution an alternative source of political legitimacy which opponents of the royal will could invoke regardless of whether they were actually liberal in ideology. In earlier times this alternative had simply not been available to rebels against the Crown. The truth was that after Napoleon’s intervention in the Peninsula it had become impossible for the Spanish Crown to reconstruct its monopoly of legitimacy; the Catholic monarchy itself had been set adrift on the sea of politics, and this latest storm in Cadiz would lead to the end of its authority in America.

The Cadiz mutiny undermined the position of Spanish viceroys and field commanders in the Indies. The new liberal government in Spain ordered the colonial authorities to seek a truce with the insurgents as a preliminary to the negotiation of a settlement of the protracted colonial crisis. As the Spanish American revolutionaries realized, this amounted to capitulation by Spain, for it showed that the Catholic monarchy could not hope fully to regain its authority either in Spain or in America, and, with royal legitimacy so contested and curtailed, what benefits could Spanish liberals offer the colonies that the creoles could not achieve for themselves? There was certainly no reason to submit to a trade monopoly and a political administration run by liberal imperialists in the Peninsula.

In effect, the Cadiz revolt put paid to the one outstanding benefit for which the creoles had been willing to accept colonial restrictions, namely, the unifying, stabilizing authority of the absolute monarchy. Once that had gone, the colonial pact was a dead letter.

While not all of Spain’s neighbours shared her particular political problems, the word that Spanish constitutional rebels used for their movement (Liberales) spread, eventually being used to describe entire political parties. The first politician in the English-speaking world to call himself a Liberal was the two-time British Whig prime minister Lord John Russell (serving as head of government in 1846-52 and again in 1865-6), while the word first appeared in a British election campaign in 1847. The Whig-dominated coalition that had formed three separate governments between 1852 and 1865 formally adopted the term Liberal Party in 1868. The polarizing experiences of a more volatile world economy, sharply changing working and living conditions, and the First World War led to Liberal parties in Britain, New Zealand, Germany, Italy and other countries being squeezed between conservative and socialist parties. Working-class liberals increasingly migrated to socialist movements while middle- and upper-class liberals tended more and more to vote for conservative organizations – while conservative and socialist parties in their turn took further advantage of this ideological squeeze by freely helping themselves to some liberal ideas in their election manifestos. Only in Canada and Australia have parties calling themselves Liberal consistently been able to survive as governing parties – though often by governing in a way that calls into question just how truly liberal they are.

Lord John Russell (1792-1878)

Less important than the success or failure of liberal political organizations, arguably, are the questions of liberalism’s reputation and future. There are some parts of the UK and United States where, if you say ‘I am a Liberal‘, you might just as well say ‘I believe terrorists, child-abusers and drug-dealers should be treated leniently.’ Put simply, the “L” word has acquired something of an image problem in recent years, and for all sorts of reasons. The free-enterprise economy, beloved by liberals of all kinds, while proving to be better than most systems at lifting people out of poverty, has also proved to be disastrous to millions on the occasions when it has failed. The free market is not always a fair market, after all, and Liberals have arguably been too slow to chop and change their values to deal with people in distress. This slowness was arguably a factor behind such events as the Brexit referendum and the rise of politicians like Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, Narendra Modi, and Viktor Orban.

Liberals of the late Victorian period, like Joseph Chamberlain, David Lloyd George and Theodore Roosevelt, seemed to get the message about the effects of a volatile economy, and so called for the state not to be too shy about stepping in every now and then to stop too many people getting too raw a deal out of capitalism. After the First World War, their successors, in the forms of such figures like J M Keynes, William Beveridge, and Teddy Roosevelt’s cousin Franklin, took the interventionism to further heights, and it seemed a serene future for liberalism was assured. With the Oil Crisis and general downturn of the 1970s, however, liberals increasingly turned back to first principles, replacing their Keynes and Beveridge with the works of Hayek and Friedman, and returned to holding a fundamental distrust of the state and its potential – though obviously not in the realms of defence and security while the Cold War was still unthawed.

Francis Fukuyama’s bald claim straight after the Berlin Wall came down, that we were witnessing the End of History and that liberalism was the only political ideology with a viable future, has obviously been debunked several times over. As we enter the 2020s, with Trump and Boris Johnson as the leading Western leaders, though, does that mean It’s the End of Liberalism As We Know It? In an age where nationalism is increasingly the go-to political creed around the world (and there is some truth in Fintan O’Toole’s view that Brexit is fundamentally an English nationalist movement), maybe it’s time for liberals everywhere to remember George Orwell’s reminder of how patriotism will always claim the strongest and tightest allegiance among the biggest number of people. The vast majority of us do care, after all, about liberty and the freedoms of speech, assembly, and the vote and so on. The original nationalists making the running in the 1848 Revolutions in Italy, Germany and Hungary were, after all, liberals rather than conservatives. Somehow, with the failure of these Revolutions, and as the 19th Century wore on, nationalism became co-opted by conservatives who saw for themselves how useful it was at the ballot box.

It isn’t just Robert Frost who has had a pop or two at liberalism. An old joke, frequently repeated, has it that a Liberal is a Conservative who has been arrested, while a Conservative is a Liberal who has been mugged. If their ideology is to survive in the new decade, Liberals need to re-learn the importance of national pride, and also to remember that law and order, national security, health and education are every bit as important to human happiness as human and civil rights.