Boris burkas and the new, new liberalism


Heaven knows, I am no supporter of Boris Johnson, but I wonder whether there may be issues – perhaps of less symbolic value – but of more importance than what he meant, or didn’t mean, about burkas.

This is not actually a post about either of them. It is about the widening gulf between what is symbolic in politics and what is genuinely important because it will affect people’s lives.

The political left has always revelled in the importance of symbol. That is because they regard themselves as outsiders.

The political right, thanks to the Thatcher government, learned from them – perhaps any powerful ideology does – and began to substitute policy gestures which symbolise action on an issue for policy that might actually make a difference. This in turn taught the Blair government some of its dark arts.

As for liberalism, it has a long history, and a ubiquitous influence, but it is not what you might call a strong ideology. It gets easily deflected as it assimilates anything which is more raucous and more trendy. It did so a century ago when the New Liberalism assimilated the Fabian ideology of centralised state action. Now it is busily assimilating the symbolic gesture, the apotheosis of gesture over real action. It has put political correctness centre stage.

Genuine liberalism certainly ought to concern itself with the rights of minorities, and women – though there are also some issues for young men that need addressing too, like their propensity to suicide.

But there is no point in doing so unless you are demanding action that will have a major effect. And liberalism at its weakest has no understanding of economics – which is why this new new liberalism is I think a Liberal ideology.

Let me be clear, before anyone puts me in the same box as Boris. It isn’t the purpose of the new new liberalism that I object to – it is their puritanical preference for gesture over action.

Yes, of course, I am not so naive that I can’t see how language shapes the world. All I would say is that economics shapes it a good deal more effectively, and I would prefer to do something that genuinely makes a difference to the lives of women and other excluded groups – and anyone else – before I get so obsessed with postmodern relativism that I forget how to act on the world.

There are three problems with this new new liberalism:

  1. It over-emphasises what is offensive and under-emphasises what is effective. It prefers the divisive symbolism of removing statues to acting on the economy to make a difference.
  2. It colludes in the idea that the economy is an unchangeable given, invented by God some time during the creation of the world. It sells the pass on the human creation of economics and it doesn’t need to.
  3. It has no respect for history except seen through their own very modern ideology. Hence the recent call for the demolition of Nelson’s column. As if anyone is going to be better off after that.

The new new liberalism is, in short, a bastard child of neoliberalism and postmodernism, that sees no further than the horror of giving offense. It is a puritanical creation, shaped by a nihilistic refusal to believe in political or economic change. But that isn’t the worst of it.

It also makes the devolution of power – the central strand in genuine Liberalism – a dangerous and difficult thing to do, because it risks handing responsibility to people untrained in the language of the new elite.

That is if anyone untrained in the nuances of the new public language dares to play any role in public, for fear of offending the new puritans. That is what makes me crossest – the sheer exclusivity of the politically correct. The way it excludes women and men who have not been through the training grounds of student political playpens.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.


  1. Stephen Gwynne says

    I share your concerns and would add that ‘political liberalism’ has also taken a libertarian turn hence we now have EU single market neo/ordo liberalism and the general lack of democratic accountability regarding EU economic liberalism which has given control over our economic systems to technocratic and corporate elites. In this respect, liberalism has actually gone missing in action and has been replaced by soft forms of libertarianism. This coup has also found its way into the cultural sphere so now we have social libertarianism with an expectation of the state to provide equal rights.

    For me, liberalism has virtually disappeared because it lost sight of democracy and deepening democratic systems. In this respect, I would go so far as to say that the centre is democracy and therefore the radical centre is radical democracy.

    In this respect, liberalism as we now know it, is no longer in the centre but is situated in the libertarian fringes whether on the left (social libertarianism) or the right (economic libertarianism). Therefore current liberalism has truly lost its way, partly because of the unbridled support for the anti-democratic EU and the fact that EU treaties are not democratically accountable to the people despite forming the basis of uk policy, partly because reluctant remainer liberals have not created an EU reform plan despite so called EU flaws and partly because of the reasons stated above (neoliberal/libertarian economics and postmodernism).

    I think this has happened because corporate liberals have not only duped liberal metropolitans but because they have replaced the narrative of democratisation with the marketisation of our everyday lives – as a form of (consumer) freedom but also focusing on other types of economic freedoms such as free movement for example.

    This marketisation/libertarian narrative then feeds directly into free movement of identities etc and therefore we have identitarian liberalism (social libertarianism).

    What we need instead is democratic liberalism which then opens up the possibilities of democratic capitalism so that people can start making real decisions about development, planning, licensing and procurement decisions for example.

    Democratic liberalism also allows self-identifying individuals to choose which cultural framework to use in order to balance individual rights with individual responsibilities.

    By opening up the possibilities of democratic capitalism starts, this will also allow people to enter into the decision frame regarding the ecological impacts of our economic systems rather than our economic systems being controlled by remote elites who are currently busy destroying our global ecology.

    Regarding identitarian liberalism which is obviously platformed on individualism and the marketisation of identity (social libertarianism), in some ways this is no bad thing as long as harm, loss or damage is not caused to other individuals. (Obviously Boris Johnson was causing loss of dignity regarding his letter box comments).

    However what I do think is missing within the current multicultural framework is the acknowledgement and recognition of group identities and group diversity.

    I say this because at the moment, with a lack of group recognition within our multicultural society, when harm, loss or damage is caused by an individual, rather than also identifying the group in which individuals are informed, educated and culturalised, broad spectrum blame occurs (such as this is the fault of Muslims or Sharia Law or Islam) which inevitably spreads responsibility for the actions of one group across to other innocent groupings. Therefore Sunnis and Shias are blamed for the actions of individuals coming from Salafist groups during acts of jihadism.

    However, by focusing on groups as well as individuals, rather than broad spectrum blame based on ethnicity, religion or ideology, we instead get narrow spectrum blame. Therefore remediation of injustices can focus not only on the individuals responsible but also the group culture, the group ideas and the group rules that are responsible for facilitating the crime without having to deal with the unintended consequences of broad spectrum blaming.

    Essentially by focusing on both the individual and the groups they self-identify with, we will use less resources in the form of tax funded public services that are required to build community cohesion after a broad spectrum blame event.

    In sum, liberalism needs to change course towards democratic systems which means leaving the EU especially if there is no reform plan that ensures democratic systems will be incorporated into EU decision making including the formulation of EU Treaties. Liberalism needs to start acknowledging and recognising self-identifying groups as well as self-identifying individuals and making self-identifying groups more accountable for the ideas and culture that self-identifying groups sustain via self-identifying individuals. This I argue will reduce the likelihood of broad spectrum blaming as well as provide a means to better resolve intergroup tensions and therefore interindividual tensions that arise due to the marketisation of identities.

    In other words, our society is imploding because of the marketisation of our everyday lives and instead we need the democratisation of our everyday lives which holds both individuals and groups accountable regarding harm, loss or damage to other individuals and other groups (including biogroups eventually).

  2. nigel hunter says

    Correct. It is not Liberalism it is neo-liberalism in tooth and claw to be adopted by the new Tories of Johnson. It will be a disaster for the people I note in my own mind that it is also divide and conquer to prevent unity in time of trouble and to further careers at a cost to others.

  3. Lorenzo Cherin says

    As ever from David, a piece worth reading, I defended you and Radix on the thread where Joe its founder, commented on Liberal Democrat Voice, articles and editor there in the very strand of liberalism criticised here. That site has become obsessed with Brexit and gender identity political positions. It means that I feel more akin to the social democracy of my Labour days, I was an old Labour youth, who felt on the right of the party, in the Blair years a little to the left. I joined the Liberal Democrats after Iraq war gung ho top down had no attraction, Labour either. But I long for a party that puts the real concerns at the front, as David says. I feel alienated from a politics that puts hobby horse and fanatical cause, first, this is what the Liberal Democrats and Labour have become. Time for a new party or grouping?

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