Attacks on liberals: a preparatory step for illiberal democracy?

Attacks on liberals: a preparatory step for illiberal democracy?

From Brexit to Trump via Hungary, Russia and Brazil, there is a growing chorus of attacks against liberals and liberalism. “The ‘liberal elite’ are to blame” shout millionaires and hedge fund managers as they dig in to political power. The big question is, why does this new wave of populists define their opponents as ‘liberals’ and not just ‘wealthy’ elites? In the UK, for example, broad ‘liberalism’ has been sidelined as a philosophy for almost a hundred years, squeezed into an ever-diminishing middle of the polarised ‘right vs left’ spectrum. Could it be that these right-wing populists are attacking ‘liberals’ as a preparation for outright illiberalism?

The “liberal elite” became a buzzword during the Brexit referendum. Privately educated, well-off, privileged types like Nigel Farage frequently levelled it at their opponents as they tried to develop and maintain their ‘common man’ credentials. This was such a powerful concept – that Boris Johnson, Jacob-Rees Mogg and Nigel Farage could be the champions of ’the ordinary people’ – that ‘liberal elite’ became a byword in mainstream publications such as The Telegraph, The Sun, The Spectator, and The Times.

Perhaps the most chilling invocation was when Priti Patel as Home Secretary, notoriously a fan of the death penalty, gave a speech on ‘law and order’ where she said she wouldn’t be lectured by those ‘liberal’ elites. In the aftermath of the Windrush scandal and the Home Office’s ongoing ‘hostile environment’ policy, one might have thought the Home Secretary would be apologizing for illiberal outcomes but instead it’s liberty that is under attack.

In the UK, there hasn’t been a majority ‘liberal’ government elected since 1906 and so ‘liberal’ is not a word commonly associated with a ruling elite. On the left there is a concern about ‘neoliberalism’, which could be associated with a lot of Tory governments and policies since Thatcher, but clearly that’s not what arch-Thatcherite, Iain Duncan Smith is angry about when he rails against the ‘liberal elite.’

In the US where the ‘liberal media’ is often attacked there may be some overlap of terminologies because ‘liberal’ is short-hand for the left and centre left of their two party system. But here in the UK, to attack liberals and liberalism is a very pointed thing to do. 

It is when we broaden our search more globally that the picture becomes clearer. In Russia, Putin has openly declared liberalism is ‘obsolete.’ In Hungary, Viktor Orbán has openly promoted ‘illiberal democracy’ and his influence is spreading throughout the region. The model of ‘illiberal democracy’ is now global, from Australia to Brazil, from America to the Philippines; strong-man politicians are attacking liberalism and replacing it with systems that support their own power and control. 

In Britain it’s common enough to point to the attacks on ‘liberal’ elites and to Johnson’s jingoism or Dominic Cummings’ attacks on the free press and traditional institutions. Perhaps more importantly we need to remember that UK Tories supported Orbán’s Hungary when the EU was threatening sanctions for his crackdown on freedoms or that top Tory influencers close to Johnson have outright praised the way Orban has shown the ‘limits of liberalism.’ We should certainly remember that Hungary is now listed as only ‘partly free’ in Freedom House’s global index and that it has since used coronavirus as a pretext to suspend elections indefinitely.  

Could it be that our own government, here in the UK, is attacking liberals as a preparatory step to Viktor Orbán’s model of illiberal democracy?

You don’t have to go to the sterling efforts of Carole Cadwalladr to uncover the global network of oligarchs driving this illiberal agenda or how they’ve already influenced UK politics. Stephen Harper, Canada’s ex-PM, now heads up an international group of “centre-right” political parties that openly links the UK’s Conservative Party to Orbán’s Fidesz party and all the rest of the illiberal democrats. Whether you follow the international ‘dark money’ behind Brexit or simply tune into the network of world leaders that openly attack ‘liberal elites’ at public speaking tours around the world, what is clear is that the UK and many other countries are being run by politicians that have had enough of liberal values.


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