Is there a future for liberalism?

Battle of Ideas festival 2015, Saturday 17 October, Barbican, London


Liberalism emerged as the first ideology of modernity, forged during the Enlightenment in opposition to the hierarchy and reaction of the established order. More than two and a half centuries later, arguably liberalism itself is the established order, with many of the core values associated with liberalism now institutionalised throughout the Western world. Ideals such as tolerance, freedom of speech, liberty, individual autonomy, free elections, the rule of law, freedom of contract and the market have become accepted at least in principle across the political spectrum. This apparent triumph of the values of liberalism stands in sharp contrast with the disintegration of the other ideologies that emerged subsequently, especially in the nineteenth and twentieth century, from nationalism to various forms of socialism. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, liberalism appeared as the last ideology left standing. Francis Fukuyama famously heralded the triumph of liberal democracy as synonymous with the End of History.

Nevertheless, liberalism today appears more than a little disoriented and confused. In Europe, self-avowed ‘liberal’ parties are in disarray and may even face extinction. In the United States, many individuals who identify themselves as liberals self-consciously distance themselves from the classical liberal traditions of the Enlightenment. They often prefer to define their liberalism in opposition to conservative values, even at the cost of abandoning the toleration that was once the hallmark of liberalism.

Classical liberalism has very few friends on either side of the Atlantic. One symptom of this is society’s estrangement from the idea of liberty, which is often perceived as the hobby-horse of backward-looking right-wingers. The ideal of free speech is frequently trumped by the claim that it must be regulated in order to protect the powerless. Individual autonomy is invariably labelled as a myth. Even the liberal principle of tolerance has been criticised for being too judgmental and insufficiently accepting of those who are ‘merely’ tolerated.

Since there is little agreement on what liberalism means today, it is worth asking whether the legacy of liberalism is at all relevant to the public life of the twenty-first century? If it is, which components of this legacy are worth retaining, and why?

Andrew Adonis
Labour peer; author, 5 Days in May: The Coalition and Beyond

Steven Erlanger
London bureau chief, New York Times

Dr Katrina Forrester
lecturer in history of political thought, Queen Mary University of London

Professor Frank Furedi
sociologist and social commentator; author, What’s Happened to the University?, Power of Reading: from Socrates to Twitter, On Tolerance and Authority: a sociological history

Claire Fox
director, Academy of Ideas; panellist, BBC Radio 4’s Moral Maze; author, I Find That Offensive