Why I’m a liberal, and Giles Fraser isn’t

This post is stimulated by a piece Giles Fraser wrote a few weeks ago about why he wasn’t a liberal. It got me thinking as to why I am a liberal and clarified some things about the Church of England and socialists. This is a small revelation because I’ve never paid much attention to political theory – I’m more instinctive than that. I use the term “socialist” because alongside “communitarian” this is how Fraser describes himself.


I should point out that Giles Fraser’s post arose because of attacks on him, which he perceived to come from liberals, following his defence of circumcision in response to a legal decision in Germany outlawing the practice on children for religious reasons. Personally I think he was mistaken in this: he was being attacked by vociferous atheists who I would argue are a distinct group from liberals.


His argument is that the state or the Church of England, who represent the community, must step in and give individuals moral direction – that community interests trump those of the individual; liberalism, he argues, leaves us with a moral “anything goes” attitude that puts individual desires first. It strikes me that this thinking is at the heart of problems the Church has over equal rights for women and gay people. The church believes that it is the interests of the community that woman and practising homosexuals do not become bishops, and that gay people cannot marry each other. The liberal, individual-focused view is: why shouldn’t they?


Extending this beyond the immediate case: my view of democracy is that it is to enable all individuals to make their views know, and powerful in government. The communitarian view appears to be that it is an all or nothing bid to be *the* representative of the community. So if you look around the union movement you will see them seeking to be *the* representative of their group, similarly the Labour party appears to have little interest in anything but one party rule by itself. Similarly the Church of England clearly feels itself to be *the* moral conscience for the nation.


Perhaps the problem for me with communitarianism is the size of the unit on which it is now enacted: in Britain a group of approximately 60 million people, this is meaningless to a human. Our real communities are usually at the level of neighbourhoods, parishes or boroughs – although I would argue these days that we can form communities ignorant of geographical location – but surely no one can believe in a community of 60 million people? It’s true we have a form of local democracy but this is relatively weak compared to the centre and is subject to one-party states in many parts of the country based on the first-past-the-post electoral system rather than any truly democratic mandate.


Liberalism does not deny the existence of community, in fact takes an active part in it both on the really local scale and nationally: the state pension in the UK was introduced by Lloyd George and the remainder of the welfare state followed from a report written by another liberal, William Beveridge. From a liberal point of view the welfare state is a mechanism to enable individuals to maximise their potential. Whilst atheist myself, I don’t see the liberal position as being intrinsically atheist, as Fraser suggests, liberalism says that individuals should be free to follow their own religious beliefs, only limited when they impinge on others.


Returning to the events that launched Fraser’s post: can you imagine the uproar if the local chapter of the Hell’s Angels announced that from today they were going to circumcise each of their male children shortly after birth?


My liberal view is that men should be free to decide for themselves if they wish to have their foreskin removed but not impose that view on their children. If opposition to this is a touchstone of communitarianism, then I’m proud to be a liberal!