For some months now, the Economist has been celebrating its 175th anniversary; this month (the actual anniversary of first publication) that culminates with a long editorial setting out its philosophical position: “A manifesto for renewing liberalism.”
Go and read the whole thing – it’s well worth the effort. Here are some choice quotes:
True liberals contend that societies can change gradually for the better and from the bottom up. They differ from revolutionaries because they reject the idea that individuals should be coerced into accepting someone else’s beliefs. They differ from conservatives because they assert that aristocracy and hierarchy, indeed all concentrations of power, tend to become sources of oppression.
Liberalism thus began as a restless, agitating world view. Yet over the past few decades liberals have become too comfortable with power. As a result, they have lost their hunger for reform. …
In all sorts of ways, the liberal meritocracy is closed and self-sustaining. …
Governing liberals have become so wrapped up in preserving the status quo that they have forgotten what radicalism looks like. …
It is the moment for a liberal reinvention. Liberals need to spend less time dismissing their critics as fools and bigots and more fixing what is wrong. The true spirit of liberalism is not self-preserving, but radical and disruptive. The Economist was founded to campaign for the repeal of the Corn Laws, which charged duties on imports of grain into Victorian Britain. … We were created to take the part of the poor against the corn-cultivating gentry. Today, in that same vision, liberals need to side with a struggling precariat against the patricians.
Most readers probably go to the Economist for the quality of its reporting rather than its political line. Nonetheless, that line has been, in my view, pretty consistently on the side of the angels throughout its history. Offhand, the only thing I would quibble with in the editorial is its praise of the proto-Trumpist Theodore Roosevelt.
Perhaps liberalism has always been under siege, but it feels as if the attacks on it are more audacious now than they’ve been for a long time. Last year, the Institute of Public Affairs told us that the Economist is renowned for its “communist views”; on the other side, actual communists are given more credibility than they’ve had for decades.
We live in dangerous times. More than ever, we need the voice of radical sanity that the Economist provides.
And since it mentions the Corn Laws, I thought I’d close by reproducing the piece I wrote 12 years ago for another anniversary (it was written for Crikey but not published). It references not the Economist but its older competitor the Guardian, whose roots are in the same intellectual tradition (although it has probably strayed further from them at times).
It also provides further argument for why the nineteenth century still matters. So here we go – the date is 29 June 2006:
Regular readers of the Guardian’s website will be familiar with its “From the archive” section, which reprints interesting or significant stories from past editions. Since the paper goes back 185 years, there is plenty to choose from, and yesterday’s is a real gem: the report from the Manchester Guardian (as it then was) of 27 June 1846 on the repeal of the Corn Laws.
The Corn Laws were a system of protective tariffs designed to restrict the import of foreign grain into Britain and therefore keep prices high, to benefit landowners at the expense of consumers. For 30 years they were a battleground between the forces of protection and free trade, and therefore between the established landed class and the rising industrial interest.
The Corn Laws were finally repealed after the Irish famine made all but the most obstinate realise the need to bring cheaper food to the masses. The Manchester Guardian headlined it as “A triumph with no parallel in history”, reporting the victory “So excitedly that it barely drew breath for paragraphs at a time”:
Probably at no period in the history of the world has a change so important in itself, and so repugnant to the feelings of the great body of those possessing political power in the country, been effected, in so short a time, by the mere force of reason and persuasion.
Does any of this matter, 160 years later? It does, for two reasons.
Firstly, the Corn Law debate was an example of successful alliance between the middle class and the workers. The Anti-Corn Law League, founded by Richard Cobden and John Bright, assembled a powerful coalition to attack protection. Free trade was a progressive cause, closely aligned with other movements such as peace, electoral reform and “retrenchment”, or what we would call “small government”. The parties of today’s left could do worse than study its lessons.
Secondly, repeal of the Corn Laws was one of the key events shaping Britain’s party system. The Conservatives split; prime minister Robert Peel became a convert to repeal and, with most of his senior colleagues, left the party. They, together with the opposition Whigs and radicals like Cobden and Bright, eventually merged to form the Liberal Party.
Today’s Conservative Party traces its ancestry instead to the diehard protectionists, led by Derby and Disraeli, who opposed Peel. Those who blithely assume that conservatives are the friends of free trade and smaller government could also do with a history lesson.