Book: Liberalism: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)

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Liberal institutions

Liberalism is evidently also associated with political movements, organizations, and parties. Most countries that practise forms of liberal democracy, in Europe or elsewhere, have a liberal party either in name or in programme. Many institutions, not least on the international stage, have seen themselves as purveyors of liberal ideas in the general sense. The United Nations Charter of 1945 emphasizes the pursuit of peace, justice, equal rights, and non-discrimination—principles straight out of the liberal lexicon (). But here a gap opens up between the ideological and institutional manifestations of liberalism. Liberal ideologies are generally speaking broader than the parties and groupings that operate under that name. J.M. Keynes memorably wrote, ‘Possibly the Liberal Party cannot serve the State in any better way than by supplying Conservative Governments with Cabinets, and Labour Governments with ideas.’ But pace Keynes, the Liberal party in Britain, or the Liberal Democrats as they are now called, have fed off wider ranging liberal thinking over the years and political parties are rarely a source of ideological innovation. Indeed, some parties flaunting the label ‘liberal’ are far from liberal, an example being the Liberal Democratic party in Japan, which is a centre-right conservative party. Liberal thinkers and ideas generally emerge from debates among intellectuals, from the campaigning zeal of social reformers and journalists—including newspapers aligned with liberal causes—and from dedicated pressure groups and, more recently, think tanks and blogs. But due to their public profile, political parties are often taken by public opinion to be the representatives of the ideologies they reference. During the 19th century, Liberal parties were in their heyday and their influence over the ideological agenda was at its highest, though that power has since declined. Parties are therefore only a partially reliable indicator of the ideologies they claim to stand for. They also only seldom contain liberal philosophers working at a specialized and abstract level of articulation, precisely because parties have to engage in the kind of communicable and simplifying discourse that can attract large numbers of voters. Occasionally political philosophers such as Mill have become members of parliament, but in that capacity their influence has not been notable. In the following chapters we will mention institutionalized liberalism only occasionally. It is an absorbing subject on its own, but it will not lead us to liberalism’s heart.

2. Signing the United Nations Charter at a ceremony held in San Francisco on 26 June 1945.

Beyond the specifically political hues of liberalism, it has exercised a broader influence on thinking about, and in, the world. It would be no exaggeration to claim that the cultural features of political modernity—openness, reflectiveness, critical distance, scepticism, and experimentation—have taken their inspiration from a liberal mindset. An ideology’s impact cannot be measured solely on a narrow political platform.

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Next: Chapter 2: The liberal narrative