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The Strange Rebirth of Classical Liberalism

November 24th, 2011 Posted in Liberal Philosophy, Libertarians, Liberty League by

When George Dangerfield wrote The Strange Death of Liberal England it looked as though liberalism was no longer relevant to the body politic. The Liberal party had been overtaken by its rivals: the Conservatives and the newly-created Labour party. Many liberal ideas had become part and parcel of the political landscape, which might have explained the demise of the party.

In 2003, David Walter wrote The Strange Rebirth of Liberal England. The author argued that liberalism was back. But that liberalism was very different to the one that was withering away decades before.

It is no surprise that a political philosophy will adapt to changing times. Recently, though it would appear that the advocates of classical liberalism have re-entered the mainstream political debate.

One could argue that the Whigs who entered the Conservative party in the 19th century carried on that classical liberal tradition. The problem is that a political tradition co-habiting with another that pulls in a very different direction inevitably compromises and has its voice dulls.

There is quite a bit of evidence to suggest that classical liberalism has rediscovered its voice.

In the last few years, we have seen the creation of the Cobden Centre, Learn Liberty, a reinvigorated Institute of Economic Affairs, Liberty League, a plethora of classical liberal blogs, the creation of the Libertarian party and lastly, but no means least, Liberal Vision.

This doesn’t mean that all these groups agree with each other. There are differences over tax, the Europe Union, constitutional reform and human rights legislation. It does mean that the case for classical liberalism is being made: arguments for sound money, plurality, tolerance and individual freedom.

How much impact these disparate groups will have is an open question. What we can say for certain is that this reinvigorated classical liberal movement is, once again, having an impact on the public policy conversation.

19 Responses to “The Strange Rebirth of Classical Liberalism”

  1. Geoffrey Payne Says:

    It hasn’t exactly been a successful rebirth, with the UK economy underperfoming compared to the OBR forecasts and the Irish economy doing even worse. Given the market failures of the banking sector and that people on benefits are having their benefits cut to pay for the mistakes of the rich it does indeed seem a strange time to be reborn.

  2. Simon Goldie Says:


    Thank you for commenting. I suppose it depends how you define success. The fact that classical liberalism is back on the public policy agenda could be defined as a success in itself. Given it has only recently returned it would be premature to expect classical liberal policies to start having an impact. Arguably, we have yet to see classical liberal policies implemented.

    Market failure is used to describe many things. If someone takes a product to market and it fails that is one thing. Another definition is that the market is failing to deliver a service that people feel needs to be delivered. On the latter point, Adam Smith argued that government should fund infrastructure and not leave things to the market although private companies could deliver the construction. On the former, if a product or service fails then on classical liberal terms this is welcomed as it shows that the product or service didn’t have a sufficient market.


  3. Dave Atherton Says:

    Simon I entirely agree with you. As a Tory I consider myself by and large to be a classical liberal, I find particularly young Tories are that way inclined. Thatcher with socially liberal attitudes from homosexuality and drugs. It possibly comes from 13 years of state nannying from Labour and their tax and spend policies.

    I should mention the Liberty League and have posted their Facebook page, the excellent Anton Howes is one of the leading lights.

    On a different note I am Chairman of Freedom2Choose a lifestyles libertarian group, who are mainly involved in smoking issues. In March 2010 on our front page I wrote an article on Friedrich Von Hayek and The Road to Serfdom. Nothing remarkable in that most of Freedom2Choose’s, and I include myself in this are mainly blue collar, working class people. Classical Liberalism has gone beyond the bien pensant, chattering classes and the man on the Clapham Omnibus can now identify with it. I am sure Hayek like me would be appalled at the smoking ban.

    My last link is Dick Puddlecote who is a libertarian blogger who leads me to your site.

  4. Dave Atherton Says:


    Bugger you mentioned the Liberty League, sorry.

  5. Simon Goldie Says:

    Hi Dave

    Many thanks for your comments and those links. I know Anton, although have never met him, but wasn’t aware of Freedom2Choose.

    The fact that there is a groundswell of groups is very interesting. It may well partly be to do with the previous administration but also the fact that the web allows people to connect in a way that they never could before. For instance, I have never met Anton but communicate with him.

    I also think there is a desire for people to have more control over their lives among left-wing thought although it takes a different form and argues for a different way of delivering it.


  6. Dave Atherton Says:

    Hi Simon thanks for your reply.

    Another person who is a must read and must hear when he is speaking is classical liberal author and historian Chris Snowdon.

    His most influential book is The Spirit Level Delusion a wonderful destruction of Wilkinson and Pickett’s The Spirit Level where W&P believe that the more equal wealth in society leads to greater happiness.

    His latest book is the very timely The Art of Suppression: Pleasure, Panic and Prohibition since 1800.

    His first book was Velvet Glove, Iron Fist, a History of Anti Smoking. This is my personal favourite.

    No, I am not Chris’ literary agent, but a drinking buddy.

  7. dan Says:

    How do the good people at LV think they can promote classical liberalism in the party and get self identified liberals such as Dave, above, to join the party instead of the Tories?

  8. Simon Goldie Says:

    Hi Dave

    Many thanks for those links. I am familiar with Chris’s work and his blog although hadn’t heard about his latest book. My challenge when writing the post was how many people to reference and link too.

    I link to his blog on mine.


  9. Simon Goldie Says:

    Hi Dan

    A very good question. I think Liberal Vision makes a significant contribution to that. The people involved also speak at events and engage in the party in different ways.

    I’d be interested to know your thoughts too.


  10. dan Says:

    Hi Simon,

    As a classical liberal myself who can’t decide whether or not to join the Lib Dems, I’d be interested to read a piece on here or LDV maybe telling people like me why you joined the Lib Dems and what your experiences are within the party as someone who believes in free markets and limited government.

    I think there are alot of people like me out there, who would read this LV and agree with 99% of what you guys say on here but aren’t members of the party. I wouldn’t have even considered joining if it wasn’t for this blog but I’m still hesistant in believing that the Lib Dems are an effective vehicle for promoting classical liberalism.

  11. Simon Goldie Says:

    Hi Dan

    I have discussed what influenced me on my blog –

    although that isn’t exactly what you are after.

    I try and avoid talking too much about myself, more about an issue or how ideas are communicated, but will have a think about your request.

    Alternatively, you can send me a message on Facebook and we can discuss this in more detail.


  12. Dave Atherton Says:


    You posed the question why not more Tories are attracted to the Lib Dems. To underline your point I was talking to a number of Tories and we were discussing which Tory PMs outside of Mrs. Thatcher and perhaps ex Whig Winston Churchill we admire. Although Churchill was not a great peace time PM.

    Amongst the ex PMs we were not enamoured with included: Heath, Eden, MacMillan, John Major…..etc etc. There is no doubt that many current Tories if born in the 19th century would of been Whigs.

    However I think the Lib Dems problems fall into 2 areas. Those two horrible letters EU and the equally horrible three of SDP.

    I have no problem with the principle of the EU but I have a major problem with the execution of the EU project. It is too politically disparate. There will always be socialists influencing enough on state control and enough centre-right to stop too much. What you have is a social democratic mush where classical liberal policies will never see the light of day, topped off by an undemocratic Commission.

    On the same theme I could always see myself voting for David Laws, Jeremy Browne and was very sorry to see Mark Oaten go and Lembit Opik lose his seat. These I can easily see myself voting for.

    However the SDP faction like Simon Hughes, Vince Cable and Stephen Hughes seem to me to have more in common with the Labour Party than they do with classical liberalism. I appreciate that political parties often are broad churches and include many different shades of opinion. Alas I believe the SDP has the whip hand in the party. Also Baroness Williams, to my mind will never be forgiven for ruining the prospects of working class people when she advocated the scrapping of Grammar Schools.

    Never say never and this should be an ongoing dialogue.

  13. Dave Atherton Says:

    Sorry meant Simon Williams as well as Simon Hughes.

  14. Leslie K. Clark Says:


    On the SDP point. Correct me if I’m wrong but I think there are actually more ex-SDP members represented on the Tory frontbench than the Liberal Democrats. Off the top of my head, there’s Andrew Lansley, David Mundell, Stephen O’ Brien, Chris Grayling and Greg Clark. If you don’t like the influence of the SDP, perhaps you’re in the wrong party 😉

    On the question of Europe, I think it is a matter of emphasis. I’m struck by how many Tories believe it to be the overriding issue in politics when it clearly isn’t. For example, the likes of Bill Cash (who’s just written a very good bio of John Bright, btw) and John Redwood.

    However, I understand the point that our party’s pro-Europeanism is often misconstrued as slavish adherence to everything the EU says. I’m sure you’ll find plenty of examples on our pages where we’ve highlighted the absurdities of Europe – the CAP or the possibility of an EU Financial Tax – to which you’d probably agree. At its heart, the EU is a liberal project to which I have already blogged –

  15. Leslie K. Clark Says:


    It should be said that LV aren’t the only people advocating classical liberalism within the Lib Dems; an Economic Liberal Forum is in the process of being established (if they can pull their finger out).

    As well as Nick Clegg’s re-positioning of the party toward a more genuine liberalism, it was through LV that I first made the leap to join the Liberal Democrats. So I understand where you’re coming from.

  16. Simon Goldie Says:

    Hi Dave

    The Lib Dems have been influenced by various ideas and politicians. This rich tradition can be an advantage but it can also mean that the party appears to an outsider as confused. In fact, I would venture to say that sometimes it is a little confused. I agree with Leslie that Nick Clegg has been working to bring the various strands together and move the party in a more liberal position, not classical liberal mind but liberal.

    Simon Hughes was a member of the Liberal party before the merger. I would place Simon in the radical non-conformist liberal tradition. In the 19th century, he would have been a member of the Radicals, as was John Stuart Mill, and joined with Whigs to create the Liberal party.

    I am not sure where Stephen Williams was pre the merger and despite the recent discussions over banning smoking in cars, I believe Stephen is a liberal. He may be more influenced by the liberalism of the 20th century where intervention by government became more popular. That said, Whigs too intervened at times.

    The party is a broad church, as all parties are, and for a range of reasons people end up aligning themselves with one or another. I understand your scepticism about the Lib Dems and merely say all this to make the case that life can be complicated!

    My original point though was that classical liberal ideas appear to be having a bit of a revival. I don’t think we are seeing that many classical liberal policies yet, as Geoffrey pointed out in the first response to this post, but making the case for such policies is the first step. The challenge for classical liberals is to develop policies that work for the 21st century and may gain enough popular support to win over voters.


  17. Dave Atherton Says:


    I take your point (grits teeth). Lansley appears to of changed little while I believe Grayling is viewed to be on the right, correct me if wrong. The other two I do not know too well.


    I was particularly impressed with David Laws at the IEA last week.

    My spat with Simon Williams is his Chairmanship of the All Party Parliamentary Committee on Smoking and Health (APPC). Not only do they have a conflict of interests in having Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) as their “secretariat” Stephen Williams refuses to let anyone else offer evidence to the committee other than tax payer and pharmaceutically funded people and bodies. Especially if you have a look at the debate in the URL he seems to be seriously misinformed. Stephen Williams has formally declined to meet me.

  18. guy montrose Says:

    It might be worth people considering joining a global shift towards Libertarianism.

    In light of the fact that many are now disillusioned with current political parties and thinking. Libertarianism offers the chance for people to control their own policies and politics. Following the Swiss model, ‘the people’ vote for what they wish in local and national referenda, and the politicians implement those votes on behalf of ‘the people’. Some might say it’s true democracy? It seems to work rather well in Switzerland.

    Libertarian Party UK

  19. Simon Goldie Says:

    Hi Guy

    That is an interesting point. The Libertarian party’s policies on constitutional reform are very similar to policies that the Liberal party used to argue for. The Lib Dems have slightly shifted focused over the years.