No other political or social belief has ever been so proudly owned to or so savagely disparaged by both conservatives and radicals, aspired to or misappropriated as much as liberalism. But what is it, what are its principles, is it synonymous with democracy, can it and nationalism co-exist, and how is it related to neo-liberalism?
As current events – both domestic and international – show, these issues are quite relevant for our time, and liberalism, “one of most central and pervasive political theories and ideologies” and whose “history carries a crucial heritage of civilised thinking, of political practice, and of philosophical-ethical creativity”, “whose diverse currents gave borne some of the most important achievements of the human spirit”, is needed more than ever.
Taking us through its complex history, varying characteristics, and profound problems is Michael Freeden, a professor of political theory at the University of Nottingham, emeritus professor of politics at Oxford and “Britain’s leading authority on the subject”.
The first thing to understand, he says, is that “there is no single unambiguous thing called liberalism” as “all the liberalisms that have existed, and that exist, select – deliberately and unconsciously – certain items from an accumulated and crowded liberal repertoire and leave others out....”
Complicating the plot is that it, though deriving from a “European set of beliefs”, can be found on “very different points of the political spectrum” there – left of centre in Britain but right of centre in France and Germany, while in Scandinavia, “many liberal ideas have been disseminated under the heading of social democracy, while what is labelled liberalism there has frequently been linked to elitist or middle class individualism”.
On the other hand, while there may be agreement on what its features are – seven core concepts are identified as liberty, rationality, individuality, progress, sociability, the general interest and limited and accountable power – there is often disagreement over which is the most important or should be accorded primacy.
There is much more to ponder over and learn in this slim volume – one of the latest installments in this portable but informative series dwelling on almost every facet of the human condition and the universe – from accounting to laws of thermodynamics, from plants to planets and from Alexander the Great to Nelson Mandela.