The term “liberal” in a political context has a variety of different meanings: in the US, it is generally taken as a description of someone on the left of politics, whilst in contrast we are more likely to use it to describe someone in the centre ground, writes Murdo Fraser in The Scotsman.
There is, however, an older and more accurate definition of a liberal, which according to the Cambridge English Dictionary is “someone who respects many different types of beliefs or behaviour”. It is this view of liberalism which lies at the heart of modern British democracy, and underpins so much of our political thinking from left to right. It is also a view that today seems under attack as never before.
We see the rise of illiberal attitudes manifested in a recent series of well-publicised events, which suggest a deeply worrying strain of new intolerance amongst sections of public opinion. The best example of this is the succession of vile, vicious and misogynistic attacks made on the writer JK Rowling, whose criticism of the term “people who menstruate” instead of “women” led to accusations against her of transphobia, with various authors quitting her literary agency, and some workers at her publishing house reportedly refusing to have anything to do with her new book.
At the weekend, the Labour MP, and Shadow Environment Minister, Lloyd Russell-Moyle, had to apologise to Rowling after he accused her of using her own sexual assault as “justification” for discriminating against trans people. Rowling has won plaudits for her courage in speaking out on issues which many in the worlds of politics and the arts are scared even to mention for fear of the vitriol that will be thrown at them.
Most concerning of all is the extreme view put forward by a vocal minority that individuals holding the views expressed by JK Rowling should not be permitted to express them; that they should be “no-platformed”, or “cancelled”. There is, according to these new Puritans, “no debate” around these issues, and all dissenting opinions must be crushed. This illiberalism is championed even by some politicians on the Left who would want to present themselves as paragons of tolerance.
We saw something similar in the recent debate over the toppling of statues, motivated by the Black Lives Matter campaign. This reached the heights of absurdity when the statue of Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn was daubed with BLM graffiti and the words “Racist King.”
Whether there is any historical justification for the claim that King Robert was a racist in his attitudes is beyond my knowledge, although it would be a reasonable assumption that his views on same-sex relationships would be out of kilter with present day sensibilities. He was, of course, a great hero who led the Scottish nation to liberation from the English oppressor. He was, at the same time, someone who murdered a rival claimant to the Scottish crown at the altar of Greyfriars Church in Dumfries, an appalling act which lead to his excommunication.
Like many characters from history, Robert the Bruce was both a hero and a villain. There are few figures from the past whose reputations can survive the scrutiny of today’s intolerant new Puritans. Rather than tearing down the statues of those whose morals we now question, I much prefer the wise approach favoured by Professor Sir Geoff Palmer, who believes that the statues of controversial figures should be retained but with updated plaques giving a more balanced view on their track records – as is now happening with the Henry Dundas monument in Edinburgh.
If we are to have decisions taken about statues – whether Charles II in Parliament Square in Edinburgh, Henry Dundas, Robert the Bruce, or Winston Churchill, these decisions have to be taken on a properly democratic basis, not driven by the views – or worse still, the thuggish direct action – of a tiny extremist minority who represent no one but themselves. In a liberal democracy, we cannot ever surrender to the mob.
Even comedy is now under attack, with episodes of Little Britain and Fawlty Towers being removed from TV screens because some find them offensive. The intolerance that saw the Month Python film Life of Brian banned from cinemas four decades ago is today re-emerging, albeit in a different form. And we see echoes of this agenda in the SNP Government’s new Hate Crimes Bill, with its worrying proposals to criminalise those who express opinions which might be deemed to “stir up hatred” against protected groups, a significant threat to freedom of speech.
Against this tide of illiberalism there is only one place where politicians should stand, and that is against the mob; to be a voice of reason in a tide of hysteria; and to promote calm in the face of rage. It is reassuring that there are those in all political parties who are prepared to speak up in defence of liberalism, just as there were those willing to support JK Rowling when she came under attack.
I have many political disagreements with the SNP MP Joanna Cherry, but she has been an effective champion of free speech. Last week she reminded us of an important, and pertinent, quote from George Orwell: “If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”
The freedom to only hear opinions with which we agree is no freedom at all. We must be prepared to defend unpopular opinions whether we agree with them personally or not. Unionist or Nationalist, Tory or Socialist, we all need to stand together and declare: we are all liberals now. For without liberalism, there is no civilisation, and all we are left with are dogs fighting over the scraps.