Thursday 17 July 2008

Don't blame social liberalism for Labour's decline

I wrote here about Catholic composer James Macmillan's attempt to draw a distinction between the socially conservative Christian socialism with which he grew up and what he termed 'the simplistic banalities of the modern progressive elites'. I agreed with some of what Macmillan said - particularly his criticism of the infantile anti-Americanism of many on the contemporary left. But I parted company with him when he laid the blame on liberalism, and tried to drive a wedge between liberals and 'real' socialists.

He's at it again, in an article in the Telegraph, on why he thinks Labour will lose the Glasgow East by-election. Again, there's a grain of truth in his analysis of why Labour is losing the allegiance of its traditional working-class base. But I think he's wrong to see the social liberalism of the party's agenda as the main cause, and I think he constructs a simplistic and stereotypical opposition between traditional working-class communities and middle-class, metropolitan party activists.

Macmillan too easily dismisses the social liberalism of New Labour (which is increasingly shared by the other main parties) as 'lifestyle liberalism' and 'recreational individualism'. He's not very good on specifics, mentioning only policies on embryo research and abortion as examples. But can these be easily reduced to lifestyle or recreational issues? And is it only social conservatives who care about 'the dignity of human life'?

I notice that he's careful not to mention the main bone of contention between Catholics and New Labour: the party's entirely laudable and overdue promotion of equal rights for gay people. Again, this is an issue of social justice, not the frivolous concern of a metropolitan minority. Perhaps Macmillan realises that openly to oppose this policy would be an illiberal step too far in his journey away from the progressivism of his youth.

It can't be repeated too often: socialism without liberalism can too easily lead to tyranny, and we should be especially wary of religiously-inspired social movements, however 'progressive' they sound on economic issues, if they are also fundamentally intolerant and illiberal. 

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