Liberalism Notes

Evolution over time, though constant stress on individual freedom. Intellectual antecedents are 16th century religious reformations, 17th century scientific revolution and 18th century Enlightenment. !8th/19th century industrialisation created new class interests with commitment to reform programme – so term 'liberalism' dates from early 19th century.  Liberalism a reaction to 19th century absolutist regimes – hence inextricably bound up with national self-determination. Movements for national freedom/unity associated with demands for civil/political rights and for constitutional checks on government.

Contrast with Britain, where parliamentary sovereignty established in 17th century – hence liberal domestic programme focused on other objectives such as parliamentary reform, religious toleration and free trade.  19th century continental liberalism primarily a political creed – and even in Britain the centrality of free markets to liberalism has been exaggerated. Victorian liberalism stood for political reform at home and support for constitutional/national movements abroad. Inspired more by religion (radical nonconformism) than by economics.

Indeed from 19th century British liberalism repudiated laisser-faire and accepted need for state intervention ('New Liberalism') – especially in social welfare. Decline of Liberal Party in 20th century, but ascendancy of liberal ideas. Dominant orthodoxy until late 1970s was derived from New Liberalism – Keynes and Beveridge marked culmination of New Liberal thinking. Challenge to consensus came principally from an older free market version of liberalism – i. e. neo-liberalism. Battle of ideas post 1945 less between left and right than between old and new liberalism.

Today 'liberal' has different meanings in different places – UK Liberals/Liberal Democrats long seen as centre/left of centre; in EU liberalism normally associated with the right; in USA a term of abuse for radical-progressive (crypto-socialist) ideas; label also associated with free market advocates (Hayek, Friedman, New Right). And almost all mainstream ideologies can be regarded as variants of liberalism. * Liberal values/ideas of vital historical importance – central to development of British political tradition