What is 'muscular liberalism'?
Over the weekend, in a landmark speech on tackling extremism and terror, the Prime Minister declared that what Britain needs is ‘active, muscular liberalism’. All fine and good – but what does it mean?
In the words of Gok Wan, ‘it’s all about the confidence’. Irving Kristol famously described another hard-to-define political movement, 'neoconservatism', as ‘liberals who have been mugged by reality’. Well, 'muscular liberals' are liberals who have grown a backbone and developed the confidence to actively defend and promote the values by which they live.
A muscular liberal is someone who believes in liberal values and believes that those values must be defended and promoted. Here in the west we benefit from living in liberal cultures which tolerate our differences, accept non-conformity and encourage enquiry and debate. But too often, that liberalism also makes us soft. We think that because we tolerate difference we have to tolerate those who violently disagree with our way of life. We imagine that because we accept non-conformity we have to accept cultures which refuse to conform to our basic standards of decency. Muscular liberals know that our free and fair civilisation is fragile and that it requires active defence. We also know that the best way to defend our values is to spread them and that a more democratic world would be safer, more secure and more prosperous for all.
Muscular liberalism is not new - it traces its heritage through Bush and Blair to Theodore Roosevelt and Lord Palmerston - but it has never been more necessary than in our increasingly fractured and dangerous modern world. We are opposed to the cultural relativism of the old left - the idea that we must accept barbaric, oppressive behaviour out of cultural sensitivity. We are equally opposed to the cynical 'realism' of the old right - which seeks to describe geopolitics as a constant, amoral battle for supremacy.
At home we refuse to be cowed by either fear or crippling self-doubt. Fascists on the extreme-right and in the Islamist community prey upon our weakness in the face of attacks upon our open and tolerant society. They know that our Government will continue to fund extremists so long as they’re non-violent and that holding archaic and barbarous views is not a barrier to public office or state money.
Those who have accused the Prime Minister of pandering to the likes of the EDL with his speech are profoundly mistaken. The EDL may share many of the views of Islamism that characterise muscular liberal thought but there the similarities end. For muscular liberals, Muslim extremism is but one example of the ways in which our liberty is threatened – a crowded field that also includes Christian fundamentalists and the BNP –but is singled out for its prevalence, not for any imagined uniqueness. Muscular liberalism’s work is never done, the issues are never resolved and our liberty is never completely unthreatened. David Cameron’s speech is a good first step in incorporating the active defence of our values into everyday British life; it is good, but it can never be sufficient.