THE BLOG

In Defence of Liberalism

15/01/2016 17:58 GMT | Updated 15/01/2017 10:12 GMT

This is not an easy time to be a liberal. A belief in freedom and equality for all is being sorely tested by those who are only too happy to abuse the freedoms that are available in a liberal society.

Some abuse those freedoms so that they can organise mass suicide attacks, as in Paris. Others organise sexual assaults against women in Cologne and other European cities. As a result, liberals are mocked by their critics: see what your liberalism brings you?

Liberals need to have a clear answer, just as they need a clear answer to a deeply offensive cartoon published this week in Charlie Hebdo, exactly a year after 11 people were killed in a jihadi attack on the magazine's premises in Paris. The cartoon shows two pig-snouted men trying to grab the backside of a fleeing woman, with an inset drawing of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, whose lifeless body on a Turkish beach was photographed and published around the world last September.

The caption reads: 'What would little Aylan have become if he had grown up? An arse groper in Germany.' Shocking? Of course. Offensive? Deeply. Funny? Not to me. When I wrote a year ago in defence of Charlie Hebdo, I said: 'Charlie Hebdo is often offensive, deliberately provocative and frequently vulgar. That is its point -- and that is the point of a free society.' Which it is, but it is not always easy to stick to the principle in the face of such deliberate provocation.

No liberal believes in absolute freedom. We restrict freedom of speech by outlawing incitement to violence or racial hatred, and we restrict freedom of movement by putting in place border controls. Liberals are not anarchists: they believe in the need for some kind of State structure to protect life and liberty. (That is why Thomas Paine described government as a 'necessary evil'.)

These days, many liberals believe that government can be a force for good, helping to reduce inequalities and promote a welfare system that offers help to those who need it. But after the shocks of the 2007-8 global financial crisis, faith in government has been badly dented -- and as the Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson wrote this week: 'What is liberalism without public trust in government? A college class.'

The liberal belief in equality includes equality of the sexes, which means that no woman should fear for her safety in a public place. Anyone who threatens an individual's safety, whether that individual is male or female, risks being sanctioned by a government put in place to protect the lives and liberties of all. And here's the crucial bit: those sanctions must be imposed no matter whether the offender is a refugee, an asylum-seeker, an illegal immigrant, or the holder of a European passport.

So the principle should be clear. The men who attacked women in Cologne and elsewhere should be prosecuted, just like anyone else, regardless of where they came from. And if the publishers of Charlie Hebdo were in the UK, there might well be a case for considering a prosecution for incitement to racial hatred. (What does the cartoon suggest? Aylan Kurdi was a would-be migrant from an Arab state. So were some of the alleged attackers in Germany. Therefore, all migrants from Arab states are assaulters of women and deserve our hatred.)

But it is not enough to punish the transgressors. We need to be tough, as someone once said, on crime, and also on the causes of crime. Which means doing more -- much more -- to teach new arrivals in Europe that the offer of sanctuary does not come cost-free: if they want the protection afforded by a liberal democracy, they must accept the laws and norms that go with it. The men who behaved so disgustingly on New Year's Eve knew perfectly well that what they were doing would not be acceptable, but they thought they were untouchable. They must be proved wrong.

Some liberals may feel uncomfortable when one group of people for whose rights they campaign attack another group whose rights they also support. What is a pro-refugee feminist meant to do? I think the answer is perfectly clear: you can defend the rights of refugees without defending every action of every refugee, just as you can be a feminist without defending everything said or done by every woman.

Liberals need to do more to dispel the impression that they are woolly-minded or soft-hearted. It took blood, sweat and tears to replace feudal autocracy with liberal democracy, and we need to be alive to the danger that in the face of continuing provocations, whether from testosterone-fuelled young men or from Charlie Hebdo, anti-liberals like Marine Le Pen, Donald Trump and Nigel Farage will seize every opportunity that they are given.

Liberals also need to make sure that they deal with all manifestations of extreme illiberalism equally. So while the government frequently expresses its concern about what might be being taught in some Islamic faith schools, or madrassas, I hope it will also be pressed to take a look at the allegations reported in The Independent yesterday of appalling abuses in some of Britain's ultra-Orthodox Jewish yeshivahs, where it is alleged that children are being subjected to corporal punishment, prevented from learning English, and, in the words of one former student, 'bred in racism, sexism and bigotry'.

The Labour party has not always been a liberal (small L) party - I don't think anyone would accuse either Jack Straw or David Blunkett of having been liberal home secretaries. Nor am I persuaded that Mr Corbyn is a natural-born liberal, but it would be wonderful to be proved wrong. If Tim Farron (what do you mean 'Who's he?' - he's the leader of the Liberal Democrats) ever gets a chance to make his voice heard, there is a campaign waiting to be waged: a campaign for liberalism, freedom and equality, regardless of provocation from any quarter.