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The Cambridge Union debates whether liberalism has failed us

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On Thursday, February 4, the Cambridge Union hosted a virtual debate on the motion ‘This House believes liberalism has failed us’.

The Cambridge Union
The Cambridge Union

Chairing the debate was Freddie Fisk, a third-year history undergraduate from Robinson College and Union president for Lent 2021.

The first speaker for the proposition, arguing that liberalism has failed us, was Nick Timothy, best known for his stint as Downing Street chief of staff in the first year of Theresa May’s premiership, and for his recent book, Remaking One Nation: The Future of Conservatism.

He argued that, on the left, liberalism has been "hijacked" by ideas of "postmodernism" and "identity politics". On the right, meanwhile, liberals "wrongly assume that completely unregulated markets are efficient or fair".

He accused liberalism of being reductive, saying: "There’s more to life than the market" and "more to society than individuals".

Mr Timothy’s argument was first rebutted by Prof AC Grayling, the eminent philosopher, author, and Master of the New College of the Humanities.

Clad in black tie, Prof Grayling praised "liberal values" for "supporting us through a difficult and challenging time".

These values, he said, are commitments to "civil liberties and human rights", enshrining the human capacity "to be self-creating and to flourish".

Moreover, he claimed that there were no viable alternatives to liberalism. Liberalism is under attack – think of "Trump’s assault on the constitution" and "Brexit Britain" – but liberalism remains "very robust" and "very flexible", well-suited to navigating these difficult times.

AC Grayling at the Cambridge Union, October 31, 2019. Picture: Regina Ray Photography
AC Grayling at the Cambridge Union, October 31, 2019. Picture: Regina Ray Photography

The first student speaker for the proposition was Daan Timmers, a first-year natural sciences student at Fitzwilliam College, who was given this opportunity due to his success in open audition.

He agreed with Prof Grayling that liberalism is "under attack", citing Orban in Hungary and Bolsonaro in Brazil, but contended that these politicians "did not come out of the blue", and that liberalism "bears responsibility" for allowing illiberal ideas to take root.

He attacked in particular the "unfortunate alliance" between social liberalism and capitalism. Liberals advocating for globalisation, on his account, caused the election of Trump; people were attracted to his brand of populism because of his promises to "bring back jobs".

Jacob Rose, another student speaker from open audition – a third-year historian at Gonville and Caius – disagreed strongly with Daan Timmers, arguing that, although liberalism "is under attack", it is "for all the wrong reasons".

He commended liberalism for being "self-critical" and for its ability to evolve and adapt to suit its times.

Liberalism, he said, has been extraordinarily successful "while the enemies of liberalism have been consigned to the dustbin of history" - the fact that we are still debating its merits itself "proves its vitality", he argued.

Oscar Wilde and George Orwell debate at the Cambridge Union on January 23, 2020
Oscar Wilde and George Orwell debate at the Cambridge Union on January 23, 2020

The final speaker for the proposition was Dr Jeanne Morefield, a senior lecturer in political theory at the University of Birmingham and the author of Empires Without Imperialism: Anglo-American Decline and the Politic of Deflection and Covenants Without Swords: Idealist Liberalism and the Spirit of Empire.

She announced from the beginning that she was coming at the motion from a democratic socialist perspective. Thus she supported the liberal commitment to "human rights, democracy and freedom of speech".

But the history of liberalism includes "rationalising mass violence" and "destabilising democracy".

She added: "Substantively, all we can know about liberalism is what people who call themselves liberals have done in its name", and this includes colonialism and genocide.

The British Empire, after all, was a "liberal project, championed by self-described liberalism". Liberalism, in short, allows individuals to rationalise bad deeds.

Rounding off the debate was the final speaker for the opposition. Bill Emmott, formerly the editor-in-chief of The Economist. He noted that most successful countries are, in some way, "liberal", and that liberalism is "an essentially humble philosophy".

Liberalism accepts, unlike the socialist command economy, that "we are not omniscient", "we do not know how to direct the economy to a specific aim", and "we do not know how to direct other countries in a particular way".

He agreed with Jacob Rose about the capacity of liberalism to be self-critical and self-improving, saying that liberalism is "our way of correcting our errors – and without it, we will fail".

At the end of the debate, the ayes had 41 votes, the noes 72, and there were four abstentions. The noes won the day, and this House therefore does not believe liberalism has failed us.

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