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Two Speed Liberalism
07 Feb, 2021

A recent podcast featuring Professor Rob Ford of Manchester University addressed the contradiction that, whilst some groups argue passionately for more conservative approaches in society, as a whole, society is becoming more liberal - which suggests that these tactics aren’t really working.


Ford suggests that this is a result of what he calls ‘two speed liberalism’- whilst society as a whole is thankfully becoming more liberal, everyone is moving at different speeds.

Typically, better-off, better-qualified city dwellers are at the more liberal end of the spectrum; whilst those who are less well-off, with a lower level of formal qualifications and living in smaller towns or places with more homogenous communities, are at the less liberal end. Critically, though, most people are more liberal than the previous generation. We only have to look at comedies from the 1970s and 1980s to see how attitudes have changed.

This has important implications for us as we seek to build support for a close relationship with the EU, and perhaps for rejoining in time. Most of us, I expect, will see ourselves as more liberal, and Brexit and its supporters as in opposition to this. Indeed, there is something illiberal about withdrawing from a system of international co-operation, and the elevation of ‘the will of the people’ is a typical illiberal tactic. There also seems to be a strong streak of cultural conservatism in Brexit’s most vocal supporters.

But if most people, whatever their background, feel that they are more liberal than their parents’ generation, then it must be galling, and perhaps a little insulting, to effectively be accused of not being ‘liberal enough’. Most of us, I’m sure, will have felt the resentment of feeling that we have tried our best at something, only to be told that it wasn’t good enough.

So if we are to build our case, then we need to stop making judgments, and focus on values which as wide a range of people as possible can share. It is  noticeable, for example, that the huge strides in rights for same-sex couples which have been achieved in recent years came after the arguments became about the shared experiences of love and companionship, and less about more abstract concepts of equality. Sarah Dodgson has written eloquently on the Grassroots for Europe website about how such an approach can win over Leave voters without complex arguments about trade or pooling sovereignty.

We also need to avoid falling into the trap of labelling our opponents as a homogenous mass, based on the attributes of the worst of them. Hillary Clinton’s ‘basket of deplorables’ statement in 2016, whilst heartfelt, only served to alienate some voters, who then thought that Trump spoke more for people like them. Joe Biden’s more inclusive approach seems to have persuaded enough former Trump voters to back him. There are some unpleasant attitudes and characters in the Brexit movement, but tarring everyone with the same brush will not win us any friends.

Furthermore, as people start to notice, and complain about, the negative consequences of Brexit, we need to resist the temptation to say ‘I told you so’. Given the vilification we have suffered from over the past five years, we can perhaps be forgiven for indulging in a little schadenfreude, but ‘I told you so’ is one of the more unhelpful phrases in the English language. No-one appreciates having their mistakes pointed out and being made to feel bad.

Of course, none of this is easy. Some of Brexit’s most vocal supporters have behaved appallingly over the last few years, and we’ve ended up with an extreme form of Brexit. It is only human to feel bitterness and betrayal, and this will take time to overcome. Perhaps the best we can hope for is to come to terms in our own way with any personal issues of this sort, whilst developing a more inclusive approach for general arguments.

Society is moving in our direction, but everyone is moving at different speeds. Unless we avoid these pitfalls, we risk reinforcing a ‘them and us’ mentality, which the opposition will always be able to exploit mercilessly.

Using a more inclusive approach, however, based on shared values, dilutes this risk, meaning we are far more likely to be able to persuade people to our cause.  This is not just about being kind to people; it is smart tactics as well. No-one’s views are immovable, and we can and should attempt to change people’s minds.

Polls consistently show more people think that, in hindsight, it was wrong to leave the EU than those who think it was right, although there is not yet an overwhelming majority of this view. Our task over the next few years is to persuade these, along with the ‘don’t knows’ and some of those who believe it was the right decision, to a position of wanting a close alignment with the EU, and ultimately to a position of wanting to rejoin – and then, when the time is right, to take our opportunity to do so.

George Stevenson

London4Europe blogs are edited by Nick Hopkinson, Vice-Chair. Articles on this page reflect the views of the author and not necessarily of London4Europe.

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Andy Pye
published this page in Latest blogs 2021-02-07 18:08:11 +0000