Conrad Russell’s “An Intelligent Person’s Guide To Liberalism”

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Back in 2014, I read Conrad Russell’s “An Intelligent Person’s Guide To Liberalism” (not for the first time) and wrote a series of posts about it and the themes within it for my blog. As the blog now seems to have joined the book in the ‘very hard to find and read without a lot of effort’ category, I thought I’d repost those original blog entries here so others could see them, as I think they’re useful as part of a discussion about what liberalism means in the here and now. This is the original post I wrote on the book as a whole, I’ll add links to the others in the series at the end of it.

As those of you who follow me on Twitter will have already seen, I’ve recently re-read Conrad Russell’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide To Liberalism. It was originally published in 1999 as part of a series of ‘Intelligent Person’s Guide To…’, though they now seem to be out of print and are hard to find. I found it a fascinating read, and as it is so hard to find, I thought I’d try and provide a summary of it, which will hopefully prompt some other thoughts.

Russell acknowledges from the start that trying to capture every variety of Liberalism in a short book like this would be a fool’s errand, and so takes as his key focus ‘the ideas that have given continuity to the Liberal Party in its various forms since 1679′ though ‘this is not to claim that there has ever been a time when all liberals were in the Liberal Party’. That starting date is not arbitrary — in his academic career, Russell was a historian of the English Civil War and its surrounding issues, and he sees British liberalism emerge as a distinct position in the aftermath of those conflicts and their focus on the rights and responsibilities of rulers, subjects and citizens. Russell doesn’t depict liberalism as an abstract ideology, but one that emerged and adapted over the centuries.

This view sees liberalism as an ideology with core principles that have grown and developed. He uses the imagery of an onion: ‘a series of outer leaves growing tightly around a central heart’. For Russell, ‘Liberalism is and remains largely about power’ — how it can be justified and how it can be controlled:

The principle that the people are superior to their government, and it can only exist with their consent, is the through line Russell uses to link the original Whigs of 1679 to the modern Liberal Democrats but ‘an apparently simple general principle, if held firmly and as a central conviction, turns out to have all sorts of implications of which its founders were unaware.’

He’s clear that this control of executive power by the people is not achieved solely by elections: ‘It is not enough to claim we have an ascending theory of power if it comes up from the people once every five years, and then comes down again in a five-year uncontrollable avalanche from Downing Street.’ This is why British liberalism has had a long interest in reforming the way the British government works, to ensure that the people can properly hold their government to account. Government must rest on consent, and the systems by which government is carried out must demonstrate that consent, not assume it.

Building from that first principle of consent and controlling power, Russell then moves on to the implications that come from it in developing liberal thought. His next key principle is pluralism, which serves a double purpose in representing both a plurality of power and a ‘cult of diversity’ which ‘defends the rights of the under-privileged, whoever they happen to be at the time.’ These both come from the principle of ‘equality before the law’, resulting in a liberal vision where power is dispersed amongst various bodies to enable ‘our instinctive preference…for devolving power downwards whenever possible, for returning power towards the people who are its source.’ But for that plurality of power to have meaning, individuals must be free to exercise their role in it, and Russell here traces a Liberal history of opposing and overturning discrimination from Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration, through removing restrictions on Nonconformists, Jews and others to modern campaigns over sexuality. Russell here advocates an activist liberalism that helps to deliver on its promises but is also aware that there may be battles yet to come which we have not imagined yet, though in these Liberals will find themselves fighting for the underdog.

It’s that principle of standing up for the underdog that runs through Russell’s examination of liberal views on the economy where he holds that liberalism does not have a consistent economic philosophy because as an ideology it’s more concerned with power and pluralism than money or class: ‘a gut commitment to equal competition with a gut commitment to support the underdog…was the mentality Liberals brought into the task of acquiring an economic policy.’ He rejects the idea that laissez-faire was or is an intrinsically liberal idea, but instead one that could be used at certain times in history to bring about liberal ends. Nineteenth century liberals supported free trade to improve the lives of the poor and to attack monopolies and the unaccountable power of the great landlords: ‘abuse of power…had never been confined to the power of the state.’ Even in the nineteenth century, liberals advocated using the power of the state to empower individuals even before Hobhouse and the New Liberalism.

The next layer of liberalism Russell introduces is internationalism. He looks at how Gladstone’s support of nationalism and national liberation stemmed from the principle of consent, and how nationalism and liberalism then diverged in the early twentieth century, leading to the awareness ‘of the limits of the nation state as a means of tackling international problems’. Liberal internationalism goes back to the principle of controlling power — if nation states are not capable individually of controlling abuses of power on a global level, then they must work together to achieve it: ‘We have always believed in plural centres of power, and we have believed for a long time that human rights and other issues create norms of international conduct whose authority goes well beyond any one sovereign state.’ However, he also warns against attempting to create liberal utopias by fiat because ‘there is no alternative to consent.’ Any liberal international order has to be built piecemeal and on that principle, not by deciding what our personal utopia may be and working backwards from there to make it happen, no matter how desirable it may seem: ‘Desperate need for haste does not make it possible to do a job faster than it can be done. The route by consent may be painfully slow, but it is the only route which does not become dictatorial and therefore self-defeating.’

Following on from internationalism, Russell then turns to the liberty of the individual, again looking at how liberal principles on this began with Locke in the 17th century, and were then developed further, expanding from religion to more general morality, with the ideas of John Stuart Mill:

Russell is at his strongest and most instinctively liberal in this section, asserting that ‘We believe there is no one right way to live, and, provided that they do no harm to others, people are normally best left alone to make such decisions for themselves.’ He covers a whole range of social and ‘moral’ issues and one section makes it clear that had he lived, he would have welcomed equal marriage as he points out that it causes no harm to others. He discusses the harm principle, and looks at how to determine when an activity causes meaningful harm to others, and can thus be prevented or limited, but also acknowledges the complexity of the issue and its inability to be completely resolved in the space he has available. However, he rejects the idea that morality can be enforced upon others without their consent: ‘Our purpose in politics is not to get people to live in some single right way, but to help them to live in the way they think is right.’

Finally, Russell looks at Green Liberalism and other ideas that may come to be a fuller part of liberalism in years to come. Reading this section was a strong reminder of how far we’ve come in the past fifteen years in the recognition of global climate change as a threat, but also how little work has been done to marry together green and liberal philosophies. Russell rests on sustainability as the liberal watchword in environmental issues, harking back to the idea that power is a trust granted by the people, and one of the key duties of a trustee ‘is to hand on the inheritance to the next generation in as good a shape as he can leave it.’ However, sustainability cannot just be a simple term to plaster on to anything and everything, and Russell invokes the liberal traditions of controlling power and internationalism to assert the need for joint action to confront those powers that may damage our environment.

He also looks at the power of globalisation, and wonders what the liberal position on this should be. It’s perhaps one area where this book has become quite dated in just fifteen years, as there’s no consideration of the effects of the internet and the communications revolution, but he does sketch out some interesting challenges for liberalism in the face of the rise of unaccountable global powers, and how challenges to that power need to be built on consent.

This has turned into a much longer post than I expected it to be, but I could have (and still may) written much more on each of the subjects Russell explores in his exploration of liberalism. However, in the way he constructs his vision of liberalism as a combination of history and philosophy, building from the initial core of controlling executive power, I think he sets out one of the best explorations of and arguments for liberalism. It’s a shame that this book has fallen out of print, as I think it deserves a much wider audience, and still today provides a great basis for discussing the past and future of liberalism.

Further posts in this series:
1: Controlling executive power
2: Pluralism and power
3: Diversity
4: The economy
5: Internationalism and utopias
6: Individual liberty
7: Green liberalism
Thoughts in conclusion

Many, many things. PhD student at QMUL. Councillor. Ran the 2019 London Marathon for Brain Research UK. @nickjbarlow on Twitter.

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