If liberal Britain is ailing we have only ourselves to blame, says Nick Cohen
Among the few beneficiaries of the Great Crash of 2008 were debt collectors, bailiffs and writers finishing books on the state of the nation. Until the banks fell apart, I was happily compiling Waiting for the Etonians, a collection of essays on how Britain coped with the bubble years. As the title implies, the unifying theme seemed to be that the old ruling class was about to return to power, and the longest period of left-wing government in history was drawing to a close. Not with a bang but a whimper.
Then came the explosive sound of the roof crashing down, and my writing developed a new urgency. The age of globalisation, which began with the fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989, had ended with the fall of Lehman Brothers on 14 September 2008. It was time to compose an obituary.
Forgive me for generalising, but I sense that many writers for and readers of New Humanist will not be sorry to see the back of it. If you were not enjoying vast riches, it is only human to welcome the end of the fantastic and, as we ought to have known all along, thoroughly undeserved rewards, the insane inflation in house prices and the vacuous culture in which Damien Hirst and Kirstie Allsopp celebrated money for nothing and Little Britain and Shameless mocked the poor.
Yet globalisation was not only about enriching bankers and inflating property values. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, it was possible to believe that Immanuel Kant’s dream of enlightened nations living in “perpetual peace” was at last being realised. Liberalism in the form of democracy, open government, free markets, common security and respect for human rights seemed the best and only way for societies to grow and prosper.
Outsiders looking at leftists in the rich world would never have expected them to applaud the thundering market and its inequalities of wealth. But they might have expected us to support the promise of universal human values, and oppose the enemies of freedom when they attempted to roll them back.
Now you can argue with me about why the promise was broken, you can blame it all on George Bush for all I care, but I hope you will agree that this has been a disgraceful period for Western liberalism, possibly its most disgraceful time since the 1930s.
Religious maniacs have banned books, silenced debate, closed exhibitions, sent Muslim free thinkers into hiding and enforced near universal self-censorship with barely a voice raised in protest from liberal England. Meanwhile any idea that liberals ought to be on the side of Iranians who want something better than theocracy, Iraqis who want something better than Saddam Hussein or al-Qaeda, or Palestinians who want something better than Hamas has vanished.
Secularists in the Richard Dawkins mould were comfortable attacking Christian and Jewish extremism, and I had no quarrel with either of those targets, but were unwilling to raise their voices against radical Islam, the most psychopathic anti-liberal ideology since Nazism, and I found it shameful to watch them sink into timidity and evasion.
Writing about an age that has just died allows you to think about what your contemporaries should do next. My conclusion is that liberals and leftists should stick to the best of our principles. We should remember that left to their own devices, unregulated markets will destroy wider society. We should also show an absolute determination to see off those merciless forces which threaten freedom of speech, freedom of conscience and the emancipation of women, and resolve not to appease them for one more minute.