The Apollo Project
Liberal Ideas for the 21st Century
Thursday, August 18, 2005
A utopian, quasi-anarchist, vision
by Peter

Liberals are usually suspicious of the state - prepared to make use of it, but reluctant to give it more respect than it earns. Transcendent models of the state (like nationalism) cause Liberals enormous concern (and so they should). This carries over into Liberal thinking on international relations, where Liberals typically wish to clip the wings of the State. Three nineteenth century figures typify the different strands in Liberal thinking: Cobden, Gladstone and Palmerston.

For Cobden, the essence of foreign policy was peace, and the way to achieve it was to minimise contacts between governments, and maximise the contacts between peoples. Free Trade was the key means to that aim. We seldom remember quite how radical the Manchester Radicals could be: Anthony Howe (In Free Trade and Liberal England 1846 –1946) describes Cobden's "utopian or quasi-anarchist" vision. "Cobden foresaw a Europe without states, not so much a federation as a Europe of municipalities within an international division of labour. In this vision, the democracy that would liberate the peoples of Europe was integrally linked to free trade, just as surely as protection cohabited with aristocracy."

John Bright had very similar views to Cobden (Phil Grant tells me that they only once failed to vote the same way in a Parliamentary division). He was a trenchant critic of the old diplomacy: "The more you examine this matter the more you will come to the conclusion which I have arrived at, that this foreign policy, this regard for the “liberties of Europe,” this care at one time for “the Protestant interests,” this excessive love for “the balance of power,” is neither more nor less than a gigantic system of outdoor relief for the aristocracy of Great Britain."

For Gladstone, international cooperation (through the medium of the Concert of Vienna initially) was the key to sound foreign policy. David Bebbington in The Mind of Gladstone expresses it like this "If the European powers operated together, he argued, the effect was to 'neutralise and fetter and bind up the selfish aims of each' because 'common action is fatal to selfish aims'….What was needed was a 'United Europe', prepared to act against any recalcitrant member of the international community that threw over the traces. Action could ultimately mean coercion, but normally remonstrance would suffice."

Cobden, Gladstone (and especially Bright) were, in many ways, reacting against Palmerston, who has gone down in the history books as the arch practitioner of "gunboat diplomacy" pursuing national interests. He is usually seen as one of the last of the old Whigs. But according to Howe, at the time of the Crimean War "Palmerston's successful pursuit of 'the interests of England'…rallied to his side the flourishing Liberal bourgeoisie, including many of Cobden's erstwhile supporters." He represents an authentic strand in the Liberal tradition.

So Gladstone and Cobden stand for different versions of a moral foreign policy and Palmerston for hard-headed (or short-sighted?) realism.

The moral tradition has been massively important in the history of British liberal thought. It means that Liberals have supported (and continue to support) virtually every international body that might make the relationships between States less anarchic and more social (to use Hedley Bull's terminology). Liberals have supported the League of Nations, and the UN, and are often ready to talk of the prospect of World Government (an odd idea, given that relatively few of the polities that would have to unite are run on liberal lines). The preamble to the party constitution says that

"we will work with other countries towards an equitable and peaceful international order and a durable system of common security. Within the European Community we affirm the values of federalism and integration and work for unity based on these principles. We will contribute to the process of peace and disarmament, the elimination of world poverty and the collective safeguarding of democracy by playing a full and constructive role in international organisations which share similar aims and objectives."

The EU embodies (in principle at least) both Gladstonian and Cobdenite ideas: it is a body that requires European governments to sit down side by side and discuss – multilaterally – their differences and their shared objectives. At the same time, it provides for closer contacts between European peoples, both through trade and migration. For all the faults of the EU, it has made war in Europe unthinkable, and can be seen as a vindication of nineteenth century radical ideas. The weaknesses of the EU are also obvious: it puts legislative power in the hands of the executives of the Member States and a Parliament with little legitimacy; it is too prone to legislate on too many issues; and its budget – if limited – is not well-spent.

Nick Clegg, in his chapter in the Orange Book, recognised these failings and argued that
"the EU must only act where there is a clear cross-border issue at stake, or when collective EU action brings obvious benefits to all member states that they would not be able to secure on their own."

The other international organisations have their weaknesses too. Their legitimacy is still more limited, their resources feeble. Chris Huhne dealt with their deficiencies in his chapter of the Orange Book, but is perhaps too optimistic about the prospects for meaningful reform.

Above all, for both the EU and the other international bodies, Gladstone's conviction that 'common action is fatal to selfish aims' has proven unjustified. The multilateral, open debate within international bodies has been just as contaminated with selfish aims as the old secret, bilateral diplomacy.

Articles of this kind normally call for clarity, for a decision to be taken, for the party to cease to try to serve two masters. My argument is different. I should like the party to be more open to all the strands in liberal thought identified. We cannot let go of the Gladstonian tradition of support for mulitilateral bodies. But we should be clearer on their failings and limitations.

We need to be more ready to mix this with a Palmerstonian ability to speak for British interests and to be robust about achieving them (as indeed Ashdown was prepared to do).

And we need to draw upon Cobden's utopian, quasi-anarchist vision that contacts between peoples rather than governments are the greater guarantee of peace.
posted by Apollo Project @ 10:43 am  
  • At 23 August, 2005 13:50, Blogger Rafe said…

    On the philosophical defence of anarchy and the zero state, let me recommend Jan Lester's book Escape from Leviathan. Of course to get there we need to go by way of the minimum state, so that has to be the short term objective. There is an essay-review of the book at
    this address.

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"What is Liberalism?: I should say it means the acknowledgment in practical life of the truth that men are best governed who govern themselves; that the general sense of mankind, if left alone, will make for righteousness; that artificial privileges and restraints upon freedom, so far as they are not required in the interests of the community, are hurtful; and that the laws, while, of course, they cannot equalise conditions, can at least avoid aggravating inequalities, and ought to have for their object the securing to every man the best chance he can have of a good and useful life." C-B.


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