Author: Paul Hindley

From Trump’s America to Putin’s Russia and from Bolsonaro’s Brazil to the streets of Hong Kong, liberalism faces its greatest challenge in decades. The future of viable liberal democracy in some EU member states is in doubt, as Poland and Hungary lurch towards authoritarianism. While Brexit Britain has become the poster boy for the world’s populist nationalists.

The populist nationalists frame liberalism as remote and uncaring, even alien to the lives of most voters, and claim it does not value community and that it is inherently elitist. Liberalism is not elitist. Its driving mission is to challenge political elitism and unjustified privilege. Far from being uncaring, liberals in Britain and America designed social welfare policies to ensure a more equitable distribution of wealth for the poorest members of society. The point of this populist nationalist myth is to disguise the assault on the very liberties and equal rights that liberalism embodies.

The recent discourse about citizens of somewhere versus citizens of nowhere has helped to epitomise the view that liberalism believes in an atomised nihilistic form of individualism. This is where individuals have no conception of morality and are removed from having ties to a particular community or form of social reality; that liberals value nothing beyond the individual. The liberal-communitarian debate in the political philosophy literature since the 1970s has focused on whether the priority in society should be a liberal conception of rights or a communitarian conception of the good; the rights of the individual versus the good of the community.

If liberalism was just a philosophy of atomised nihilistic individualists, then it probably would not warrant much support. The new liberal tradition (not to be confused with neoliberalism) that began to emerge in the UK towards the end of the 19th century in the writings of Thomas Hill Green placed equivalent value on both the individual and community. The new liberalism formed the intellectual backbone of the Edwardian Liberal welfare reforms of the Asquith and Campbell-Bannerman Governments.

The greatest articulation of this political tradition came in Leonard Trelawney Hobhouse’s most well-known work Liberalism. Hobhouse wrote that “liberty without equality is a name of noble sound and squalid result”. [1] He argued that “social and individual factors” should exist in harmony with each other, “we constantly define the rights of the individual in terms of the common good, and think of the common good in terms of the welfare of all the individuals who constitute a society.”[2] The new liberalism (what later became called social liberalism) advocated for both a traditional liberal conception of rights but also a communitarian conception of the good.[3] Indeed, for the new liberal thinkers they were of equivalent importance and mutually beneficial for one another.

A liberal community would be one that celebrates diversity and where the general welfare of those living in the community was upheld. Each member of the community would have access to resources such as basic wealth, healthcare, education, fair employment opportunities and access to the arts and culture. It would foster a liberal and democratic political culture, which respected everyone’s innate individual rights, tolerated difference and which believed in the community coming together to use democratic political power to uphold and improve its welfare.

This would contrast markedly with the populist nationalist understanding of community. The populist nationalist concept of community is a defence of nation, national identity and national history and often a defence of the interests of majority groups. While claiming to pit the populace against the elite, populist nationalists actually seek to become the new elite, legitimised by claims to be speaking for the nation. To be successful, this kind of politics must pit one national identity against another. In reality, populist nationalism does not value community, it values social division. Together, populism and nationalism generate hatred and mistrust towards international organisations, immigrants and other minority groups. If Liberals abandon a politics of community and belonging, this kind of politics can win. Communitarian liberalism[4] has the potential to offer a response, as it seeks to bring people closer together by creating a sense of inclusive community identity and a common enterprise, contesting the populist nationalist effort to drive them further apart.

Liberalism needs to provide people with a sense of belonging and to give them a stake in their societies. This stake needs to be political by giving every adult citizen an equal vote under proportional representation. It needs to be socio-economic with everybody receiving a universal citizens’ income that would guarantee a social minimum for all. Finally, the stake needs to be legal by not just enshrining political and civil rights into law, but also fundamental social rights. I have previously called for the enactment of a Social Rights Act.[5] Amongst these social rights could include the right to be paid a liveable wage; the right to food; the right to a liveable standard of housing; and the right to secure terms of employment. Together this stake would represent the guaranteed political, legal and socio-economic articles of citizenship. It would embody a liberal defence of individual rights which were grounded in belonging to a wider community.

Liberals equipped with communitarianism and a strong commitment to social citizenship need to engage with those communities which have been left behind by the economic prosperity of the last few decades. Those with the least amount of wealth and the least opportunities are often those with the least personal freedom. What future is there for liberalism if populist nationalists can speak for the poorest members of society, but liberals can only speak for the richest members of society? Liberalism is important for all members of society regardless of whether they are jobseekers in Redcar or business managers in Kensington.

Communitarian liberalism would be the social glue which would bind together different sections of society and provide citizens with a sense of belonging to one progressive community. Liberal citizens are not citizens of nowhere, they are citizens of everywhere rooted in somewhere. They are proud of the progressive achievements of their country while recognising that more needs to be done to expand personal freedom and reduce longstanding inequalities of all kinds. They value their local communities, as well as their country’s role in the international community. They also recognise that a progressive holistic approach is necessary to build a liberal sense of community that values everyone’s rights, liberties and personal welfare.

Liberals must make it clear that they value community and that a liberal society depends on everyone having a sense of belonging. If liberals everywhere can rediscover the social liberal commitment to community, then it would dispel once and for all the populist nationalist myth that liberalism is elitist and uncaring.

Paul Hindley is a member of the Social Liberal Forum Council and a Politics PhD student at Lancaster University.


[1] Hobhouse, L. T. (2009 [1911]) Liberalism. Middlesex: The Echo Library. Page 34.

[2] Ibid. Page 78.                                                

[3] For an excellent political philosophical overview of this, see Simhony, Avital and Weinstein, David (2001) The New Liberalism: Reconciling Liberty and Community. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[4] The term “communitarian liberalism” is taken from Ibid. Page 10.

[5] Hindley, Paul (2018) “Social rights at the seaside: giving left behind communities a stake in society” in Flynn, Helen (2018) Four Go In Search of Big Ideas: Putting Progressive Ideas at the Heart of UK Politics. Social Liberal Forum. Pages 87-94.

Share this page to spread the word.
Share Tweet