Redefining Liberalism in the Face of 21st Century Challenges and Opportunities

The 18th Dudley Senanayake Memorial Lecture delivered by Gordon Mackay, Secretary General of Liberal International, on September 14, 2018 in Colombo, Sri Lanka
Redefining Liberalism in the Face of 21st Century Challenges and Opportunities  The 18th Dudley Senanayake Memorial Lecture delivered by Gordon Mackay, Secretary General of Liberal International, on September 14, 2018 in Colombo, Sri Lanka

I bring warm greetings from the international liberal family as we memorialise the life and work of one of the liberalism’s great sons, Dudley Senanayake.  I am deeply honoured to be able to have been chosen to speak here today and recall that I follow in the footsteps of my former party leader, Zach De Beer, who delivered the third Memorial Lecture in 1991 as well Lord John Alderdice, the Liberal Democrat Peer and former president of Liberal International - the organisation I represent today as Secretary General - who delivered the 11th memorial lecture in 2008.

On a Personal Note

I would like to start on a personal note and explain my own very personal connection to Dudley Senanayake who played a critical role in shaping my thinking and subsequent development as a liberal:  I was not and perhaps never have been a natural liberal.

I was born in 1981 at the height of the final chapter of apartheid – a period characterised by rolling mass action and violence by the state against its citizens. In the face of this violence the parliamentary resistance offered by the Liberals seemed tepid and ineffective. Liberals at the time also retained a position of a qualified franchise – something which would change by the mid 1980s – but something which lingered in the minds of anti-apartheid activists and would leave many natural liberals outside of liberal politics.

The intellectual and spiritual home of anti-apartheid resistance was therefore the African National Congress to which many liberals belonged and supported. This liberal influence has some success in permeating that ANC and was most evidently on display during the peace negotiations of the early 1990s seeing the ANC take many liberal positions including support for and development of the Bill of Human Rights which lies at the very heart of South Africa’s liberal constitution.

The attainment of freedom in South Africa following the first historic democratic elections of 1994 was a cathartic and freeing experience. Not only did it end 350 years of colonialism and apartheid. It also freed the minds of South Africans and provided the basis to move beyond old allegiances that held the anti-apartheid movement together.

Feeding this intellectual freedom was of course Tata Nelson Mandela – a contemporary of Dudley Senanayake – who like Dudley Senanayake developed over his life a deep commitment to justice and fair play: an unwavering belief in democracy, the rule of law and freedom of speech and a deep desire to seek out and achieve ethnic amity.

It was at this point, as a young man - newly returned to South Africa after a year abroad in Switzerland - that I was first introduced to Dudley Senanayake as part of a series of lectures offered by graduate students on global liberal thinkers from the Global South.

What grabbed my attention about Dudley Senanayake was a statement he made in his Throne Speech of 22nd April 1960 which has clearly come to define my own personal brand and belief in liberalism:

The words ‘progressive’ and ‘reactionary’ are being bandied about on the floor of this House. What is the criterion by which a measure is judged progressive or reactionary?

Surely any measure that increases the content of individual freedom of persons, be it economic, social, cultural or otherwise, is a progressive measure, and any measure that tends to diminish or inhibit that freedom is reactionary. As there cannot be freedom without economic wellbeing, there cannot be real freedom without political and individual freedom as well.”

It is the last line of this statement which stood out for me then – and it this last line that would later be articulated by my party the Democratic Alliance in its ‘open opportunity society for all’ policy platform in 2006 - that would make it possible for me to finally commit fully to liberalism and the pursuit of liberal values.

For you see, Dudley Senanayake was articulating what many liberals still today fail to grasp – that freedom is not true freedom unless the individual has the wherewithal to use that freedom to attain self-actualisation and live the life that they want to live free from the severe constraints of arbitrary use of state power or poverty.  

Linking individual and economic freedom

Dudley Senanayake’s statement in 1962 linking the development of individual wherewithal to the expression of individual freedom was nothing short of revolutionary to a 19 year old South African who always found classical liberalism irrelevant in a society with more than half its population living in extreme forms of poverty. By linking individual freedom to economic freedom – Dudley Senanayake played a pivotal role for me in developing my thinking around the ideas of societal redress and redistribution. And giving me the intellectual framework in which to decide what the appropriate role of government in society should be.

In a very practical way – it was Dudley Senanayake who made my entry into politics in 2009 possible - first as a city councillor and then a Member of Parliament and member of the shadow cabinet. It has been Dudley Senanayake who first infused my thinking with the ideas of social or progressive liberalism.

Liberalism contested

As liberals we are collectively confronted by a deep contestation of our ideas and values. Voters around the world have started to doubt that the liberal democratic system, built in the generations since World War Two works for them - or that it is even fair. According to polling by The Economist last year, just 36% of Germans, 24% of Canadians and 9% of the French thought that the next generation would be better off than their parents.

Only a third of Americans under 35 say that it is vital they live in a democracy and the share who would welcome military government has doubled to almost 20% since 1995.  

Globally, according to Freedom House, an NGO, civil liberties and political rights have declined for the past 12 years—in 2017, 71 countries lost ground while only 35 made gains.

What accounts for this sharp contestation of liberal values? And what can be done to arrest this decline?

This contestation stems from multiple failures; opinions are divided. What I offer here is my own personal perspective as a liberal politician from the Global South.

First and most self-evident are the systemic failures of the liberal international system.

Economically, the liberal economic architecture constructed after World War Two and which was designed to facilitate globalisation and liberalisation, and which have done much to increase global aggregate wealth has done so on the basis of creating a global underclass and an ever self-enriching elite to whom the greatest gains of trade flow. 

As author Walter Schiedel, author of the new book, ‘The Great Leveller” puts it – “Capitalism is a great means of making the poor less poor, but it also continues to make the rich richer still.”  For the middle and working classes, the Great Recession of 2008 has been a catastrophe and despite low unemployment in the West wage growth is stagnant with the lower and middle classes left ever worse and worse off.

From a security perspective, the global international order has been subject to American revanchism – where in the wake of 9/11 the security alliance of liberal democratic states has been used to destabilise various Middle Eastern and North African regimes that are now so weak that they spew their citizens across the Mediterranean into Europe.

These waves of migration are creating a host of political and social challenges in Europe that are stretching the continent’s commitment to human rights to breaking point. Even in the most liberal of western European states, anti-immigration parties have been elevated to some form of elected office and now work from in the system of government to turn indigenous citizens against migrant new comers.

The second area of the contestation of liberal values is emerging from what The Economist magazine recently called the failure of liberalism to provide leadership and new ideas amid stagnating productivity and the fiscal austerity that followed the financial crisis of 2008.

On a host of critical new challenges facing global society such as climate change, growing income inequality and the challenges of the forth industrial revolution that will see the extinction of up to 80% of existing jobs – liberals have been slow in expounding their views and ideas for creating of a better future for all.

The liberal position on climate justice and climate change is only slowly becoming discernible; on the role of new technologies liberals have yet to explain why the nexus between big government and big tech poses really challenges to basic fundamental human rights and in the area of health care – liberals have completely failed to address the challenge of ever greater medical innovation being accompanied by ever smaller access to these innovations by the middle and lower classes.

The Threat of Identity Politics

A third area of contestation of liberal ideas is at the ideological level with the emergence of “identity politics”. This refers to political positions based not on individual perspectives but rather on the interests and perspectives of social groups with which people identify.

Identity politics can in some instances be a valid response to discrimination. But, as identities multiply, the politics of each group collides with the politics of all the rest. Instead of generating useful compromises, debate becomes an exercise in tribal outrage.

Identity politics therefore threatens individual liberty, as Dr. Michael Cardo puts it, “because it forces the individual to think and act in terms of the group; to require people to conform to an imposed group identity; to mobilise support along racial lines; to assume that people can only be represented by others of the same colour or gender; to employ binary formulations like “whiteness” and “blackness” in the manner of “four-legs-good-two-legs-bad”’. And as we have seen increasingly in the US, to silence dissenting voices, free speech and debate.

Identity politics poses a real threat to liberal values as it fragments the common interest and results in polarisation. This polarisation tends to lead to paralysis in government which undermines faith in democracy – which, as indicated above, seems already to be in terminal decline.

What we learn from Dudley Senanayake?

Sadly, in an age we have a need of intellectual giants and leaders of deep integrity we are burdened with small minded, self-interested and petty leadership. Epitomised by Donald Trump in the US, and reflected in leaders around the globe including Duterte in the Philippines, Erdogan in Turkey and Orban in Hungary with the ever-increasing illiberal governments in China and Russia – liberals could easily become despondent.

But we should not! The reinvention of liberalism is possible. It requires the dual reinvigoration of liberal leadership on the one hand and refreshment of our ideas on the other. We have a plethora of honest and integrous leaders to whom we can look to as guiding lights: Dudley Senanayake is such a leader.  Dudley Senanayake taught us that successful leaders lead by example and must act with unchallenged integrity. This means that liberal leaders must learn to be more honest with the electorate, not selling them a menu of hopes and dreams that cannot be achieved or misleading the public on the complexity of the problems we face. We must be the leaders that speak honestly to the electorate – even when we know the message will not be well received.

Dudley Senanayake insisted on justice and fair play and had an unwavering belief in democracy and the rule of law and an unbreakable commitment to human rights. Liberal leaders must therefore not cower to populist positions that seek to withhold the inherent human rights guaranteed all peoples as part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We must work to fight any and all attempts that seek to create an “other” – and must assert, just as Dudley Senanayake did, that all peoples have the right to dignity and respect and that we are all more similar than we are different.

Our leaders must recommit unambiguously to liberal values. While the best liberals have always been pragmatic – we must not let our pragmatism undermine our fierce commitment to the sanctity of the individual and the creation of an equal society in which all people can reach their full potential – something echoed by Dudley Senanayake in his 1948 Throne speech in which he said:

“The greatest feats of man have been the achievements of a free and unfettered mind. And, under a totalitarian form of government, with all that it implies, with all its ramifications, the mind of man can never be free”.

The Global Liberal Manifesto

In reinvigorating our ideas let us look to the collective work of global liberals who have just last year refined and updated their global liberal manifesto to:

  • Entrenches the sanctity of human rights;
  • Focus on the strengthening democracy but also increasing support and focus on civil society which has a vital roleto play in maintaining accountable governments;
  • Reasserts the need for freedom of information, expression and the right to privacy – recognising that data and discourse based on objective facts are critical to rational debate and human decision making;
  • Places the promotion of education at the very heart of the liberal concept of freedom and boldly calls for the best & equitable access to health care;
  • For the first time, explicitly recognise the trade-offs between economic growth, sustainability and climate change laying the ground work for positive state intervention alongside open markets and technological innovation in ensuring climate justice for all;
  • Reinvigorate liberal’s belief in human progress and the role of technological advancement in creating wealthier more equal societies while at the same acknowledging the progress and advancement have down sides;
  • Tackle the thorny issue of migration – recognising the immense wealth that is created through global migration and provides guidance on how the proper legal frameworks and human rights protections ensure respect for life and human integrity;
  • And, it recommits liberals to the promotion and facilitation of free trade while addressing the ills of globalisation and the increased need to support co-ordinated international institutions that promote peace and security.

Simply put, the liberal agenda being crafted by global liberals for the 21st century is a dynamic one - alive to possibilities but also acknowledging that all advancements come with winners and losers. It reinforces the belief of Friedrich Hayek who posited that a competitive economy and competitive polity are the ‘only system designed to minimise – via the mechanism of decentralisation – the power exercised by man over man’ noting therefore democracy and open markets are the best safe guards of freedom and human liberty.

It recommits liberals to creating equal societies in which the unequal playing fields are made equal in order to support the individual’s in their process of self-actualisation.

In short – it recommits liberals to the very values held so dear by Dudley Senanayake, namely the pursuit of truth, individual freedom and faith in human progress.