One by one, the pillars upholding liberal Britain are disintegrating

Sherelle Jacobs

Liberal Britain is beginning to collapse. It’s not just the sacredly “neutral” institutions that are in peril, although many of them will struggle to survive the coming decades. Liberal centrists have long sought to tell a highly particular story about our island nation – of the benevolence of a Blairite, technocratic Third Way, of unity in diversity, and of the desirability of a cautious and gradual approach to change. That story is now disintegrating under the weight of its own contradictions.
Just look at the BBC. There are many dimensions to the mess the broadcaster has found itself in since Gary Lineker’s Twitter outburst over the Government’s migration policies. Make no mistake, however: in the eyes of millions, the pundit has once and for all exposed the lie at the heart of the corporation. It is far from being the strictly impartial body it purports to be, dedicated to representing fairly the views of the whole population. Many of its employees evidently think that its rightful role is as a mouthpiece for a particular political creed – one that thinks Britain somehow has a semi-mystical power to absorb and heal the diverse peoples of the world. It may seem facetious to point out that a similar sort of ideology was once upheld by the gentlemen of Union and empire. But there is surely a historical continuity between the early BBC and football royalty’s disgusted invectives against insular Little England. They are part of a civilising tradition – one that is not so much politically neutral but seeks to transcend politics in pursuit of a higher moral cause. Indeed, when John Reith embedded the principle of the BBC as an impartial body, he envisaged an institution answerable to neither government nor necessarily to listeners, but to a loftier calling: cultural uplift and civic nationalism.
True, many of the Beeb’s journalists are genuinely dedicated to presenting current affairs through a neutral lense. Credit must also be given to its director-general, Tim Davie, who attempted to do the right thing by disciplining Lineker. But his firm line could not hold. However it might be dressed up, after the Match of the Day boycott, Lineker’s return to the screens is a BBC climbdown. Conservatives anxious that the Beeb is in hock to a liberal-Left establishment will find their suspicions confirmed. And liberalism’s first mythological pillar – that of its benign leadership by a moderate elite – has been further eroded. Witness also the fury at the increasingly politicised behaviour of the Civil Service. The liberal story’s second pillar – unity in diversity – is in equally serious trouble. For years, liberal Britain has thrived on the country’s perceived capacity to integrate disparate communities, from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to more recent arrivals. Today, however, the notion that the country can indefinitely absorb and assimilate all – or even a satisfactory proportion – of the people that might have a legitimate claim to settle here is unsalvageable.
In the case of legal immigration, public fury is mounting at the extraordinary numbers allowed into the country, in direct contradiction to the promises made by politicians over decades. The social contract is fraying. Particularly offensive is the idea that it is somehow moral to import foreign labour while allowing millions of British people to languish on benefits. In the case of asylum, it is a question of numbers, too. No amount of hand-wringing about the system’s administrative inertia can distract from the problem at the heart of the crisis: the principles that underpin the UN refugee convention are no longer workable. It was enshrined in 1951 on the implicit calculation that most of the world’s displaced people would not – or could not – take up the offer of help. Today, global instability, postcolonial state-building failures, and heightened awareness of opportunities abroad have seen migrant flows relentlessly rise. As Suella Braverman correctly points out, there are now 100 million people around the world entitled to British asylum under international law.
It is ultimately this dilemma that has compelled the Tories to abandon the liberal immigration narrative, as they attempt to pass legislation that will see anyone who enters the country illegally sent back to their country of origin or a third country. On one level, the new law is deeply cynical – No 10 aims to expose the softness of Labour’s immigration stance while pursuing a policy it knows full well it may never implement if it gets tied up in the courts. Still the move, reflected in similar policy shifts across Europe, is a huge break in sentiment from the status quo. The final thread of the liberal story to unravel is that of cautious modernisation – of the desirability of the relative stability of the social market economy and of the inevitability that, if it is “managed” well, living standards will surely rise.
Put simply, a tradition of gradualist progress has made way for one of gradualist decline. Yes, there will be silver linings in the Budget, as the UK economy enjoys a modest rebound. But this cannot distract from the overarching narrative of stagnation. Having endured one lost decade of growth, we are staring down the barrel of another. Neither real wages nor productivity have improved meaningfully since the financial crash. Hope endures that agile tech startups might rescue the country from its sclerosis. But the fact that a bailout for the sector was even considered amid the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank suggests that they are just as likely to entrench the country in its corporate capitalist rut. Perhaps most disturbing of all is the overwhelming defeatism that permeates the ruling class. With Brexit and the Liz Truss experiment having both spectacularly failed to rejuvenate Britain through Schumpeterian shock therapy, the Blob is now committed to overseeing our country’s gentle decline.
In my own view, the implosion of the liberal story is not particularly something to celebrate. It had its hypocrisies, intolerances and downright falsehoods. Perhaps it could never hope to survive in a volatile and divided world. But its demise creates a vacuum, which threatens to tip Britain into a three-way war between Left and Right and alt-centrists over the content of a new national story. We are back in the days of Roundheads and Cavaliers, puritans and heretics, the woke and the heathens, the toffs and the tough. And it threatens to get very ugly.