Modern Liberalism And The UK

Article written by Emily Copper-Smith, edited by Bennett Nightingale and Jake Williams

John Stuart Mill is a figure who offered solutions to the problems of liberal principles in the 19th century, but he also raised other possibilities that later liberals could develop as the course of British society changed over time. His concept of individual freedom began to raise questions about the precise nature of what freedom was. Could humans simply be left alone to pursue their own goals? Could the state guarantee to the poorest equality and support for the benefit of social progression? 

For Mill, we were free if we had no constraints on our actions, so long as we don’t harm others. Say I want to pick up an apple. If I reach out to grab the apple, but someone stops me from doing so, let’s say I’m threatened or physically restrained, I have faced a restraint on my action. In this scenario, so long as I take the threat seriously and I’m not strong enough to break out of the person’s restraint, I am not free. Why? Because being free is having no constraints on our actions, so long as we don’t harm others. For Mill then, freedom is the absence of restraint. 

Over time, this argument has come under attack. Later liberals argue that instead of being the absence of restraint, freedom should be understood as how people can act in a better and more fulfilling way. By giving equal chances and opportunities, people are more likely to lead fulfilling and exciting lives. It is only at this point they are seen to be truly free. This view has come from the ideas of Thomas Hill Green and Leonard Hobhouse, who argued that modern, advanced societies did not support the idea that individuals are completely  independent of one another. For them, it makes no sense to talk of an “absence of restraint”, because no man is an island in our deeply complex and interconnected world.

The nature of modern economics and the societal structure meant that people were increasingly subject to socioeconomic forces beyond their control, which made it difficult for people to achieve self-determination. For these progressive liberals, this meant that social justice was needed if individuals were to enjoy the benefits of freedom and reach their ultimate potential. In other words, it made no sense to talk of freedom when people lived in poverty. The liberal government of 1906-1910 understood this, as Herbert Asquith introduced the 1908 People’s Budget which provided a state pension designed to free people from the financial problems of old age.

The Beveridge Report in 1942 is worth taking notice of in relation to liberal influence. It was labelled as the framework for Britain’s post-war welfare state. Assertions were made that individuals faced many factors threatening their freedom, including poverty, unemployment, poor housing, healthcare, and education. The overall argument was that these threats could only be overcome by a large extension of state provision.

Recent post-war liberals, such as John Rawls, have taken this trend further. They began to justify a substantial role of the state in ensuring individual liberty. It has been believed that only an enlarged and supportive state could truly allow positive freedoms by guaranteeing equality of opportunity. This meant the priority of a modern liberal state was to improve the social and economic conditions of the most deprived citizens in order for them to take control of their lives. For Mill, writing roughly two-hundred years ago, this incredible role for the state in making us free would be unheard of!

The most obvious criticism would be that such a method of state intervention ignores inequality of outcome, which outlines a crucial distinction of modern liberalism from socialism

Key Terms 

Liberalism – A political perspective that takes protecting and enhancing the individual’s freedom as the central issue in politics. 

Socialism – A political, social and economic perspective that holds that the means of production, distribution and exchange should be owned by the community. 

The State – A social organisation that aims to establish order and security, spatially defined by its geographical border. However no undisputed definition exists for word the State.

Government – The organisation of officials running a country or state. (See our “What Is a Government” article for more information). 

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