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15 March 2018

Is muscular liberalism on steroids?

Is muscular liberalism on steroids?

‘Muscular liberalism’ is a phrase which has prompted some discussion in recent weeks. Framed as the opposite of weak and passive multiculturalism, the term rose to prominence under David Cameron, who said in a 2011 speech:

“Frankly, we need a lot less of the passive tolerance of recent years and a much more active, muscular liberalism. A passively tolerant society says to its citizens, as long as you obey the law we will just leave you alone. It stands neutral between different values.”

This speech marked the start of controversial proposals around countering extremism. And last month, Head of Ofsted Amanda Spielman echoed Cameron when she said:

“Rather than adopting a passive liberalism that says ‘anything goes’ for fear of causing offence, schools leaders should be promoting a muscular liberalism. That sort of liberalism holds no truck for ideologies that want to close minds or narrow opportunity.”

As we deal with the terror plots that have been uncovered in the past year, such an approach sounds attractive. Just as we all want to be strong, so we all like the image of a strong, muscular liberal society. It is an image of confidence in our values and willingness to protect those in need. Who can be against policies that seek to bring this about?

This is where some political metaphors can be dangerous. Very subtly, they close down our options so that only one sensible choice seems to remain. As currently used, ‘muscular liberalism’ presents the image of only two kinds of society: strong and weak. By extension, some policies (such as creating new regulation) are strong whereas others (such as using existing powers or tolerating differences) are weak. And no-one wants to look weak.

However, as ever, things are more complex. In fact we can push the analogy with muscular strength a little further, as we know there is a dark side to excessive focus on physical strength. In the same way that insecurity around strength can lead to dangerous quick fixes like the abuse of steroids, so in the development of a strong society we can also be tempted by easy solutions. If we want to use the ‘muscular’ analogy properly, we need to beware of such quick fixes for society too.   

This, in essence, is why so many proposals made by advocates of ‘muscular liberalism’ over the past few years have failed to win supporters and become law. It is not enough to ask whether we want a strong society – we also need to ask where the muscles are coming from, and what the side-effects are. To be blunt, many proposals made around counter-extremism and elsewhere are more akin to steroid abuse than circuit training for our society.

Let’s look at the parallels in more detail. First, steroids build visible muscle very quickly, but visible muscle is not the same as balanced functional strength. Likewise, a recurring concern about policies to promote ‘muscular liberalism’ has been that they often focus on impressive new powers for Government rather than on implementing existing law or supporting longer-term action. Examples of such shows of strength have included calls for registration and inspection of out-of-school settings by Ofsted, an oath for holders of public office and bans on certain speakers. However, it has always been unclear why long-term investment in our law enforcement and education systems would not be a better use of time and money.

Secondly, while genuine strength allows you to stand up for yourself when necessary, steroid abuse is linked to heightened aggression and violent mood swings. Likewise, while a strong society will take action against those who break the law, proposals to build ‘muscular liberalism’ have targeted an ever-widening circle of groups who hold peaceful opinions. For example, when the Government brought forward its counter extremism strategy, the Joint Committee on Human Rights voiced concern that new powers:

“…could be used indiscriminately against groups who espouse conservative religious views (including evangelical Christians, Orthodox Jews and others), who do not encourage any form of violence.“

Indeed, counter-extremism proposals have been perceived as quite aggressive and disproportionate by peaceful faith communities. Such a perception destroys trust and reduces society’s strength rather than boosting it.

So questioning these wide-ranging proposals to tackle extremism doesn’t mean desiring a weak or relativistic society. It also doesn’t mean pretending there are no problems to solve. It means we want strength to come gradually and naturally, rather than through heavy-handed quick fixes. As we enter a new set of debates about the role of Ofsted, the importance of integration and the remit of a new commission for countering extremism, we hope that the Government and wider society will avoid the steroidal quick fix and instead pursue the more patient road to a genuinely strong liberal society.

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