Liberalism in United Kingdom
Liberalism: Modern Liberalism:
Introduction to Liberalism
In England in the 17th century, during the Great Rebellion, Englishmen in the New Model Army of Parliament began to debate liberal ideas concerning extension of the suffrage, parliamentary rule, the responsibilities of government, and freedom of conscience. The controversies of this period produced one of the classics of liberal thinking, Areopagitica (1644), a treatise by the poet and prose writer John Milton in which he advocated freedom of thought and expression. One of the opponents of liberal thinking, the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, contributed significantly to liberal theory, although he favored strong and even unrestrained government. He argued that the sole test of government was its effectiveness rather than its basis in religion or tradition. Hobbes’s pragmatic view of government, which stressed the equality of individuals, opened the way to free criticism of government and the right to revolution, ideas that Hobbes himself opposed. See British Political and Social Thought.” (1)
Notes and References
Guide to Liberalism
British Political and Social Thought: 19th-Century Liberalism
Introduction to Liberalism
Two fundamental historical developments shaped British social and political thought in the 19th century: the rise of democracy and the industrial revolution. Britain extended the right to vote to virtually all adult men by 1867. The rise of political parties and mass circulation newspapers opened up the political process even more to popular participation and the play of public opinion. Meanwhile, the transformation of Britain from an agrarian to an industrial, factory-based economy overturned traditional patterns of life.
John Stuart Mill in On Liberty (1859) expressed concern about the new emphasis on public opinion and the participation of ordinary people in politics. Mill feared that what he termed the tyranny of the majority would threaten individual rights, especially the rights to think, hold beliefs, and speak about unpopular or unconventional topics. No law, however strongly backed by the popular will, should interfere with the rights of individuals unless it prevents actions that harm or injure others. Free expression never harmed another and thus should never be constrained by government, he wrote. Mill also opposed laws that attempted to police the morals and beliefs of others, as long as these beliefs or practices, which Mill considered private issues, led to no physical harm.
Mill and other 19th-century British liberals also opposed government intervention in the economic realm, despite increasingly strong demands to curtail the brutality and hardship of labor in factories. As industry developed in Britain, many social reformers called upon the British government to regulate hours of work, wages, health, and sanitation in the factories and in society. Over time, much new legislation imposed restrictions on factory owners. The principal opponents of such industrial legislation were the so-called Manchester liberals, named after the primary industrial city in Britain. Their central text, Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776), argues that the growth and development of the economy occur most efficiently when the government does not intervene.
The Manchester liberals’ doctrine of laissez-faire, or noninterference in trade, sat well with the Lockean ideal of limiting the government’s function to protecting rights and property. Economist Richard Cobden promoted completely free trade as the ideal policy and urged governments to drop all tariff restrictions, which he believed inhibited the free and natural flow of trade. Social philosopher Herbert Spencer, the 19th century’s most vigorous opponent of governmental regulation, related the ideal of unregulated economic life to scientist Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Spencer argued that business operates best as a struggle for the survival of the fittest. He believed that government legislation intended to assist the poor would inhibit the evolution of civilization, punishing the fit to prop up the unfit.” (1)