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Richard Reeves: Have yourself a merry liberal Christmas

December 24, 2012

Christmas is a communitarian dream. Families reassemble and play out their own traditions. Carols are sung. Cards are sent to friends. Neighbours are invited around for a mince pie. Presents are exchanged, destroying around $13 billion of economic value in the US alone, since many are unwanted. But the point is the reciprocity symbolism of the exchange, not the use value of the gift. And all this in honour of a religious event, the birth of Christ.

But what about us liberals? Christmas combines in one package a number of elements that make us bristle. Religion, especially of an organised variety. Tradition for the sake of itself. The insanity of present buying. And semi-tyrannical familial expectations. Isaiah Berlin reminded us that we can be deprived of our liberty at the hands of our family. He didn’t mean they can literally incarcerate us: though it might feel like that to some this week. He meant that the attitudes and prejudices of our own families can limit our capacity to be ourselves.

One liberal reaction to all this is to simply grin and bear it. For the rest of the year, we can hang out with the friends or partners of our own selection. Most of us can go to jobs of our own choice. We can ignore religion. All this faith, family, tradition stuff can be safely indulged in for a few days, before we return to the liberal 51 weeks of the year. There can’t be a liberal Christmas.

But bristling and bearing won’t really do. Liberal hostility to faith, family, community and tradition is well founded; they can all inhibit individual freedom. But the truth is that the communitarians are right to say that this is also where many of us draw our sense of identity. Social institutions provide the framework in which individuals are formed, and lead their lives. As the wonderful Gerry Cohen once put it, justice and freedom are not just found in structures, but in “the social ethos…the attitudes people sustain in the thick of daily life”.

What this means is that liberalism cannot retreat to the defence of abstract institutions like the rule of law, markets and human rights. Liberalism needs a liberal culture, as well as liberal institutions. And culture is generated by families, communities, religions: in the thick of everyday life. This was one of Jo Grimond’s great themes, as I’ve written for the current issue of the IPPR’s Juncture magazine. For him, the great mistake of liberals in the middle of the century had been to “forget that man is a social animal” and veer off towards a stark individualism that was out of step with the founders of British liberalism. But unlike his Labour colleagues, he did not believe that the “state knows what it right and will pursue it and the individual will not…If we must have high-sounding phrases I prefer liberty and fraternity to equality”.

So Grimond did not look to the state to generate the conditions for a liberal society: “Responsibility rests with the people – Government is residual”. He was adamant that it was up to each of us to determine what to make of our lives. So Grimond’s liberalism was neither state liberalism nor laissez-faire liberalism. His was a civic liberalism, certain that individuals had to “fix the ends of human existence”, but attentive to the social and economic institutions – “fraternity” – through which, in the thick of everyday life, each of us will make our way.

Grimond wrestled with an ancient liberal dilemma: how to support social and community institutions, while protecting the right of individuals to determine their own ends. These institutions can oppress. But they can also liberate. Liberal families will demonstrate gender equality in action and promote the opportunities of the next generation through successful parenting. Liberal families will gather out of real desire, not just gritted-teeth duty. And a well raised child will lead a more autonomous, purposeful, animated life: in other words, a more liberal one. Liberal faith groups will fight – like the Quakers and Reform Jews – for gay marriage and global justice. Liberal communities will deter crime, look our for each others’ kids and welcome individuals and families of every colour, faith and sexuality.

Civic liberalism is not a concession to conservatism on matters of community, family and faith. Rather, it throws down the gauntlet to fight for them, too. We need to liberalise not only our political institutions, but our social institutions. A liberal Christmas: why not?

Richard Reeves is an associate director of CentreForum and former director of strategy to the deputy prime minister.

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