At some point in the last decade, ‘liberalism’ appears to have become a dirty word. You would imagine that a philosophy rooted in the belief that all are free and equal would be one which most of us would aspire to.
Somehow, though, after a decade in which Parliament passed Bills relating to equality on the basis of age, sex, race, religion, disability and sexual orientation, we appear to have regressed. Suddenly, misogyny, xenophobia and homophobia are thriving.
For all that we decry fundamentalism in its many forms, it’s become absolutely fine to say that we don’t want East Europeans in Britain. We rail against extremists but allow casual prejudice to seep into everyday life.
Since the hung Parliament of 2010 and the establishment of the Coalition Government, a war has been waged on the poor, the weak and the vulnerable. They have been labelled, variously, as ‘lazy’, ‘scroungers’ and ‘parasites’. The welfare state, that safety net which characterises a civilised nation, has been under attack from all quarters. At the same time, Home Office vans bearing the message ‘go home or face arrest’ have been seen on the streets of Britain. The media chorus is of the undeserving leaching off the hardworking. In short, it’s revolting.
I am a staunch liberal. I believe in freedom of thought, expression and speech and the equality of all human beings regardless of any affiliations they may or may not have. I also believe, however, that we have become more accepting of prejudice and hatred and that we wrap these abhorrent views in the veneer of ‘free speech’ to make them palatable and that this is happening in every part of British society. From the tabloid vilification of minorities to George Osborne and Iain Duncan Smith referring to Chris Bryant, an openly gay Labour MP, as a ‘pantomime dame’, bigotry and hatred are alive and well.
You are entitled to dislike people and object to their views. You are also entitled to state your objections. What you are not entitled to do is to insult someone or discriminate against them on the basis of factors such as their poverty, their ethnicity, their disability or their sexuality. To do so is the mark of a bully. Britain appears to have become a nation of bullies in recent years, which is remarkable, really – the Labour Government of 1997-2010 was far from perfect, but it did a great deal to reduce inequality in all its forms. In less than four years, the Coalition has done much to reverse the progress that Labour made. The great shame is that we, the British public, seem to have fallen for it wholesale.