The word liberal has rather different connotations in the USA compared to the UK with the flexibility of the word probably having more to do with the respective cultures than different dictionary definitions. Here in Britain liberal can have a lowercase or uppercase L depending whether reference is being made to liberal values or the Liberal political party (Liberal Democrats since 1988). As with so much in recent times however, from films being called movies, to abbreviating“24 hours a day, seven days a week” to 24/7, the modern British meaning of liberal seems to be borrowed from the United States. In this particular case, in an attempt to insult. More specifically, the term liberal elite, has now crept into the British political lexicon used not only by the occasional rabid Daily Mail reader but by the Prime Minister herself.
If someone put a gun against my head and demanded to know my politics then I’d describe myself as an intellectual liberal (both in lowercase). Intellectual in the sense that I have been educated to higher degree level, I was an academic (before I retired) and I rarely take anyone’s word for an assertion, rather than wanting some level of rational argument on which to back it up. I am liberal in respect of how it became defined during the age of the enlightenment, emphasising reason, individualism (rejecting unquestionable authority of religion or monarchies), championing freedom, liberty, science, tolerance, equality (or at least equity) and informed democracy. Liberalism favours free market economies but I’d add the caveat that free does not mean unregulated. So, I wondered, how did intellectual liberal transmogrify into liberal elite? And indeed, am I a liberal elite? In true intellectual fashion, I looked hard at this question.
I have occasionally been accused of parodying the“Four Yorkshireman Sketch” when I talk about my childhood. In the sketch, four successful Yorkshire businessmen look back at their upbringing and try to outdo the other in respect to how hard a life they used to have. “You were lucky to have a house,” says one of the Yorkshireman, “we had to live in hole in’t ground covered with tarpaulin, but it was a house to us.”
It is true that as a child I didn’t have to live in a hole in’t ground, but I did live in a house with no bathroom, a toilet outside in the yard, and a bath situated in the kitchen next to the only water supply. My mother never worked because of poor health and my father worked in a factory making cables. The family income was sufficiently low that I got free school meals and clothing vouchers. My immediate family did not value education and I left a really rather bad Secondary Modern school at 17 years old with just four GCEs to become a trainee gas-fitter at what was then the British Gas Board. By a rather convoluted route I eventually got to university where I obtained a degree in biochemistry and then a PhD. Since that time I have had an enjoyable and moderately successful career in science and ultimately, at different times, obtained three honorary professorships, one at the Medical University of Vienna, one at Duke University in the USA and the third at the University of Lincoln in the UK. From being one of the great unwashed (and I was unwashed - with a bath situated in the kitchen) to now being accused of being a liberal elite. How times have changed.
Perhaps it’s because of my upbringing that I find the term liberal elite so insulting. There was nothing elite about my childhood; no family fortune, no private schooling or conveyer belt to Oxford or Harvard. It seems that we have entered a time where the real elite have highjacked our democracy. They blame our current political woes on the liberal elite because those doing the highjacking are not liberals in any sense of the word but they are certainly a highly privialaged minority. Be it Trump in the USA or Farage or Johnson in the UK, they play on the lowest common denominator, such as immigration, or continually repeat their political catchphrase such as “project fear” or "make (insert pet cause here) great again". Then when the going gets tough and those liberals challenge them on their facts, they dismiss them with a, “we’ve had enough of the experts,” or “I love the uneducated.”
It is this wider perspective on the political direction that I find particularly disturbing because to stop thinking simply hands over the world to a self-interested elite. So I am proud to be a liberal (with a lowercase l) and I can’t stop being an intellectual (question everything) because the opposite is, frankly, just not being human. But I am certainly not elite.