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Could liberal be the most abused word in the English language?

It's one of those

terms that, though once having a very fixed and definite meaning, has become ev
erything to all and something for everyone. A semantic slut, if you like.
This confusion appears only to exist in the English speaking world, however. Whi
le in Canada, Britain and America the word is often used as a vague, wooly hold-
all term to denote a sort of 'socialism-lite', its meaning is very different in
Europe (and to some extent Australia).
It was a time when both liberals and socialists - as different as night and day
in their objectives - were kept out of the conservative and often absolutist est
ablishment in Europe. In Britain and her dominions however, they were the establ
The European tradition of Liberalism, best demonstrated in parties such as the G
erman Free Democrats ('Die Liberalen') and the Swiss Free Democrats/Liberals ('L
es Libéraux-Radicaux' in French) is something which simply does not exist in Br
itish politics.
These parties are what you might call Thatcherite on economic policy and individ
ual responsibility (Guy Verhofstadt, three-time Belgian Liberal prime minister w
as called 'Baby Thatcher' in the 1980s), but at the same time very socially libe
ral and committed to the welfare state in a way British Conservatives find very
This is in contrast to the German right's dominant Christian Democrats, who are
far more conservative on social issues and only grudgingly, suspiciously support
ive of free market economics. They are also the Conservatives' official 'sister'
It is for this reason that the great liberal economist F. A. Hayek added Why I A
m Not a Conservative to the end of his seminal work The Constitution of Liberty
- once hurled onto a table by Margaret Thatcher to the words 'This is what we be
lieve.' It opened with the words;
At a time when most movements that are thought to be progressive advocate furthe
r encroachments on individual liberty, those who cherish freedom are likely to e
xpend their energies in opposition. In this they find themselves much of the tim
e on the same side as those who habitually resist change. In matters of current
politics today they generally have little choice but to support the conservative

This distinction is simply not present in British politics - both traditions fin
d their home under the umbrella of the Conservative party, meaning that I - a li
beral at heart - am in the peculiar position of potentially sharing a platform w
ith people who think Sarah Palin and Michele Bachman are the new messiahs.
More confusing still is the idea of the Liberal Democrats being in the same Euro
pean party as the above-mentioned Swiss and German Free Democrats. It simply mak
es no sense. This blog has commented before on the Lib Dems being dominated by s
ocial democrats, and the party has major ideological differences with its classi
cal liberal European counterparts.
One can only assume they are part of the European Liberal Democrat & Reform part
y simply through a case of semantics. A lazy association, if ever there was one,
to pair ex-Labour and Social Democratic politicians with 'Baby Thatcher'.
If there is to be a wholesale shake-up of British politics in the coming years a
nd if we do, after all, end up with a system of proportional representation - I
dearly hope some of these semantic confusions will be cleared up, not least beca
use it will give voters a much clearer idea over what they are actually voting f
NB - an amusing and illuminating quote from former Tory MEP Edward McMillan-Scot
t in March of this year: 'From being a liberal Conservative I have become a cons
ervative Liberal.' Quite.