And now the leader of the party, David Cameron, has come out as the most strident of liberals. He has made his commitment to liberalism absolutely, unmistakeably, crystal clear.
In a recent speech in Germany, Cameron discussed the problem of Muslim radicalism in Western countries. He thought the problem was that some Muslims supported an "extremist ideology". And they supported this extremist ideology because they lacked a sense of belonging and identity.
Cameron's solution is as follows:
we must build stronger societies and stronger identities at home. Frankly, we need a lot less of the passive tolerance of recent years and a much more active muscular liberalism.
Cameron supports a muscular liberalism. But his endorsement of liberalism doesn't end there. He wants to impose liberalism as a state ideology which defines what it means to be British:
A passively tolerant society says to its citizens, as long as you obey the law we will just leave you alone. It stands neutral between different values. But I believe a genuinely liberal country does much more; it believes in certain values and actively promotes them. Freedom of speech, freedom of worship, democracy, the rule of law, equal rights regardless of race, sex or sexuality. It says to its citizens, this is what defines us as a society: to belong here is to believe in these things. Now, each of us in our own countries, I believe, must be unambiguous and hard-nosed about this defence of our liberty.
This is not a new idea. It's a restatement of liberal civic nationalism, in which a community is bound together not by a shared history, kinship, religion or culture but by a common commitment to liberal political values.
Cameron isn't the only one wanting to ramp up the idea of liberal civic nationalism. I reported last year on a columnist from the Guardian newspaper, Theo Hobson, who insisted:
We as a nation are bound together ... by liberal values. Maybe it's time to be honest about that – even if it means a process of constitutional change.
... All we seek is a reassertion of liberalism as the nation's common ideology.
We need to clarify our national story. Liberalism is what unites us, and this must be made explicit. It is, in effect, our national creed...
We need a revolution that makes our latent national identity explicit. What unites us is ... liberalism.
We need to get a bit fundamentalist about the superiority of liberalism.
Liberal civic nationalism has its obvious weaknesses. First, it requires political conformity to a degree that traditional communal identities never did. It is not only Muslim extremists who would fail to meet Cameron's test of national belonging. So too would anyone else who disagreed with liberal political philosophy. Englishmen with the deepest of historic roots in the country would be considered not to belong to the nation because they were not philosophically liberal.
Second, it's not a distinctive form of nationalism. Most Western nations follow some kind of liberal civic nationalism. Therefore, there is no official difference between having a British identity, or an Australian, American, Swedish or French one. Why not then simply merge all these non-distinct nations together? As the Oxford Companion to Philosophy put it:
One difficulty with this view is that it provides no guidance on how the boundaries of distinct political communities should be drawn. Indeed, it provides no explanation for why there should be distinct political communities at all. Why shouldn't all societies that share liberal values merge into a single state, aiming ultimately to create a single world state?
Third, it's a shallow form of identity. Again, the Oxford Companion recognises the problem:
Some liberals suggest that the tie that binds the citizens of a liberal society is simply a shared commitment to liberal principles of freedom and equality. It is debatable whether this is a 'thick' enough bond to keep a multicultural society together...
Conservative critics have argued that the stability of liberal societies is based on a pre-liberal sense of shared identity. Citizens of England, for example, do not see each other primarily as individual rights-holders, but as fellow members of the English nation, with a shared history and culture. This gives rise to a sense of solidarity which is prior to, and deeper than, a shared commitment to liberalism. It is this national solidarity which explains why the English work together, and make sacrifices for each other. Conservatives worry that this sense of being members of the same 'people' or culture or community is gradually being eroded by the individualism of liberal rights, which treats people in abstraction...
There are other issues raised by Cameron's speech, but I'll discuss these in a future post.