Evolutionary liberalism in Britain

Essay by flavyus17University, Bachelor'sA+, January 2005

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1. The initial concepts of liberalism

There is a variety of meanings with which the term "liberalism" is used, having little in common except for describing openness to new ideas. Some of these meanings are directly opposed to those which were originally designated by it during the nineteenth and the earlier parts of the twentieth centuries. What will alone be considered in this chapter is the set of political ideals which operated during that period, as one of the most influential intellectual forces guiding developments in western and central Europe, under the name of liberalism. However, this movement derives from two distinct sources, and the two traditions to which they gave rise coexisted only in an uneasy partnership and must be clearly distinguished if the development of the liberal movement is to be understood.

The one tradition, much older than the name 'liberalism', traces back to classical antiquity and took its modern form during the late seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries as the political doctrines of the English Whigs.

It provided the model of political institutions which most of the European nineteenth century liberals followed. The individual liberty which a 'government under the law' had secured to the citizens of Great Britain inspired the movement for liberty in the countries of the Continent. Here absolutism had destroyed most of the medieval liberties which had been largely preserved in Britain. These institutions were, however, interpreted on the Continent in the light of a philosophical tradition very different from the evolutionary conceptions predominant in Britain. Namely, in Europe there was a rationalist or constructivist view, which demanded a deliberate reconstruction of the whole of society in accordance with principles of reason. This approach was determined by the new rationalist philosophy developed above all by René Descartes (but also by Thomas Hobbes in...