Has Liberalism Failed Us: Professor AC Grayling at The Cambridge Union

Phoebe Page 17 February 2021
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Liberalism is not an objective truth, asserts Professor AC Grayling, philosopher, author and Master of New College of the Humanities. ‘It’s about what we can share in the way of a common patch of ground where we can all meet and discuss the very fundamental questions that matter most to our society.’

It is difficult to find fault with this. It is difficult, I later find, to challenge much of what Professor Grayling has to say – despite my best efforts. I begin by asking how Grayling feels when opponents use his own words to argue against him, as Dr Jeanne Morefield did in the Cambridge Union debate, ‘This House believes liberalism has failed us’ (Grayling’s side, the opposition, won). ‘Well, what [Dr Morefield] quoted is true so one can’t complain. The fact of the matter is that if you get involved in the public domain you’re going to hear yourself quoted both positively and negatively all the time. You get immune. I’ve been vaccinated many times in that respect.’

The quote related to Grayling’s belief that people in today’s liberal democracies have become lazy and are no longer thinking critically. Grayling amends it slightly: ‘It’s not that people are thinking less critically. They never really have thought that critically. They’ve always been driven by desire, by interest, by feelings.’ It is more that our social and political structures are no longer fit for purpose. ‘We have much more pluralistic societies, much greater diversity… One of the tragedies about ethnic minorities and the position of women in society is that if you don’t give voices to people, the opportunity to participate is much less [than for those who have a platform]. The result is disparities, social injustice and tensions. And if you don’t have an opportunity to participate in the process legitimately through the organs of government, through political debate, then you’re going to be pushed in the direction of dissent… This is proof that the whole machinery is no longer working. We need to reform it. [Pause] I’m glad I have such a large glass of wine.’

A prominent anti-Brexit campaigner, Grayling has written extensively about the need to reform the UK referendum process, and has long advocated for electoral reform more broadly. Our first-past-the-post voting system, he says, ‘seemed to make perfect sense three hundred years ago, … when there were just Whigs and Tories and crown and country.’ But now third parties are squeezed out and you get two-party politics, which ‘just doesn’t work in a modern world with social media and 24/7 news rounds. It’s very divisive and polarising.’

now third parties are squeezed out and you get two-party politics, which ‘just doesn’t work in a modern world with social media and 24/7 news rounds. It’s very divisive and polarising.’

In his 2020 book, The Good State, Grayling asserts that ‘politics is too often the enemy of good government.’[1] I ask whether we’ve missed a trick with the latest, largely abandoned attempts at ‘constructive opposition’, or whether the pandemic might yet be a catalyst for greater cross-party collaboration.

‘I don’t think it’s going to be the pandemic that does it. As soon as vaccines are rolled out and the spread is controlled, people are going to want to go back to some kind of normal. [During the global flu pandemics of 1957 and 1968], people were alarmed because they had 1918 in their minds. But as soon as [the pandemics] were over people wanted to forget them.’ A fond anecdotalist, Grayling recounts his experience of the 1957 flu pandemic when, aged 8, he ‘fell in love’ with his school nurse and asked her to marry him. Characteristically firm in his convictions, the young Grayling was not put off by her response: there was quite an age difference, she said, so they should probably wait and see. ‘I thought that was acceptance,’ Grayling laughs. (An unfavourable result for Grayling, but an admirable refusal to accept defeat. Now why does that sound familiar…)

‘So no, I don’t think it’s the pandemic. I think what will do it is Brexit.’ (Ah yes, that was it.) ‘The failure of the Brexit deal, the unworkability of Brexit itself…’ The following themes could be divined from just a cursory glance at Grayling’s most recent tweets. ‘To think that, on 43% of votes cast – 29% of the total electorate – there’s an eighty-seat majority which gives this government absolute carte blanche, and the majority of the electorate are unrepresented and have no say and are being dragged around by the scruff of the neck.’ Grayling takes a breath. ‘The Union is not going to survive this. Scotland will leave. The UK is over, for all intents and purposes.’

‘It’s also very probable that all the current component parts of the UK will eventually be back in the EU at different dates.’ (Our conversation takes place as Boris Johnson faces down mounting pressure for a second referendum on Scottish independence while continuing to hound the EU for suggesting an Irish vaccine border.) ‘People look at the US and say “there is the example of a sclerotic, ossified constitution which cannot reform itself because it’s turned into holy writ.” Our uncodified arrangements here are such that the political establishment can do what it likes.’ Grayling turns to the rules for referendums in this country. ‘All the referendums held since 1972 have been held on a different basis. This is not acceptable. A good constitution should be one where there is consistency, where people know what’s at stake and what the outcome will be.’

It is interesting that Grayling raises consistency. It was at the heart of his notorious U-turn on Scottish independence[2], and came up again and again in this evening’s debate. One speaker asserted: ‘if there is one constant across the century and a half that people, empires and states have been calling themselves liberal, it is inconsistency.’ Grayling acknowledges that liberalism has been interpreted and applied in different ways by those on the left and the right – a preoccupation with ‘identity politics’ on the one hand, or the market, on the other. But he reminds us that while these debates can sometimes seem very divisive, the overall liberal framework within which they occur is what allows them to occur.

And so from discussions of ‘open debate’ we naturally come to social media. Grayling hopes there will be a post-Brexit wake-up call as we move ‘from frictionless trade to tradeless friction’, which is what, he tells me, ‘the Twittersphere is now saying.’ I wonder how helpful these trending slogans from so-called remoaners really are.[3] Clicking retweet is hardly the epitome of proactivity.

‘Well, you mustn’t be too pessimistic about it. Firstly, Twitter bubbles are actually quite important, they keep everyone warm, up-to-speed, they can be quite informative, they keep the team on its toes–

‘But do you really think that?’ I ask.

‘Oh yes. We shouldn’t allow people to begin to think “oh it’s all too late, it’s over, we’ve left the EU.” No, we have to keep them a bit annoyed.’ Comments on the platform suggest Grayling has met with some success in this department. ‘It’s also useful for those of us who get annoyed and want to vent.’

Grayling uses the word bubble, so I suggest this is exactly what they are – bubbles where people only engage with content they already agree with. How is he going to reach those people who don’t believe a great wrong has been done? Grayling calls me out, only half-jokingly: ‘well, crucially, you and me always do dip into other people’s bubbles.’ (His eyebrows know I do not.) ‘I also disagree with you that people are not doing anything about it. I think it needs to start seething mentally and … [if we] keep the argument going then something will change.’

Grayling hopes there’ll be a trigger point that makes people change their mind. ‘For example, Brexiters were hoping like mad that what the EU did [to trigger a hard border in Ireland] would be the moment when all the Remainers would say “is the EU really that weak, I’ve made a terrible mistake, I’m now a convert…” And they were wrong. Instead, of course, it’s an example of the EU quickly remedying a mistake.’ (I cannot help but be reminded of Grayling’s justifications[4] for his own volte-face on Scotland.) Barnier and von der Leyen ‘realised they shouldn’t have done it’ and rescinded the decision within three and a half hours. Boris Johnson, meanwhile, has threatened to break international law over Article 16 ‘on multiple occasions, and people were saying “oh that’s okay… But let the EU very briefly make a misstep and we will come down on them like a ton of bricks.”’

How does Grayling respond when people say “come on, it’s been four years, time to move on now…”?

‘Well,’ he says, smiling. ‘What I’m about to say is the kind of thing that one would say anyway. “Me? I’m one of the nicest people on the planet, I’m really easy and flexible, and when the facts change I change my mind and bla bla…” You know, the Keynes thing? But I have to say that generally speaking I would much rather be able to just concentrate on my work. I hate getting involved in politics and polemics and public disputes. I really do hate it.’

I have to say I believe him. Throughout our conversation Grayling is calm, measured and incredibly charming, asking as many questions as he answers. Returning to the theme of the debate, we discuss civil liberties in the age of surveillance capitalism, and I ask about the ethics at play when governments encourage people to trade in their privacy for the (untested) possibility of a public health benefit.

‘On the general point about the recent technologies, I’m afraid we’ve probably already sold the pass on privacy. All the apps you use know much more about you than you do about yourself. So we’ve traded privacy in for all the conveniences and benefits, of course, because there are many.’ In true liberal style, Grayling ‘really hope[s] we don’t have massive censorship of the internet. There are better things to do like stop anonymity – that would remove a lot of rubbish. And certainly, in the case of politics, it’s crucial that campaign messaging in politics should not be microtargeted at profiled groups in a way that prevents other people from seeing what that messaging is. Because that is toxic.’

in the case of politics, it’s crucial that campaign messaging in politics should not be microtargeted at profiled groups in a way that prevents other people from seeing what that messaging is. Because that is toxic.’

‘The point about the Covid track and trace app… now that was pretty damn sneaky.’ The reason it was such an expensive disaster, Grayling believes, was an overreach. ‘The agencies in question thought [the app] would be a great way of not only slowing the spread but getting tabs on people’ – a Trojan horse for a much more extensive system of surveillance. ‘This is not conspiracy theory, this is obvious in a way. And that is very scary. […] Do you ever watch that series Black Mirror? So you never know, we’re looking at each other on this screen, but is it just us? How many others are listening? What’s being done with it? You can scare yourself to death with it.’

Grayling’s grasp of the topic is impressive, given his awareness that ‘these new technologies are way ahead of any of our understanding. Even you tech-savvy generations – they say that my generation are tourists in this tech land and you’re the inhabitants – but even you, the natives, are way behind the curve.’

I wonder how students have fared with online learning at New College of the Humanities, the university Grayling set up in 2012 to considerable controversy. Grayling admits ‘we made a lot of mistakes to begin with … [but] are constantly speaking to students.’ He feels most sorry for the first-year students, who’ve been dreaming about ‘all the parties and love affairs and are now sitting in their bedrooms at home where they used to play Xbox.’ He paints a sorry picture. But still, ‘it’s a temporary thing.’

We end by discussing French literature, extreme climates, and why I should ‘pack plenty of E45’ for my year abroad (very useful for static shocks, apparently). Not the advice I thought I’d receive from one of the most renowned philosophers of our time. But Professor Grayling is, among his many talents, an educator, and – from the questions he asked and the interest he showed – I daresay a very good one.

You can buy The Good State: On the Principles of Democracy (hardback) from Waterstones for £16.99


[1] ‘The Good State: On the Principles of Democracy’ (2020). See also ‘Democracy and Its Crisis’ (2017)
[2] In 2014 Grayling argued for maintaining the union with Scotland but now, following the Brexit referendum result, does not think a strongly pro-EU Scotland should be forced out against their will.
[3] https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/aug/13/brexit-remain-radicalisation-fbpe-peoples-vote
[4] https://www.facebook.com/gryffevillages/videos/115890733134337