Liberalism between the economic and political

2 November 2007

Chris Bose (London, CentreForum): This is an article partly in response and stimulated by Jon Bright's insightful blog entry below.

The launch of CentreForum's pamphlet, ‘Globalisation: a liberal response', provided a platform for Sam Brittan and Vince Cable to sketch out the themes of a liberal perspective on globalisation. The speakers were united in their calls for free trade and relaxed immigration. Sam made a typically cogent justification for allowing EU migrant workers into the UK labour market. Vince in particular urged for an ending of reciprocity in trade:

This apparently ‘tough' or ‘common sense' approach conceals a logic of remarkable stupidity: we insist on continuing to harm ourselves unless you agree to stop harming yourselves.

The sound of the royal procession outside reminded listeners that Vince could otherwise have been attending the state visit of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. Instead he opted to boycott the event on account of Saudi Arabia's less than impeccable human rights record.

Jon Bright, writing below, questioned the compatibility of Vince's boycott and his espousal of economic liberalism:

Is support of free trade compatible with this type of ‘moral foreign policy' approach?

In an ideal world, guided by a universal respect for human rights Vince's gestures would be otiose. However, such an international order bears little resemblance to our own. In the context of our creaking international legal and moral framework it could be argued that such gestures are positively called for. As Philippe Sands and Blinne Ni Ghralaigh assert later in the pamphlet:

There must be a renewed commitment to international law on a national and international level. Its fundamental importance must be reasserted and its reputation restored.

Vince's refusal to attend the state visit embodies such a commitment, if only on a small scale. Returning to Jon Bright's question, there may be a superficial tension between advocating free trade and a moral foreign policy. As he suggests, one of the main purposes of visits from foreign heads of states is "to strengthen relations, particularly trade relations". However when Vince's actions are viewed in a wider rubric of liberalism, political as well as economic, his actions display consistency. Rather than have an a la carte liberalism he has recognised its economic as well as political prescriptions.

Originally published on CentreForum's FreeThink blog.

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