Freedom of speech. Freedom of worship. Democracy. The rule of law. Equal rights. These were the trumpet calls in the speech David Cameron delivered at the Munich security conference on February 5 — the speech that announced the failure of British multiculturalism, the secular sermon that demanded a revival of “muscular liberalism”.
And Amen to all that. In the days of its confident youth, liberalism sired tolerance: an admirable sense that different cultures should not be oppressed simply for being different and a large attitude of acceptance for the eccentricities of human behaviour. But in its wizened old age, liberalism seemed to lose its strength. The angry child began to slap around the diffident parent, and under the banner of multiculturalism, tolerance grew astonishingly intolerant: not the extension of liberalism but its enemy.
The key, as Mr Cameron rightly sees, is self-assurance. A nation confident in itself, secure in its institutions and traditions, can allow great variation among its people. Of course, muscular liberalism is already something of an enfeebled version of muscular Christianity; the failure of British nerve began long ago, and some of the talk that followed the prime minister’s speech in Munich seemed a Victorianism afraid to speak its name — like a strong drink of Thomas Arnold, watered down to plonk. Still, liberalism is the necessary condition for the possibility of tolerance, and only a nation certain of its own identity can survive such things as freedom of speech and democracy.
National confidence can’t be restored overnight, unfortunately, and multiculturalism managed to insinuate its demands for self-censorship and self-deprecation even into the text of the Munich speech. Take the call for “freedom of worship”, for example. Perhaps Mr Cameron did not know that this has become the latest term of art in diplomatic circles — the euphemism by which foreign-policy types, particularly in the United States and at the United Nations, signal to tyrannies around the world that they are not much interested in the rights of religious minorities.
We used to call for “freedom of religion”, which meant that people were free to stand on street corners and espouse anything from Muggletonianism to Madame Blavatsky. If you have freedom of religion, you can bring up children in your faith, hold public processions, print books, and organise as you will.
If you have only “freedom of worship,” however, you are allowed merely to pray quietly in your home, out of public sight. Freedom of worship does nothing to outlaw executions for conversion away from Islam. Nor does it does anything to prevent the communist control of churches. Worship is part of religion, certainly, but it is the least public part — and thus the least involved in actual freedom.
The shift in language marks the shift in confidence: a signal to the likes of Cuba, China, Iran and Vietnam that we aren’t all that assured, any more, about the universal truth and moral correctness of liberalism. A signal, for that matter to ourselves and another diffident sacrifice to the great gods of multiculturalism.