Book Review: How to Be A Liberal, by Ian Dunt

Ian Dunt is a brilliant explainer. Politically I’m to his left, but I consistently seek out his work whenever I need clarity. His ability to make complicated matters comprehensible is unparalleled. His first book, Brexit: What the Hell Happens Now? did just that and, at times, How to Be A Liberal is equally clarifying.

Systems, and their because-this-then-that workings, are Dunt’s domain. He explains global systems of cooperation, like the use of trade as a safeguard against war, and intellectual systems of thought, like Harriet Taylor and John Stuart Mill’s harm principle, in a manner so accessible and thought-provoking that these passages pass as page-turners.

I could feel myself actively learning as I read. I’d spot a flaw in Dunt’s reasoning only to have him resolve it in the next paragraph. It’s a gift to be able to write like this: anticipating a reader’s reaction to an idea (sometimes criticism, sometimes intrigue) and addressing it with an answer that insists on another question. It’s diligent and painstakingly researched, but it feels confident and conversational.

Unfortunately, Dunt’s ambition for this book stretches beyond his area of mastery. His first book answered a question: What the Hell Happens Now? His second extends past questions of What to prescriptions of How. An admirable aim, but it’s here that the book falls down.

Dunt’s recommendations are never wrong, but they’re frequently vague and difficult to apply in real world situations. For example, he paraphrases Isaiah Berlin:

Patriotism mattered because it mattered to the individual. And it stopped mattering the moment it restricted the individual.

This is all well and good, but Dunt never tells us where to draw the line. He acknowledges this ambiguity, emphasising the importance of case-by-case assessment, but his book doesn’t give us the tools to make these judgments. In lieu of tools, let’s examine how Dunt applies his own theory in the real world. On December 29th 2020 Dunt wrote:

Not bothered by Labour voting for the [Government’s Brexit trade] deal. It can’t be stopped. It’s better than no-deal, which is the only alternative. In that scenario, abstain or voting for are the only options and both have pluses and minuses.

From trade to immigration, this deal clearly restricts the individual. Dunt’s limited support for it seemingly puts him at odds with the Berlin passage he elevates in his book. Dunt also accepts the Government’s framing, that no-deal “is the only alternative”. Adopting a frame that was used to browbeat Brexit’s opponents sits at odds with this passage from Dunt’s book:

The rise of nationalism … started with the assertion of nationalist framing … nationalist values shifted the parameters of political debate. For years liberals asked themselves why they kept losing individual battles, blind to the fact that they had already conceded the war.

I don’t take issue with Dunt’s view of Labour’s position (it’s far too early for me to assess its tactical merit), but the gap between his real-world pragmatism and his call-to-arms handbook illustrates the ambiguity of his advice. I cannot, following his instructions, reach the same conclusions as him. This is as much a problem with Liberalism as with How to Be A Liberal, it’s an indispensable grounding principle, but alone it’s not a sufficient guide.

How to Be A Liberal is a history as well as a handbook and, when recounting the past, the problems I outlined above fall away. I was particularly fond of chapter 5, which explores Harriet Taylor and John Stuart Mill’s romance, and is bitingly critical of the liberal scholars who dismissed Harriet’s contributions to their work. Chapter 9, which unpacks the civil war waged between Laissez-faire liberals and Keynesians, and correctly sides with the Keynesians, is also illuminating.

Towards the end of the book Dunt analyses current events, draws parallels with the past and speculates about the future. His analysis of the systems at play is technically without fault, but he severely misplaces his emphasis in pursuit of a false balance that imagines liberalism under siege from both sides:

placing the group identity over that of the individual. This idea began with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose argument for the general will served to diminish and eradicate individuals. It continued with Karl Marx and was then given full practical form by the horrors of communism and fascism. Today it is put forward by nationalism on the right and identity politics on the left.

Identity politics and nationalism are both fatally flawed schools of thought, but they are not remotely equal in their goals or their power. How To Be a Liberal is a compelling history of liberal thought, but its failure to consider the unlevel playing field that ideological battles are waged upon is its own fatal flaw.

Two time Emmy award viewer.