The Practice of Politics

This is a history of liberalism as it appears to an intelligent, well-informed, and thoroughly convinced English liberal who worked for many years as an editor and correspondent for The Economist.  It is useful as a sympathetic exploration of the stages through which the political outlook that rules us today has advanced.

The book is subtitled “The Life of an Idea,” but author Edmund Fawcett tells us liberalism is no such thing.  The movement, he says, has been not a doctrine but a “practice of politics.”  As such, it has done best “when insisting on the primacy of politics—endless public argument and compromise—not when elevating [itself] into moral philosophy or reducing [itself] to economics.”  The purpose of the book, then, is to describe the development of liberalism as a practice, largely through accounts of the thoughts and doings of representative liberals.

Fawcett divides his life of liberalism into three periods: its confident youth (1830-80), its maturity and struggle with democracy (1880-1945), and its second chance and ultimate success (1945-89).  He also adds a brief and impressionistic introduction to a fourth period, still too new to define, that began in 1989.  For each period he covers the setting, the issues and challenges, and characteristic thinkers and politicians, dealing fairly evenly with developments in France,...

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