A Consistent Line

Alexander Zevin, Liberalism at Large: The World According to the Economist

Verso, 544pp, £25.00, ISBN 9781781686249

reviewed by Daniel Whittall

The challenge of writing coherent histories of what Duncan Bell has termed ‘the plurality of actually existing liberalisms’ has bedevilled many historians. By focusing on a single remarkably durable periodical, Alexander Zevin’s Liberalism at Large avoids both the danger of a restrictively canonical accounting of well-known figures, and the temptation to rigid boundary-policing of liberalism, instead giving us a remarkably contextualised account of what liberalism has looked like from the editorial desks of one of its longest-running published adherents.

Zevin’s focus is on that ‘lodestar of liberalism’, the Economist. The paper’s origins situate it at the heart of the liberal tradition, emerging as it did from the drive of a wealthy businessman, James Wilson, but also out of a movement and a moment. That movement was the Anti-Corn Law League (ACLL), and the moment the ascendancy of Manchester liberalism in the mid-19th century. Having moved to London and lost money speculating on the price of indigo, Wilson came to be deeply interested in the political economy of free trade. He became an important member of the ACLL after one of his pamphlets on the Corn Laws was taken up favourably by Richard Cobden. The ACLL enabled Wilson to build a network of supporters across the free trade movement. When he made his first moves towards journalism, Cobden and John Bright tried to persuade him to edit the ACLL paper. Wilson refused, winning their support instead for an independent venture that would seek to advance the free trade cause.

Born in 1846, the Economist initially applied itself to exploring and advocating Cobden’s doctrine that free trade was the surest way to bring about world peace. However, by the mid-1850s the contradiction of arguing for free trade from the heart of an imperial metropolis strained the relationship between the Manchester liberals and the Economist. The Crimean War would be the breaking point. Thanks in part to Wilson’s newfound proximity to leading figures having become an MP, the Economist became amongst the most zealous advocates for war. The cause of free trade split irrevocably, with Cobden and Bright hewing to a vision of free trade as a driver of peace whilst Wilson’s Economist and others backed imperial conflict and ‘patriotism’, arguing for a gradualist approach to free trade and laissez-faire that avoided undermining British imperialism.

The sundering of the Economist from the free trade tradition of Cobden and Bright freed the paper to apply the principles of laissez-faire less consistently, and to recognise, as Zevin frames it, that ‘for liberal outcomes a compromise with liberal principles might be needed’. Such freedom enabled the paper to claim in the wake of Crimea and the Second Opium War in China that ‘we may regret war . . . but we cannot deny that great advantages have followed in its wake.’

Wilson was a close ally of Palmerston, Liberal Prime Minister at the time of war in China. In the wake of fierce criticism from Cobden, Bright and their ‘peace party’ cohort of MPs Palmerston resigned and re-stood for election. In a campaign marked by a nationalist fervour (and flexibility with the truth) that Boris Johnson would be proud of, Palmerston wiped almost all of the pro-peace MPs from Parliament, including Cobden and Bright. The Economist, as Zevin phrases it, ‘was exultant’: it ordered Bright to reflect on his ‘disregard of all patriotic feeling and decorum’. For Cobden, the incident was the pinnacle of the Economist’s climb towards becoming ‘the obsequious servant of government’. Not that this judgement would trouble Wilson. His support for Palmerston was rewarded in 1859 when he was named Chancellor of the Indian Exchequer. Here too Wilson had already earned his stripes. When, in 1857, a mutiny by Indian soldiers spawned a broader rebellion against British rule and was met by a fierce display of force by the imperial state, the Economist had praised ‘the stern vigour afforded by daily executions of mutineers of every rank’. No wonder, with pronouncements like these, that Wilson was deemed fit for imperial governance.

Of course, it isn’t only on matters of empire that the Economist has justified ‘a compromise with liberal principles’ in order to achieve liberal outcomes. Under the editorial stewardship of Walter Bagehot, another who participated in the ACLL in his early years, the paper denounced electoral reform plans by both Tories and Liberals. ‘True Liberalism’, Bagehot’s Economist argued, differed from that of ‘the extreme left of the Liberal party’ on account of the latter’s ‘superstitious reverence for the equality of all Englishmen as electors’. Bagehot railed against any proposals that meant ‘the rich and wise are not to have, by explicit law, more votes than the poor and stupid’.

Justifications of empire and scepticism of too much interference from democracy or public protest have thus been pillars of the Economist’s liberalism from the start. The third pillar is advocacy for finance. It was Karl Marx in the 1850s who referred to the Economist’s worldview as representing ‘the aristocracy of finance’. Bagehot first put finance at the heart of the paper’s attention and Edward Johnstone, during his 24 years as editor from 1883, was to consolidate it whilst also pulling the paper away from support for the Liberal Party. No matter which branch of liberalism held the editorial controls advocacy of finance has never been far from the surface. Even Francis Hirst, a radical ‘new liberal’ of Cobdenite mould and clear exception to editors before or since, who eschewed some of the earlier imperialism through his advocacy of a negotiated peace in the First World War, nevertheless remained committed to the importance of finance. Hirst denounced the suffragettes and any further extensions of the franchise too.

As the 20th century unfolded the paper moved with the geopolitical times, switching — after some toing and froing — to the new hegemon in America, supporting its imperial adventures and drawing increased subscribers and revenues in the process. The Economist’s support for anti-colonial nationalism across the British Empire in the 1940s and 50s was scant, despite the paper’s staff being well-stocked with radicals — Isaac Deutscher was with the paper between 1942-49 — and Zevin does a fine job of reconstructing disputes between editors and writers on these issues. He shows how editors consistently circumscribed the influence of their staff and ensured that they were unable to challenge the three pillars with any consistency.

There was time, though, for one more deviation over international matters. With Donald Tyerman as editor in the late 1950s and into the 60s the Economist sounded warnings over American treatment of the Cuban revolution. Zevin marvellously reconstructs the disagreements at the paper in the lead-up to its leader article of 27 October 1961, ‘Cyclone Cuba’, which criticised the rashness of US attitudes. By the time Tyerman and his supportive staff members editorialised a begrudging support for Harold Wilson’s Labour in 1964, his days as editor were numbered. Zevin sees his replacement by Alistair Burnet as a ‘watershed for the Economist, which began a sharp and permanent turn to the right, and to America’, becoming in the process the ‘advanced guard of neoliberalism’, ‘not a proponent but a pillar of the special relationship’. The orientation towards Anglo-America is evident in the astonishing fact that between 1985 and 1992 the Economist had no full-time Europe correspondent. In the early years of the 21st century the paper was a full-throated backer of American-led imperial ventures in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, with editor Bill Emmott ‘producing a blanket justification for all imperial actions on the part of the US now and in the future’.

Following the financial crash of 2008 Zevin writes of how the Economist initially ‘acted as a kind of automatic stabilizer for a liberal ideological order suddenly racked with self-doubt’, aggressively backing austerity and remaining ‘breathtakingly unrepentant’ over the crash. But Zanny Minton-Beddoes, appointed in 2015 as the paper’s first woman editor, has shifted the tone and attended more to inequality. A substantial recent leader article — unsigned, as is tradition — chided liberalism, and the Economist’s own past, for its failure to address racism. Nevertheless, it also described Black Lives Matter protests as ‘dangerous’. Popular protest cannot be endorsed, no matter how grave liberalism’s failings.

A recent UK cover story supported Boris Johnson’s agenda of ‘levelling up’, criticising only the lack of a clear plan. The paper suggested Johnson loosen planning laws, and this has since been announced as government policy. In geopolitics the Economist has called for a ‘more robust course in Sino-American relations’, praising ‘hawks’ close to the US government for ‘calling attention to the comprehensive and complex threat Mr Xi’s China poses’. In economics, assessing Google’s prospects, they note that ‘becoming a glorified venture-capital outfit has appeal’. Meanwhile, on higher education in the wake of coronavirus the paper barely bats an eyelid as it suggests some universities ‘should be allowed to go to the wall’. Scepticism of popular protest, if not democracy, justifications of empire, and advocacy of finance and market forces: a tweak in the outlook there may well be, but the three pillars remain intact.

By bringing to the fore the close relationships between Economist staff and the arms of the state — politicians, civil servants, security services — Zevin analyses the proximity of the paper to power. His account highlights the complexities of the liberal tradition, tracking commonalities in the Economist’s framing — reverence for the virtues of capital and the necessities of empire above all — and incorporating departures from them. Through its combined attentiveness to the worlds of politics and ideas, Liberalism at Large shows how the latter have helped shape the former. By recognising this for more than 175 years the Economist hasn’t merely represented the world, but has played an active role in shaping it.
Daniel Whittall teaches Geography and Economics at a college in West Yorkshire.