Muscular liberalism vs. democratic liberalism

Jan Dobbernack and Derek McGhee

This article is featured in Public Spirit’s special theme on From multiculturalism to muscular liberalism? Faith and the future of integration

DerekMcGhee JAN_DOBBERNACKDavid Cameron‘s rhetoric, like that of his predecessors Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, has emphasised the need to build shared values and strengthen Britain’s collective identity. But his approach to toleration, which he sees as something granted conditionally on the public endorsement of a set of national values, risks fostering social conflict and ceding ground to the far-right. 

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Cameron delivered his speech on ‘muscular liberalism’ at the strangely appropriate venue of the Munich Security Conference, a meet-and-greet for politicians, national-security specialists and the arms industry.[1] Perhaps this audience continues to be receptive to the evidence-free posturing that has been characteristic of public pronouncements about integration, cohesion and national identity. During the speech Cameron reiterated the well-worn distinction between moderate Muslims and extremist Islamists. He endorsed the idea of a ‘spectrum’ of extremist positions, ranging from those who reject violence but show ‘real hostility towards Western democracy and liberal values’ to those who act upon their convictions. Even the key message of the address – that it had become ‘hard to identify with Britain … because we have allowed the weakening of our collective identity’– could just as well have been delivered by New Labour’s ‘muscular liberals’. According to Cameron, the ‘doctrine of state multiculturalism’ had encouraged segregation because there was no ‘vision of society’ to which young Muslims feel they can belong. He stated that minority status and political correctness had shielded Muslims from criticism for their illiberal practices. In a direct continuation with Blair and Brown, Cameron announced that extremist ideologies should be confronted and ‘a clear sense of shared national identity that is open to everyone’ should be reinforced. All of this is as familiar as it is questionable.

MML JD1The openness of national identity and the inclusiveness of British values, both of which Cameron emphasized, are contradicted by the sabre rattling delivery of the speech and its resonance with the most significant EDL protest event (up to that point) that took place while he spoke. Instead of responding to such circumstances and to his use of disputable evidence, we take issue here with Cameron’s reference to tolerance and his treatment of national identity as consisting of modular components that can be assembled as a matter of political expediency.

The enemy in Cameron’s speech is not state multiculturalism, but rather the passive or hands-off tolerance it is assumed to institutionalise. The tough, interventionist and divisive approach to creating security, cohesion, integration and a sense of ‘Britishness’ did not work under New Labour, and we see no reason why it will work in this muscular form. Just as in various speeches by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown,[2] Cameron ‘fetishizes’ values.[3] This fetishisation is associated in this case with a particular paradigm of tolerance where ‘opinions, belief, and practices are cast not as matters of conscience, education, or revelation but as the material of the person of which certain attributes (racial, sexual, gendered or ethnic) are an index’.[4] In this muscular form, this paradigm of tolerance is shading into what Marcuse calls ‘repressive tolerance’, that is, a position that ‘favours and fortifies the conservation of the status quo of inequality and discrimination’.[5]

“Like Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, Cameron ‘fetishizes’ values.”

Yet tolerance is an idea that can facilitate as well as foreclose dialogue and understanding and it is worth exploring its potential benefits and harms further. Cameron spoke of the need to readjust past excesses of tolerance. He suggested that to achieve ‘stronger societies and stronger identities’, it was necessary to be ‘unambiguous and hard-nosed about this defence of our liberty’. According to Cameron, passive or ‘hands-off tolerance has only served to reinforce the sense that not enough is shared’. While preserving its central role in conceptions of British national identity, he calls for tolerance to become more active, aggressive and hands-on.

Tolerance, then, plays a role in the definition of a national self within a civilizational frame. It does not provide for liberal openness or for the extension of boundaries of acceptance as a result of dialogue and understanding. Instead it is granted conditionally upon the public endorsement of a number of liberal tenets that are imposed as a diktat. The domain of intolerable difference is more rigidly demarcated and national identities are defined in opposition to antagonistic others that cannot be tolerated. In such deployments of liberal tolerance the concept works as ‘part of what defines the superiority of Western civilization, and as that which marks certain non-Western practices or regimes as intolerable’.[6]

Tolerance is thus ‘weaponised’ in the clash of civilizations as depicted by Cameron: it is their intolerance that makes us revise our toleration. This type of tolerance sustains crude oppositions that are open to be exploited by the far right, which is increasingly becoming ‘muscular liberal’ in its own right (cp. Geert Wilders’ Partij voor de Vrijheid or the EDL). A case in point is increasingly frequent arguments that tolerance of sexual minorities amounts to a key achievement of civilizational liberalism and requires the suppression of associational and religious freedoms for religious minorities. In summary, this muscular tolerance evoked by Cameron and others, can be experienced as intolerance which targets civilizational ‘others’ that are deemed to be intolerant of the liberal ‘self’.[7]

MML JD2We argue that rather than the rejection of ‘passive’ or ‘hands-off’ tolerance in Cameron’s brand of muscular liberalism, what is needed is a different type of tolerance. This is a tolerance that can inspire those ‘broadly shared feelings’ which Mason and Parekh suggest could ultimately lead to the development of a sense of common belonging and which emerge in a reciprocal two-way process.[8] It can draw on what Forst calls a ‘respect conception of toleration’ whereby tolerating parties recognise each other in a reciprocal ‘horizontal’ way.[9] This type of ‘deliberative’ tolerance, James Bohman argues, consists of an ‘attitude of perspective taking’ and is tied to a ‘richly complex ideal of democracy in large, diverse, and increasingly porous polities’.[10] From this position, we would reject the claim that tolerance belongs to the West. Instead we would be prompted to register its incompleteness at home and abroad, strive for its expansion and also pay attention to non-liberal and non-Western intellectual foundations for and social practices of toleration.[11]

Rather than the authoritarian articulation of shared values by recent British Prime Ministers Blair, Brown and Cameron, this reciprocal, horizontal approach to toleration is open, dynamic and perhaps more conducive to co-production of a sense of common belonging across ethnic, religious, gender and cultural differences. This necessitates an acknowledgement and acceptance of what Charles Taylor calls the plurality of ways for citizens to belong to their country.[12] This is less a matter of nationalist identity-centric theories of citizenship and more a project of developing the means for all of us to belong to an evolving Britain, an evolving polity.[13] This is more an invitation to a reciprocal and deliberative ‘learning by doing’ rather than signing up to pre-agreed fundamentals.[14] Thus, what is missing in both New Labour and in the Coalition Government’s pronouncements is a more deliberative or democratic liberalism underpinned by what Bellamy calls an ‘ethics of engagement’.[15] The emphasis here would be on talking through issues and actively listening to each other – rather than just, once again, being told what to think, what is important and who and how ‘we’ should be by ‘muscular’ liberals.

The boundaries of tolerance are not beyond revision, national identities can be re-imagined and re-constituted, and this endeavour can be a starting point for an inclusive democratic identity.

Jan Dobbernack is Lecturer in Politics at the University of Lincoln and Jean Monnet Fellow at the European University Institute (2013-14). He is the author of The Politics of Cohesion in Germany, France and the United Kingdom (forthcoming) and co-editor of Tolerance, Intolerance and Respect – Hard to Accept? (2013).

Derek McGhee is Professor of Sociology at Southampton University. He is the author of Intolerant Britain? Hate, Citizenship & Difference (2005); The End of Multiculturalism? Terrorism, Integration & Human Rights (2008); and Security, Citizenship & Human Rights: Shared values in uncertain times (2010).


[1] David Cameron, ‘PM’s Speech at Munich Security Conference’, Official Site of the British Prime Minister’s Office, 2011,

[2] Derek McGhee, Security, Citizenship and Human Rights: Shared Values in Uncertain Times (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).

[3] Wendy Brown, Regulating Aversion: Tolerance in the Age of Identity and Empire (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), 35.

[4] Ibid., 46.

[5] Herbert Marcuse, ‘Repressive Tolerance’, in A Critique of Pure Tolerance, ed. Robert P. Wolff, Barringdon Moore, and Herbert Marcuse (London: Cape, 1969), 136.

[6] Brown, Regulating Aversion, 179.

[7] Judith Butler, ‘“I Must Distance Myself from This Complicity with Racism”: Civil Courage Prize Refusal Speech’, 19 June 2010,; Alana Lentin and Gavan Titley, The Crises of Multiculturalism: Racism in a Neoliberal Age (London: Zed Books, 2011), 224–225.

[8] Bhikhu Parekh, A New Politics of Identity: Political Principles for an Interdependent World (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 87; Andrew Mason, Community, Solidarity and Belonging: Levels of Community and Their Normative Significance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

[9] Rainer Forst, ‘A Critical Theory of Multicultural Toleration’, in Multiculturalism and Political Theory, ed. Anthony S. Laden and David Owen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 295.

[10] James Bohman, ‘Deliberative Toleration’, Political Theory 31, no. 6 (12 January 2003): 776.

[11] Bhikhu Parekh, ‘Afterword: Religious Tolerance in a Comparative Perspective’, in Hard to Accept: New Perspectives on Tolerance, Intolerance and Respect, ed. Jan Dobbernack and Tariq Modood (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 222–244.

[12] Charles Taylor, ‘Shared and Divergent Values’, in Options for a New Canada, ed. Ronald L. Watts and Douglas M. Brown (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991), 75–76.

[13] McGhee, Security, Citizenship and Human Rights.

[14] Richard Paul Bellamy, Liberalism and Pluralism: Towards a Politics of Compromise (London and New York: Routledge, 1999), 67.

[15] Ibid., 123.

The image of David Cameron is included courtesy of the United Kingdom Home Office and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

One Response to “Muscular liberalism vs. democratic liberalism”

  1. Jawaahir Daahir

    Absolutely a great article and well done both authors who are rightly pointed out the narrow mindedness of our Prime Ministers.


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