Long before the political label was coined in 19th-century Spain, liberalism existed as a body of thought dedicated to the proposition that the individual is the unit of supreme value in society.
The English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) holds pride of place among liberalism's thinkers. Locke was the first to argue that individuals have innate rights of life, liberty and property. These rights exist prior to government. Governments come about only through the agreement of autonomous individuals that their rights are best protected by joint association. If this contract is broken the people have the right to rebel. Locke's ideas justified England's Glorious Revolution of 1688 and animated the American revolutionaries of 1776.
By the early 19th century liberalism was on the march. By 1810 and for many years thereafter, "liberal" was a very positive word: in Emma, for example, the novelist Jane Austen writes that "the Coles had been settled in Highbury and were a good sort of people, friendly, liberal and unpretending." The first political connotation of "liberal" appeared in Spain. In 1812 the Liberals, a middle-class movement opposed by nobles and clergy, succeeded in giving the Spanish nation a brief respite from absolutism by winning acceptance of a Constitution. The name became politicized in Great Britain and North America in the 1820s when the British Tories used it as a term of abuse to taunt the more progressive Whigs.
Nearly two centuries after its invention, the label still denotes opprobrium in some quarters. In the US, for example, Republican politicians like Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich have largely succeeded in demonizing the term. "Liberals are so far left," Reagan told his audiences, "that they have left America"; and Newt Gingrich routinely attacked his opponents as "radical liberals." But in Canada and Europe, liberalism is still an honourable part of the vocabulary.
Liberals believe that every individual has a special dimension, a uniqueness that cries out to be realized. The purpose of life is to realize that potential, to become whatever it is one is capable of becoming. As a free agent man is able to define and pursue his own definition of happiness, his own version of the good, his own set of values. The role of the state is to produce the conditions under which individuals have the broadest possible choice in deciding upon their definition of the good. Society, meanwhile, should relish this diversity while dispensing equal treatment regardless of one's origins, colour, sex or status in life. In exchange for this respect, the individual must acknowledge responsibility for his own fortunes and for the fortunes of the community.
It is this individualistic essence which distinguishes liberalism from conservatism or socialism. Whatever their disagreements about the ends of society, both conservatives and socialists believe that society is more than a collection of autonomous individuals. Conservatives favour an organic hierarchical society, socialists stress the primacy of class but the central concept for both is a collectivity. Liberalism, therefore, is a particular way of thinking about human needs and the political good. It is not the property of a single political party. In Canada it forms almost as an important a strand in the ideology of the Progressive Conservative, Reform and New Democratic parties as it does in the Liberal Party for, whatever the party label, if the primary focus of one's concern is individual self-realization, liberalism has won a convert.
Liberalism came to Canada with the United Empire Loyalists. Devoted to British institutions (especially to the monarchy), the Loyalists bitterly opposed American republicanism; but as North Americans accustomed to economic mobility and representative government, they were equally passionate about individual liberty.
The Constitutional Act of 1791 which created the elected assemblies of Upper and Lower Canada was liberalism's first success in Canada. Responsible government, representation by population, minority rights, and the welfare state have followed. The Loyalists' settlement set a pattern persisting from that era to our own: influenced in equal parts by British and American developments, with an occasional leavening from the Continent such as the impact of the 1848 Revolution on the Rouges, liberalism has formed the core of the Canadian public philosophy.
Liberalism is not without its detractors. Noted scholars such as George Grant or C.B. Macpherson criticize the very foundations of the philosophy: they oppose a "possessive individualism" which stresses the acquisition of property by competitive individuals and they favour a more co-operative form of society which has a purpose above and beyond the individual rights and desires of its members.
There is an inner tension too within liberalism that often pits one school of thought against another. Liberals agree that they want to expand choice but how best to do so? The "classical" school of liberalism concentrates on freedom from external interference: government is feared, the market economy is favoured, private autonomy is valued. Positive liberalism, however, points out that having the absolute right to do something is meaningless unless one has the actual capability of doing it. Liberty is more than the absence of restraint, it must include equality of opportunity. Liberal egalitarians demand positive programs to redistribute wealth and to create more fairness in the competition of life.
Despite this basic dispute over whether the state is an obstacle to be removed or an instrument to be used, Canadian liberalism has made one very real contribution to the practice of democratic governance. How best to reconcile ethnic pluralism and minority rights within a national community is a problem that plagues much of the world. India is but one example of a society beset by social and religious discord. Liberals in Canada have always placed a premium on protecting minority rights. In 1982 the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms advanced this cause in a quantum way through entrenching into the Canadian Constitution both basic liberties and new linguistic rights for minorities. The overriding purpose of the Charter for its proponents was to entrench rights, especially language rights, where no government could ever take them away. With the Charter as a shield a single citizen can achieve Locke's vision of a society in which rights take precedence over authority.
The proudest achievement of Canadian liberalism has been, in the words of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, Canada's most eloquent liberal, the creation of this "regime of tolerance."