Archictects of liberalism: Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney (L-R) attend the state funeral of former U.S. President Ronald Reagan at Washington's National Cathedral June 11, 2004.
Archictects of liberalism: Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney (L-R) attend the state funeral of former U.S. President Ronald Reagan at Washington's National Cathedral June 11, 2004.

One of the curious features of the wave of nostalgia precipitated by Margaret Thatcher's death was the often repeated claims that she "defeated communism" and "won the Cold War". I even saw one suggestion that the restrained nature of Mrs Thatcher's correspondence with Mikhail Gorbachev towards the end of her reign could be explained by her feeling magnanimous in "victory" - a somewhat peculiar notion given that Gorbachev was the head of a reformist leadership that had spontaneously emerged in the Soviet Union, and who to some extent regarded his Western opposite numbers as allies in fashioning a better world.

At this rate, the mythology will soon be that Mrs Thatcher personally bulldozed the Berlin Wall in November 1989, before popping round to Moscow to liberate the locals from the evil Marxist dictator Mr Gorbachev before tea.

If the outcome of the Cold War really must be looked at in terms of victory and defeat, it's rather more realistic to see it as a victory for liberalism over communism. Neither ideology was perfect, but the difference was that communism proved itself to have nearly all the internal contradictions that liberals discerned in it, whereas liberalism turned out to be far more flexible than the caricature painted by Marxists.

Liberal democracy couldn't have survived for so long in its current form if it had really been true that a homogenous and oppressed working class made up the permanent majority of the population - because that majority could have used the democratic process to throw off its oppressors at any time. Western liberalism may have comprehensively failed to eliminate poverty, but it certainly lifted enough people out of penury to ensure the allegiance of the majority to the existing order.

By contrast, communism had no hope of surviving in the long-term if it was really true that a ruling elite posing as a 'dictatorship of the proletariat' did not even command the support of the working class. And it didn't survive.

So much for the contradictions within communism. But did the forces fighting for "freedom and democracy" in the Cold War suffer from one or two contradictions of their own? The view looks very different from Latin America, where being part of the "free world" in the latter half of the 20th century was generally code for being ruled by a right-wing pro-American dictatorship.

Thatcher and Reagan

In that part of the world, the Cold War did indeed result in a victory for "freedom and democracy" - but that victory was won against the likes of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, who were the allies of the local oppressors. Most of those countries have since swung to the left, in a few cases quite radically - presenting a challenge to another western contradiction, namely that 'democracy' means voting for any government you like, just so long as it's neoliberal.

There's one other obvious contradiction that has yet to be successfully challenged, though. In liberal democratic Spain, it's still considered perfectly legitimate for the central government to deny Catalans their right to national self-determination, on the feeble grounds that to do otherwise would be unconstitutional. That sounds eerily similar to the Brezhnev Doctrine - ie. that a nominal commitment to 'democracy' doesn't preclude an existing elite from protecting itself against the democratic will of the people, because the principle of socialism (or of 'indissoluble unity' in the case of Spain) has already been settled for all time. Nor is this some kind of abstract point. Polls indicate an overwhelming likelihood that Catalonia would vote for independence if given the chance.

It's deeply paradoxical that the post-communist world in transition proved better able than the liberal democratic world to respond to the demands of historic regions and nations for self-determination. But the pattern is undeniable.

In the early 1990s, it was a regular occurrence for newly independent countries to pop up in Eastern Europe - Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, Georgia and Slovakia among several others. East Germany was swiftly granted its wish to become part of a united Germany. But in the West, Neanderthal attitudes to the democratic rights of Catalans and Flemings persisted. It was very telling that Bill Clinton, the first inheritor of the "free" world's supposed victory in the Cold War, lectured the people of Quebec that they must settle for federalism and not seek independence.

When the Russian leadership reverted to type in the late 1990s and violently suppressed a secessionist movement in Chechnya, Clinton was careful to qualify his criticisms with an assertion that Russia was rightfully defending its sovereignty.

What kind of language is that? It's the language of entitlement from elites who accept the necessity of 'compromising with' and 'containing' popular demands, but who view the public as also having the duty to compromise in return, and to accept that the elites ultimately have the right to continue to exist in roughly their current form. Because that's the law. That's what the constitution says. No matter how that constitution came about, that's what you're stuck with, sunshine.

If there's much difference between that logic and the mindset of the more moderate Eastern European dictatorships in the 1960s and 70s, I'm struggling to see it.

The Scottish independence referendum next year, and the current agitation for a similar referendum in Catalonia, constitute the most powerful challenge to this contradiction in liberal rhetoric since the Quebec referendum 20 years ago. And simply by agreeing to abide by the outcome of the Scottish vote, the London government has set a precedent that will reverberate around the Western world irrespective of the result - albeit the effect will undoubtedly be that much greater if there's a Yes vote.

So is liberalism capable of surviving its journey through this new frontier? Karl Marx thought that liberalism wasn't remotely flexible enough to deliver a better life for most working class people, but he was wrong. Perhaps liberal democracy will also prove to be more flexible than even Bill Clinton imagined it to be, and start delivering the constitutional structures that people actually want? I wouldn't bet against it, you know.

James Kelly is author of the Scottish pro-independence blog, Scot Goes Pop! Voted one of the UK's top political bloggers, you can hear more from James on Twitter: @JamesKelly