Free Life Commentary,
A Personal View from
The Director of the Libertarian Alliance
Issue Number 193
16th May 2010
Linking url: http://www.seangabb.co.uk/flcomm/flc193.htm
Available for debate on LA Blog at http://wp.me/p29oR-3p4
Two Cheers for the Coalition:
The Libertarian Alliance on the New British Government
By Sean Gabb
I have been asked, as Director of the Libertarian Alliance, to make a response to the forming of a coalition government last week in Britain by the Conservative and Liberal Parties. In making this response, I do not claim to speak in every detail for the other members of the Executive Committee. But what I will say is broadly the opinion of the majority.
Briefly put, we welcome the new Government. However dishonest the individual Ministers may be, however bad may be their ideological motivations, we believe that, in its overall effects, this Government may, by its own compound nature, be compelled to move the country in a more libertarian direction. We understand the dejection of our conservative friends. These regard the Coalition as a disaster. They were hoping for a Conservative Government led by conservatives. Instead, they have a coalition government that will not withdraw from the European Union, will be easily as politically correct as Labour, and that will push forward the Green agenda regardless of cost and regardless of the scientific evidence. This seems a fair assessment of how our new masters at least want to behave. Nevertheless, we believe that the Coalition – assuming it can hold together – is immeasurably an improvement on the Blair and Brown Governments that went before it, and that it may even be rather good. We may find much that is objectionable, and we have no doubt that there will be more. But there is no point in denying that we are quietly pleased.
The worst possible outcome of the general election would have been another Labour majority. The Blair and Brown Governments had created a police state at home, and had involved us abroad in at least three wars of military aggression. They had on their hands the blood of perhaps a million innocents. That had turned the police and most of the administration into arms of the Labour Party. They had doubled, or tripled, or quadrupled, the national debt – no one seems to be quite sure by how much, but the debt has undoubtedly exploded. Though lavishing huge taxpayer subsidies on the Celtic nations, they were far advanced to destroying England as any kind of recognisable nation. Their commitment to the European Union was solely for a procedural device for ruling by decree. They had abolished habeas corpus and the protections against double jeopardy. They were working to abolish trial by jury. It is impossible to find any other government in British – or, before then, in English – history that had destroyed so comprehensively and so deliberately in so short a time. When I saw that Labour had lost its majority, I rejoiced. When I thought it might cling to power in some coalition of the losers, I trembled. When Gordon Brown finally resigned, I opened a bottle of champagne
Nor, however, would we have welcomed a Conservative majority. David Cameron is – unless constrained – an arrogant and untrustworthy creature. Our conservative friends may have expected much of him. Or they may have thought they could extract much from him. But they were always deluding themselves. We knew, from the way he slithered out of his promise of a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, that he had no intention of looking at British Membership of the European Union. We knew that he would never lift a finger against coercive multiculturalism, and that he would drive on the Green agenda. In these respects, a Conservative Government would have been no different in its actions – rhetoric being another matter – than the actual Coalition Government will be.
From our point of view, indeed, a Conservative majority would have been far worse than the Coalition. The Conservatives had promised to roll back much of the Labour police state. They promised to scrap identity cards and the national identity register. They promised to look at the thousands of new criminal offences created since 1997, and to restore many of the procedural rights taken away by Labour. We always regarded these promises as worthless. Conservatives – Thatcherite or Cameronian – have never had much commitment to civil liberties. They know something about economics, and have some regard for the national interest. But they have never been enthusiastic about substantive freedom and its procedural safeguards. If they denounce police states, it is usually because they think the wrong people are in control of them. The Labour police state, after all, was built on foundations laid down by the preceding Conservative Governments. The commitments on civil liberties were simply intended as bargaining counters between Mr Cameron and his traditionalist wing. He would deny his traditionalists any shift in European policy. He would buy them off by shelving the abolition of identity cards, and by cancelling any efforts to bring the police and bureaucracy back under the rule of law.
And an outright Conservative win would have strengthened Mr Cameron’s position within the Party, and the position of all the worthless young men and women who had attached themselves to him. They would have regarded this as a mandate for their own remodelling of the Conservative Party. The purges and centralised control that began when Mr Cameron took over would have been carried ruthlessly forward.
But, thanks to his general dishonesty and to the particular incompetence of his election campaign, Mr Cameron did not get his majority. Instead of being carried in shoulder high, he and his friends were forced to crawl naked on their bellies into Downing Street. He was forced to enter a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. These, to be sure, are not as liberal or democratic as they like to claim. Their belief in liberty is often little more than political correctness. Many of them are state socialists. Their cooperation with the Brown Government to deny us our promised referendum on the European Constitution shows what they think of voting when its result might not go their own way. No one can blame them for threatening Mr Cameron that they would go into coalition with Labour if he did not give them what they wanted. But we can doubt the sanity and goodness of those who continue regretting that there was no “progressive” coalition – a coalition, that is, with tyrants and murderers. Even so, the Coalition Government has now been formed; and there is some chance that it may compel each party to behave better than either might have by itself.
There probably will now be a considerable rolling back of the Labour police state. Identity cards and the national identity register will almost certainly go. We do not believe that the extension of detention without charge will be formally reversed. But we do believe that it will be surrounded with safeguards that effectively reverse it. We hope it will be the same with juryless trials and the DNA database, and with police powers in general. There will be at least a limited return to freedom of speech as it was enjoyed before 1997, and of the right to peaceful protest, and of security of our homes from arbitrary searches and seizures. As said, we never believed any of the Conservative assurances about civil liberties. But the Liberal Democrats will demand their full implementation – plus a little more. They will demand this to settle their own consciences for supporting cuts in government spending.
Turning to the economy, here as well the Coalition may do good work. The Labour Ministers never understood economics. They were fundamentally Marxists in expensive suits. Intellectually, they never appreciated the nexus of individual choices that is market freedom as other than some aggregated box called “The Economy” into which they could dip as they pleased. What they described as their promotion of enterprise never went beyond trading favours with big business.
The Conservatives and many of the Liberal Democrats do seem to understand economics. They know that taxes and government spending are both too high, and that the objects of government spending are often malign. They believe not only that the current nature and scale of government activity is unaffordable, but also that it is immoral. They will deregulate.
Now, economics was always the Conservative strong point, and it may be thought that the Liberal Democrats have nothing of their own to offer. However, we in the Libertarian Alliance have never liked the Conservative approach to economic reform. Their tax cuts favoured the rich. Their deregulations turned those at the bottom into casualised serfs. Their privatisations turned state monopolies into income streams for their friends in big business. They were better in all these respects than Labour. But we are interested to see what the Liberal Democrats will now be able to contribute with their belief in raising tax thresholds for the poor at the expense of the rich, and their belief in mutual institutions to provide public services in place both of the State and of big business.
As for political reform, we hear the complaints of our conservative friends that the Constitution will be overthrown if the electoral system is changed, or if the lifetime of a Parliament is fixed. We are also astonished at these complaints. We are not about to suffer a revolution. We have already had a revolution. Since 1997, Labour has come close to destroying the whole constitutional settlement of this country as it emerged after 1688. However unwise or evil it may have been to do this, it has been done, and there is no going back to the old order. We need a thorough reform of our political institutions to safeguard such liberty as we retain, or such liberty as may be returned to us. We see nothing wrong with any of the changes so far suggested.
Our conservative friends defend the current electoral system as ensuring “strong government”. We know what they really mean. Their fantasy is that they can stage some coup within the Conservative Party and then get a majority in Parliament on about a quarter of the total possible vote. We are still waiting for them to take over the Conservative Party. While waiting, we have endured thirty one years of strong – and usually disastrously bad – government. If neither the Conservative not Labour Parties had got a majority since 1983, it is hard to see how this country would be worse off than it is. It might easily be better.
Another objection we hear to electoral reform is that it would put the Liberal Democrats permanently into government. This claim is based on the assumption that the three main parties would continue in being. In truth, all of these parties are diverse coalitions brought together by history and kept together by the iron logic of the first-past-the-post system. Give us some less random – or perhaps less biased – correlation of seats in Parliament to votes cast, and all these parities will be gradually pulled apart, and their parts may then be recombined into more natural groupings.
We will not comment on the proposed fixed term to the current Parliament, or on the enhanced majority needed to bring down the Coalition. We understand that these proposals extend to this Parliament alone. If they are found to be convenient, they may continue by statute or by convention. If not, they will not continue. But these are not libertarian issues.
In conclusion, the Libertarian Alliance wants more – much more – than all this. We want the full relegalisation of drugs. We want the right to keep and bear arms for self-defence. We want complete freedom of speech and association, and this includes the right of consenting adults to free expression of their sexuality. We want the removal of all corporate privilege from the rich and well-connected. We want the poor to be given free opportunity to make themselves independent of both state welfare and wage labour. We want taxes and government spending cut back to where they stood before the Great War – and that is only a beginning. We believe in freedom in the fullest sense. The Coalition will not come close to giving us what we want.
Nevertheless, we do welcome what we have so far seen of the Coalition. Its nature may force both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats to do better than either would have done given complete freedom. The Conservatives may be compelled to deliver on their civil liberties promises. The Liberal Democrats may be forced to think seriously about their mutualist leanings now that their preferred state socialist option is off the table. The British electorate is not a single creature. It is only a singular noun that describes several dozen million individuals and a system that allocates votes to seats almost randomly. But we can understand those who claim that the British people, in all their wisdom, have stood up at last and given themselves the very best government that was on offer.
NB—Sean Gabb’s book, Cultural Revolution, Culture War: How Conservatives Lost England, and How to Get It Back, can be downloaded for free from http://tinyurl.com/ya4pzuh