Classical liberalism has no party-political home, but traces of it can be found in all major parties, so over the years, we have employed staff and welcomed supporters from all three main British political parties (and, of course, none). This is due to the fact that “classical liberalism is not a fixed ideology, but a spectrum of views on social, economic and political issues, grounded in a belief in freedom and an aversion to the coercion of one individual by another,” as IEA author Eamonn Butler has explained.
As we start a new year and a new decade and leave behind the trials and tribulations of the December General Election campaign, what can classical liberals expect from and where may they have to challenge the major British political parties in 2020?
Over recent years, many classical liberals have viewed Conservatives as the least anti-liberty party. However, the recent General Election campaign will leave many concerned that the new Conservative majority was built on a platform of higher borrowing and higher spending, effectively promising to run socialism better than socialists. From a public choice perspective, classical liberals will be concerned about the temptation to pursue illiberal policies to maintain the coalition of former Labour supporters. For example, the election policies on tackling crime could easily lead down a path that also erodes civil liberties.
When Prime Minister Boris Johnson was Mayor of London, he was seen as a socially liberal mayor. For example, he publicly supported an amnesty for illegal immigrants. But his use of language, prior and since, such as describing young Africans as “piccaninnies” and having “watermelon smiles” when a journalist, or comparing Muslim women wearing veils to letterboxes, when a backbencher – even though he argued against a ban – also suggests a dog-whistling populist sentiment aimed towards whichever audience he is speaking to, rather than consistency.
Those classical liberals who believe that the government shouldn’t interfere with their freedom to consume what they wish will welcome Boris Johnson speaking out against sugar taxes, but wonder if his less liberal Health Secretary will argue to keep the tax.
Battered and bruised from the coalition years, following the 2017 election, the Liberal Democrats had an opportunity to re-build. In the face of Theresa May’s premiership – with a civil authoritarian agenda and a suspicion of foreigners – they had a chance to attract supporters from the Conservatives with a mixture of economic and social liberalism, especially on civil liberties issues. However, Brexit appeared to blind them.
Indeed, when I discussed this gap in the political discourse with a former Orange Book Liberal Democrat, he replied that he would continue to fight Brexit with every bone in his body for the rest of his life. I had a similar conversation with a Swedish liberal MEP who told me that while we agreed on economic and social liberalism, if he ever faced a choice between Europe and liberalism, he would choose Europe.
The party’s General Election manifesto had some genuine liberal highlights. Giving genuine asylum seekers the right to work would remove what many see as an artificial barrier to integration. Removing some of the burden on taxpayers, promoting responsible asylum policies and helping asylum seekers into work is a policy many classical liberals would applaud.
The Liberal Democrats also proposed a legal, regulated market for cannabis. Music to the ears of many classical liberals and something IEA authors have supported for many years – most recently in ‘Joint Venture’. Such a plan would treat adults like adults, allowing them to make informed decisions about their cannabis consumption, and remove the criminal punishments for personal use. As a general election pledge, it may not have had much impact, but with the London Mayoral elections in 2020 and Siobhan Benita – the party’s candidate – being a vocal proponent of the policy, the idea may still get some play.
Now that Brexit is effectively settled and the direction of travel is clear, the Liberal Democrats face an uncertain 2020 but the opportunities to build a classical liberal post-Brexit agenda are theirs to seize.
Any liberal democracy needs a strong opposition to hold the government to account and many democrats will be worried about the Labour Party’s recent failure to do this. Look at every general election result since 1974 and you spot a clear pattern: Conservative, Conservative, Conservative, Conservative, Blair, Blair, Blair, Conservative/Lib Dem, Conservative, Conservative, Conservative.
Tony Blair was the only one to end the dominance of the Conservatives. As a former Labour Special Advisor under Blair explained, the secret to their electoral success was that they understood that in order to deliver the socialist ideal of higher state spending, they needed capitalism to create the wealth to generate the tax income to redistribute. Indeed, Peter Mandelson was famously quoted as saying “We are intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich as long as they pay their taxes.”
If the Labour Party could abandon their anti-wealth-creation agenda of recent years and perhaps even recall their rich history of self-help organisations, co-operatives and workers’ mutual and friendly societies, which were squeezed out by the ever-growing welfare state, this would be an agenda that could appeal to classical liberals. In addition, Labour could be at the forefront of challenging big business organisations and big banks who have benefitted from crony capitalism at the expense of smaller businesses, as well as challenging Conservatives on civil liberties.
Staff at the IEA support many different political parties and none, but as classical liberals we hope the ideas and ideals of liberty flourish on every side. Our work is dedicated to improving the understanding of the fundamental institutions of a free society by analysing and expounding the role of markets and non-state organisations in solving economic and social problems. To that end we are happy to work with all political parties and none.
In 2020, we hope the Conservatives will seek to deliver more economic and freedom and resist the authoritarian and higher spending urges of some of their colleagues.
We hope classical liberal voices in the Liberal Democrats become stronger and the party lays out free market domestic policies as it moves beyond Brexit.
We hope that Labour Party members and supporters who remain dedicated to redistribution of wealth do so through an appreciation of the market, the importance of a healthy private sector to drive the economy forward, and a belief that while the state can do good, there are plenty of non-state organisations that help those in need.
North of the border, we also hope that the SNP will eventually rediscover the rich tapestry of ideas from the Scottish enlightenment to create a less state-centred economy reliant on taxpayer funding and more on enterprise.
Whether any of this will arise in 2020 remains to be seen. At the IEA, we will continue to push for ideas and policies that can boost the fundamental institutions of a free society, and hope to work with politicians of any party who also support these principles.