Can Libertarianism Ever Be A Viable Force In British Politics?

The upcoming European elections, like every election, will present a dilemma for British libertarians. Ignoring the option of not voting at all, which party deserves the libertarian vote? Providing they supply some candidates, they did not last time; one could always opt for The Libertarian Party UK. But even if they did, how can libertarians really force change within the British electoral system when the only party that bares their name not only lacks the capacity to field viable candidates, but has not even updated the ‘news’ section of its website since April 2013?

Bar voting for independents or standing yourself, one is left with the option of casting their lot in with one of the four main UK parties. In doing so, one must acknowledge the realpolitik of the situation and realise that the process of steering party policy in a libertarian direction will be slow, arduous, and not guaranteed to succeed. In light of this, which of the four main parties can best serve as a conduit libertarian policy?

For obvious reasons, we will not dwell for too long on the possibility of the Labour party fulfilling this role. Left libertarianism, as epitomised by thinkers like Hillel Steiner, is of course a valid ideological position. However Ed Miliband’s Labour Party, who embrace policies of state intervention and support press regulation, would be as unwelcoming to left libertarians as they are to their more orthodox libertarian cousins.

The Liberal Democrat party is slightly better, but not by much. Whilst this party is still the home of some more classically minded liberals, such as David Laws and Jeremy Browne, they represent the vestiges of a Liberal party that has come to be almost wholly subsumed by the apparatchiks of the SDP. Even ignoring the overwhelming influence of the social democratic ideology dominating this party, it is unlikely that any libertarian would want to throw their lot in with a party that is so unashamedly pro-EU and appears to have jettisoned any pretence of liberalism when it too threw its weight behind press regulation. The best one could hope for with this party is that what began as a marriage of convenience between a much diminished Liberal Party and a fledging SDP ends in divorce and in doing so, opens up the political spectrum for the reinstatement of a political party that truly deserves to be called Liberal and the party of Gladstone.

Ukip is more problematic. This party describes itself as ‘a democratic, libertarian party’ and should therefore be the party of choice for the Libertarian voter. But a vote for Ukip must take into account two considerations; political reality and the validity of the libertarian label it assigns itself. With regard to the first issue, whilst I have given Ukip its due respect and classed it as one of the four major UK parties, the British electoral system has ensured that thus far it has no representatives in the UK’s main legislative chamber; The House of Commons. Furthermore, precedent and electoral arithmetic suggests that whilst UKIP will probably do well at the upcoming European elections, they will be lucky to win even a handful of seats at the 2015 general election. Whilst a breakthrough of this sort could put them in the powerful position of kingmaker come a hung parliament, we still have to contend with the second consideration; Even if Ukip make the leap from Strasbourg to Westminster, would they really represent the interests of Britain’s libertarians?

If the sole concern of the libertarian was the implication of flat taxes and a slimming of the state, then any reading of UKIP’s manifesto would lead one to believe that this party really is the party of choice. But as is often the case, actions speak louder than words, and it has become increasing apparent that Ukip has forsaken much of its libertarian credentials in pursuit of the populist courting of the reactionary right. This was manifested most clearly in its shrill objection to any recognition of same sex marriage, even though the legislation was drafted in a way to ensure that no religious group or individual is compelled to sanction or carry out a same-sex marriage (which one would believe ticks all the necessary libertarian boxes). This dichotomy is well documented on these pages by the former Ukip member Olly Neville and continuing, but no longer politically active, member; Alexandra Swann. Both of these individuals class themselves as libertarian and have suffered varying degrees of disillusionment with the party. It would appear from their experiences that any chance to reconnect Ukip with its libertarian roots its fast diminishing in the face of political expediency.

 This leaves the Conservative party. In all fairness, this party is probably more ideologically fractured than UKIP and is not above crude populism itself, as seen here. But the party does have some redeeming qualities that, in the mind of this columnist, make it the only viable party with which to further a libertarian agenda. Firstly, is our favourite friend, realpolitik. As an established party, with considerable resources and centuries of governing experience, the apparatus are in place to meaningfully change policy. Secondly; the selection of candidates with a realistic chance of winning seats, as well as party leaders, is still influenced by grass roots members, and with diminishing membership comes greater opportunity for libertarians to dominate selection. This is especially true since those who espouse a small c conservatism increasingly find refuge in with Ukip.  Thirdly, whilst there are many small c conservatives still within the party, the influence of groups such as Cornerstone has been diminishing and there are many prominent Conservatives with solid libertarian credentials such as Daniel Hannan, Douglas Carswell and Priti Patel.  Finally, if actions really do speak louder than words, then the fact the party did push ahead with legislating for gay marriage, despite the obvious discomfort of many of its MP’s and the damage done to its grass roots membership to the benefit of Ukip, deserves recognition. There are obvious failings of course, the eventual capitulation over a royal charter for press regulation to name but one, although this could be said to prevented a much worse outcome.

I recognise that, although used as a prominent example in this article, the issue of same sex marriage is not the only cause célèbre for the libertarian and is not the only consideration that should be taken into account.  But due to limited space, which I used up a couple of paragraphs ago, it was one example in many that could have been used to express why this columnist believes that, with no truly viable libertarian party in British politics, those libertarians who (perhaps paradoxically) are willing to forgo ideological purity for tangible results, would find their interests best served in the Conservative party.

Adam Hignett


  1. I was a Conservative voter for many years and even a party member for a while because of its more libertarian tendencies, but there’s a fine balance between libertarianism at all costs and the recognition that in a democracy changes should require a clear mandate from the electorate.

    Same sex marriage is a classic example of what’s wrong with the current Conservative leadership: a policy wildly unpopular with their own grass roots, only marginally of interest to most of the population, enacted in an environment where its alleged protections for freedom of conscience are subject to legal challenge in a higher court than Parliament (a concept I find deeply nonsensical), and which fails to create an equality of relationship between homo- and heterosexual variants of the institution.

    Given that the single biggest limitation on the liberty of the average Briton is the statist monolith of the EU this was little more than Nero fiddling whilst Rome burned.

    Perhaps if David Davis were party leader the Conservatives would look more appealing but in the current circumstances I suspect my vote will be going to UKIP at the next General Election, though as my local Labour MP will probably be returned once more with a 50+% share of the vote I doubt David Cameron will lose much sleep over this.

  2. Far too much mention of same sex marriage. The Conservatives did not merely back same sex marriage for equality, they also did because state backed marriage is a (social) conservative principle. I believe the libertarian stance on marriage is to completely privatise it, ie let organisations define it for themselves. The reasons UKIP gave for opposing it were understandable but I feel they still were hoping to attract social conservatives.

    One of the problems with the Tories is the leadership. If only David Davis had been the leader rather than pro-EU Cameron.


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