Libertarianism in the UK

Ben (of Contrarian Moderate) writes in comments of the previous post:

My sense is that the UK Conservative party is a much better fit for libertarians than the US Republican party is, and that were Wilkinson in the UK, he wouldn’t be looking to rearrange coalitions. The Republican party is not only more extreme on social issues, it hasn’t been conservative at all economically. The current Republican coalition seems to be social conservatives + older voters who don’t want their entitlements cut, which is the worst combination for libertarians.

Is this really true?

Obviously all political parties are coalitions, but the Republican Party definitely has a libertarian wing, and the Tea Party has a strong libertarian core to it. Moreover libertarianism is embedded into US politics by being able to rely on the constitution as a focal point. Definitely there is an element to the Republicans as the party of Medicare… but in the UK, the Conservatives are committed to maintaining a single-payer public option for healthcare, with spending rising inexorably. Meanwhile there just isn’t a libertarian presence in UK politics at all. The Conservatives are much better than the Republicans on the free market, but are (from a libertarian perspective) much worse on social issues. An established church, gun control, opposition to gay marriage, anti-immigration, anti-drugs, tough on crime, restrictions on campaign spending, etc – these are pretty much shared by all wings of the Conservatives. On social issues, a libertarian would be sympathising with the Lib Dems, but they are essentially a party of the progressive left, with all that implies for economic issues.

The Conservative Party has two wings – the “One Nation” wing, and the “Thatcherite” wing, to which I belong. The “One Nation” wing is the party of Macmillan and “The Middle Way,” the party which Hayek was writing about in his famous essay. Clearly they are anathema to libertarians, but the Conservative Party will never be elected without their support. They are economically and socially mixed, but their social mixture is if anything less libertarian than the so-cons, because it is paternalist.

I’m afraid the Thatcherite wing is not much better from a libertarian perspective. It is committed to the free market, but socially it is if anything more conservative (although less paternalistic) than the One Nation Tories. Thatcher famously said about Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty “This is what we believe” and there is definitely a civil libertarian element to the Thatcherite wing – they are better than the One Nation wing on things like arbitrary detention and school choice, but much worse on things like gay rights and immigration.

In the US, a libertarian could plausibly hope for a Tea Party takeover of the Republican Party, followed by Republican control of the White House and Senate, under a very libertarian programme. In the UK, the best a libertarian could hope for is the current administration, which is still a million miles away from being libertarian.

It may be true that Will Wilkinson would be happier as a Tory, but that is because the Conservatives are far less populist and anti-intellectual than the comparatively boorish Republicans, so it might make him feel more intellectually respectable. Note though that it wouldn’t tone down the hatred from the left, he still would get as much or more hostility from liberals at cocktail parties. And the flipside is that the Conservatives are far, far less electable than the Republicans.

Ultimately, UK politics is a desolate ground for libertarians. The most prominent one we have is Daniel Hannan, and even he is probably better known in the US than he is here.

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