When you take sides in arguments those already in them tend to listen to you. There is now a faction of the Federation of Conservative Students called the “libbies”. The centrist, pro-Heath FCS faction is now cooperating with the far-right National Socialist faction of FCS (the nickname for which I will spare you) against these libbies.
And it really is libertarianism that is spreading, rather than some horrendous caricature of it. The centrists and National Socialists denounce the libbies for believing something genuinely libertarian, and the libbies then do some reading to find out what they’re accused of. There has been quite a change. Not long ago, self-proclaimed “libertarian” sympathisers were lining up with other “right-wingers” to demand, say, tighter immigration controls. Now the libbies are as opposed to the “loony right” as they are to the centrists, and are reading books that tell them why.
I was once a student at Essex University, and the venomous way these libbies talk about Edward Heath reminds me of the way that “hard left” (as they are now called) students used to talk about Wilson, Brown, Jenkins and Co, and has to be heard to be believed. (“Hard line” libertarians, they call themselves.) Think what those hard left students subsequently did to the entire Labour Party in the years since. I haven’t attended any of these FCS gatherings, but anyone concerned about the unity of the Conservative Party during the next twenty years ought, from what I hear, to be alarmed. The faction fighting in FCS is already beginning to spread outwards to the constituencies, just as it did in the Labour Party.
I suppose Conservative students have to quarrel about something, and so for them to be quarrelling about libertarianism is success, of a kind, for us. It would be an even greater success, for us if they could simply discuss libertarianism, without all the unpleasantness, but maybe that’s asking too much.
Meanwhile, disunity among their enemies could be a way back to power for the British left. Libertarians aren’t the only ones now insisting on the differences between Conservatism and libertarianism, as anyone who’s been reading the New Statesman lately will know.
One of the organisations now spreading an understanding of libertarian ideas within the Conservative Party is the deeply distrusted “Tory Reform Group” (based at deeply distrusted 9 Poland Street), whose tiny membership, widely regarded as leftist plants, are kite-flying a campaign to unite Conservative Party centrists and neo-fascists against the “menace of libertarianism”.
You can’t combat a menace without describing it, and inevitably some have preferred this menace to the ideas of those complaining about it.
So, we have a major political party, some of whose members are attracted by our ideas, even though these ideas are emphatically not a total endorsement of the party’s broad policy package. The flames of factionalism crackle, whereupon enemies of the party show up, brandishing fans.
Next question: could a similar process be made to happen within any of the other political parties? Our Conservative sympathisers react with horror to the thought. No chance! Corporatists! Socialists! It would be mere talk!! But “mere talk” is very important. Why else would we bother with the Conservative Party? Could it be that libertarian sympathisers in the Conservative Party, who have already embarked on careers of political activism, are afraid that they might have placed the wrong bets, and that they might have picked other less obvious but in the long run more advantageous political niches in which to advance their careers?
SDP IEA LINK
During the last few decades, the most effective organisation in Britain promoting free market ideas has been the Institute of Economic Affairs, the two leading spirits of which have been Ralph (now Lord) Harris, and Arthur Seldon. Seldon has recently been socialising with SDP leader David Owen, and an article by Owen is the lead (headlined on the front cover) in issue number 1 of Economic Affairs (released October 24th 1983), which is the revamped successor to the IEA’s Journal of Economic Affairs. Another recent IEA publication was Agenda For Social Democracy. IEA regulars had heard most of it before and were disappointed, but seen through SDP spectacles it packs more punch. Seldon also wrote a plug for the SDP (topped by photos of the Gang of Four) in Reason, a widely distributed American libertarian magazine. Can it then be coincidence that in among his more statist utterances recently, Owen has included some pro free market thoughts?
Imagine the effect of this on some SDP activist in the provinces, rung up by the local paper and asked to “comment”. “Well” (gulp) “I think these are very interesting ideas, that deserve to be, er, discussed. I think David Owen has a point here.” Etcetera. This from a person whose every public utterance until now has included denunciations of Thatcherite extremism. Soon he too will be hastily flicking through books, to find out what he’s said.
And what of the Liberals? Yes, says David Steel, they too have “always” supported the free market. True, the idea hasn’t been much discussed by liberals in recent years, but that is because it is “taken for granted” by them. The eagerness with which Tony Benn has lately been canvassing for the support of Liberal “community politicians” in the columns of The Guardian, suggests otherwise, for the Liberal Party is not what it was before Lloyd George got hold of it. The SDP is a better libertarian bet.
Anarchist LA member David Botsford was for a time a member of the SDP, and he informs me that, as in many Conservative circles, “politics” is not a subject members are encouraged to discuss, for this might damage party unity. The thing is to build up membership! Only the SDP’s leaders, it seems, may discuss policy issues. But sooner or later political arguments are bound to break out among mere members, and may even now be resulting in samizdat literature.
In the SDP, just as in the Conservative Party, there exists a ready market for anti-socialist ideas of any kind, for the appallingness of the hard left is part of SDP folklore. It’s what made them start their party in the first place. Libertarian ideas may (some of them) please Mrs Thatcher, but on the other hand they do have a gratifyingly apoplectic effect on leftists, so ideas loosely describable as libertarian are bound to surface in SDP arguments, without automatically being denounced, and become ammunition in SDP faction fights. And again, as with the Conservatives, the hard left will then use their various SDP moles and fronts to try to exacerbate these differences.
SAY IT AND DO IT
The free market is not the only rhetorical wave of the immediate future, but it is certainly one of them, and the SDP’s best strategy will be to use this fact, not fight it. We already have a mixed economy, so there is no need to believe in it, and every reason not to. What the SDP should do is hurl the free market verbiage of the Conservatives back in their faces.
What about all those fatcat landowners in the cabinet, guzzling farm subsidies? What of all the lawyers on the Conservative back benches, running the tightest state enforced closed shop there is, and of the upper-class unions and their restrictive practices generally? What of the protectionist manoevres indulged in by the big corporations that pay the Conservatives’ election expenses? The only reason the Conservatives haven’t been embarrassed this way long ago is that no mainstream politician has tried it.
There is nothing intrinsically upper-class about libertarianism. Of all people, the poor gain most from freedom and from the economic institutions that result from it, because competing employers bid up the price of labour, and competing tradesmen bid down the price of goods for the resulting mass market. It is the capitalist countries of the would-be developing world which have done best for their poor people, not the collectivist ones.
Nor need the egalitarian urges of the SDP be outraged by the entertainment of libertarian ideas. If there existed now, or had ever existed, any state-dominated society with more equality between members of it than occurs in the free market, then the libertarian belief that equality is not even desirable would be a problem for the SDP. As it is the question is hypothetical, like the one about whether freedom is better than prosperity, or vice versa (the reality being that the choice is between both or neither.)
It is precisely the radicalism of “laissez-faire ideology” that makes shrewder Conservative strategists so wary of it, and so likely to resist any attempt by the present government to take it seriously during the next few years.
The absence of any intellectual tradition behind the SDP has its advantages. The last thing the Labour Party wants is to compare the reality of the Thatcher government with its free market rhetoric. For ideas are like muscles; when you use them you strengthen them. (The Labour version of events is that the Thatcher government is the result of free market rhetoric.) But the SDP need not worry about strengthening the free market case. It should attack the present government by saying: they talk about the free market, but we’ll do it. Conservative rhetoric has its virtues, but the reality of the Conservative Party makes it incapable of living up this rhetoric. We’ll do something they’ll never do; we’ll apply the free market to them!
The SDP argument is not so much that the ideas of the Conservative and Labour Parties are wrong, as that they are both class based rather than national parties. Although all manner of people vote Labour and vote Conservative, the money comes from the big unions and big business. The two major parties are, so to speak, wondrously successful pressure groups, which have succeeded in presenting their own special interests as the “national interest”.
SPREAD OF IDEAS BUT NOT TRIUMPH
Libertarians cannot be so optimistic about the SDP itself, for it too is a political party, and if it succeeds in digging itself in for the long fight, it too will attach itself to a particular social milieu and push for the interests of those who inhabit it. The SDP hopes to take only the good ideas from Labour and from the Conservatives, but is just as likely to take bad ones.
Consider democracy. Democracy is a wondrously effective way of wrecking an organisation, so naturally the Conservative and Labour Parties want to inflict it on their enemies, the unions and big business respectively. The Labour Party being the Labour Party, they also want to inflict it on each other. (If democracy did any good, people would do it to themselves and their friends, not their enemies.) With luck each group will swap inaction on each front for inaction on the others, and British society will, if it knows what’s good for it, heave a sigh of relief. But the SDP wants to democratise everybody and everything.
But this leaflet is about the spreading of libertarian ideas, not their triumph. So long as our ideas are understood, and taken seriously even by those who utterly disagree with them, then for the moment we’ll be content.
NO LIBERTARIAN PARTY
None of the above scenarios of intellectual cross-fertilisation would be happening so easily if the libertarian movement in Britain ever became the Libertarian Party.
US libertarian Richard Wilcke, of the Council for a Competitive Economy, writing in response to Political Notes 5 (Liberty Versus Democracy), reports that the existence of the US Libertarian Party actually interrupts the spread of libertarian ideas. What happens is that some mainstream politician makes a few vaguely libertarian noises, but instead of welcoming this development and sending polite letters enclosing pamphlets, LP officials react with fury. How dare this man steal our votes.
Libertarians ought not to be fussing about votes, and as for people stealing libertarian ideas, well, that’s one of the ideas. We want the Conservatives, the SDP, and, yes, Labour and the Liberals, to steal our ideas and embarrass each other with them. That won’t happen if we insist that we alone are capable of wise thoughts.
Wilcke advises us not to form a Libertarian Party here, and we weren’t intending to. His letter suggests rather that if someone else ever does this, we ought to do everything to blow the operation out of the water, with, perhaps, well timed leaflets about the laws against heroin. (We oppose the laws against heroin.)
The full text of Wilcke’s letter is, I’m told, to be published in a future issue of Free Life, the quarterly journal of the Libertarian Alliance.
Political Notes No. 12
ISSN 0267-7059 ISBN 1 85637 192 1 An occasional publication of the Libertarian Alliance, 25 Chapter Chambers, Esterbrooke Street, London SW1P 4NN http://www.libertarian.co.uk email: email@example.com © 1985: Libertarian Alliance; Brian Micklethwait. The views expressed in this publication are those of its author, and not necessaril those of the Libertarian Alliance, its Committee, Advisory Council or subscribers. Director: Dr Chris R. Tame Editorial Director: Brian Micklethwait Webmaster: Dr Sean Gabb