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Is a political realignment in the offing?

My Times column on the politics of liberty:

As the Ukip campaign ploughs steadily farther off the rails into the anti-immigrant bushes, in search presumably of former British National Party voters, it becomes ever easier for small-government, classical liberals — like me — to resist its allure. Nigel Farage once advocated flat taxes, drug decriminalisation and spending cuts. Now his party has dropped the flat tax, opposes zero-hours contracts, is hostile to gay marriage and talks about subsidising farmers and growing the defence budget.

Meanwhile, the Conservative party has probably never been so socially tolerant, or the Labour party so socially reactionary, as they are today. Is a great realignment possible, with the old Gladstonian coalition of economic free-marketers and social liberals gradually re-emerging, with Labour, Ukip, the Greens and the Lib Dems left appealing to those who fear change?

For most of the 20th century, if you wanted the state to stay out of economics you had to vote for a Conservative party that paradoxically believed in a strong authoritarian state when it came to defence, law and order and public morality: telling people what to do in the bedroom but not the boardroom. Likewise if you wanted the state to plan the economy, you had to vote for a Labour party that wanted to be permissive, socially and morally.

Odd, that. Surely, wanting government to stay out of the economy should go with wanting government to stay out of society too. They went together in the 19th century, after all. Radical liberals who campaigned against war, colonialism, slavery, political patronage and the established church were usually furiously free-market libertarians on economics: people such as Richard Cobden, Harriet Martineau, Herbert Spencer or WE Gladstone.

Cobden, said one of his biographers, “believed in individual liberty and enterprise, in free markets, freedom of opinion and freedom of trade”. But he also was an implacable pacifist and refused a baronetcy from a monarch he disapproved of. Nobody would have dreamt of calling him a rightwinger.

Liberals were trying to lift the dead hand of the corrupt and tyrannical state from the market economy as well as from the private life of the citizen. Who remembers now that the demonstration attacked at Peterloo was in favour of free trade as well as political reform, or that the Chartists were founder members of the Anti-Corn Law League?

The rise of Marxism changed all that. Suddenly the apparatus of the state, far from being seen as the weapon of an oppressive elite, began to be seen as the servant of the proletariat. The last of the Gladstonian liberals died out in the first decades of the 20th century — people such as John Morley, who resigned from Asquith’s cabinet over the declaration of war in 1914 but firmly opposed social welfare legislation too. A final hurrah was the lonely career of Sir Ernest Benn, Tony’s uncle, who was a left-wing, free-market libertarian and managed to get identity cards scrapped after the Second World War.

By then the “Liberal” party, as well as the Labour party, wanted to plan the economy, even as the state withdrew from religious, social and moral finger-wagging. The Tories wanted the opposite: hanging, flogging, church and army, but free enterprise. Tony Blair dragged the Labour party towards more authoritarian policies on crime, defence and welfare, and away from them on economic planning. Ed Miliband has reversed that economic liberalisation, with his plethora of planned interventions in commercial markets, but he has not moderated the social authoritarianism. Thus the Labour party, representing public sector unions and public sector institutions, looks more than ever like the 19th-century Tory party: the NHS is the Labour party at prayer.

Under David Cameron, however, and even more under the influence of the 2010 intake of Tory MPs, the Conservatives have been wetter than Labour on some social policies — gay marriage, press regulation, even warfare — and have remained pretty dry on economic policies. Only in areas such as energy (a Lib Dem fief) is the top-down, nanny-knows-best approach to commerce still tolerated in this government — and the tolerance is wearing thin.

The realignment still has a long way to go but if it continues, the Tory party after the next election will look a lot more like the party of Cobden and Gladstone than the one of Salisbury or even Thatcher. After all, Daniel Hannan MEP and Douglas Carswell go round singing the praises of the Levellers who mutinied against Oliver Cromwell in 1649: these were not proto-socialists but proto-libertarians who demanded free trade, low taxes, limited government and freedom of the individual. So maybe I will live to see a party that wants free trade and free speech; free enterprise and free movement of people; free markets and free thinking. A couple of years ago that party might have been Ukip; not now.

I may be guilty of wishful thinking. On immigration, almost nobody — apart from Boris Johnson — is making liberal noises now. The landslide victory of Narendra Modi’s BJP in India is a reminder that the old Reagan-Thatcher strategy of putting together a coalition of social authoritarians and economic liberals can still work well. Tony Abbott in Australia and Stephen Harper in Canada pulled off the same trick.

In America, that coalition has fractured. Ronald Reagan governed mostly as a libertarian after being elected mostly as a social conservative. His Republican successors are sharply divided between the ever more libertarian Ron and Rand Paul and Gary Johnson — who oppose military intervention — and the ever more reactionary Christian conservatives such as Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, who desire big government to combat the rise of drugs, terrorists, gays and immigration.

In today’s Britain, the free-market/permissive coalition could work. Surveys show that people coming out of university are strikingly liberal in both respects. They want to be free to make money in any way they want, but they also want to be free to make love in any way they want. Much more than their elders, they dislike deficits, welfare spending and trade unions, but they have little affection for the armed forces. They also have no time for homophobia, xenophobia or sexism. They echo the great 19th-century French economist Frédéric Bastiat, who when asked for his “plan”, replied: “Liberty within and peace without: this is the entire plan.”

By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist  the-times