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UKIP is not a libertarian party - Spectator Blogs

27 November 2012

1:11 AM

27 November 2012

1:11 AM

I’m sure, as James says, that the idea of some kind of Tory-UKIP non-aggression pact will not go away. But that’s because many Tory backbenchers are remarkably stupid. Proponents of a Tory-UKIP alliance ignore the stubborn fact that many voters – voters the Tories need if they are to win a majority – aren’t too keen on UKIP. There is no point adding one vote from the right if it costs you two from the middle, mainstream ground of British politics. Besides, the Tories are not every UKIP voter’s second-choice and, anyway, the real battle is for the Liberal Democrat vote.

Be that as it may, it is UKIP’s insistence that it is a libertarian party that annoys me. Granted, there are many brands of libertarian and UKIP can describe itself as it wants. However that also means there’s no need for libertarian-minded voters to accept UKIP’s own definition of the tendency.

That’s not to say that UKIP’s views are uniformly hostile to liberty. The party – or, at any rate, Nigel Farage – has a saner attitude to our drug laws than some might expect or than anything offered by the present government. I also approve of its opposition to anti-tobacco legislation and, though it is hardly a matter of the most pressing concern, its support for local people to decide whether fox-hunting should be permitted in their county.


I find it hard to read the What We Stand For page on UKIP’s website and conclude that UKIP is a liberal party. And since, in my experience, libertarians tend to be liberals I find myself wondering if UKIP’s self-defined libertarianism is actually all that libertarian.

And that’s before you even ponder nonsense such as the assertions that 75 per cent of all British law is ‘dictated’ by ‘Commissioners in Brussels’, that the ‘EU controls Immigration, Business and Employment, Financial Services, Fishing, Farming, Law and Order, Energy and Trade’ and that other European countries ‘depend on us for their markets’.

Well, it’s a point of view.

UKIP’s euro-mania may be its unique selling point, but it’s actually perhaps the least troubling element of the party’s platform. Much of the rest of it, at least as itemised on its website, appears to advocate massively reducing government revenues and simultaneously increasing expenditure on items UKIP deems vital. That’s politics, of course, but it’s politics as written on the back of a beer mat, not the kind of stuff that makes any real sense.

So, sure, merging national insurance and income tax is intuitively sensible and a single 31 per cent rate of tax at least has the advantage of being easy to understand. But actually implementing this is a different matter. Moreover and even though I rather approve of UKIP’s desire to increase the tax-free personal allowance it does not take a bear of any great brain to appreciate that the already-wealthy will be the biggest beneficiaries of UKIP’s tax policies.

Since the party also proposes to eliminate employer’s national insurance and VAT (replacing it with a local sales tax) one does wonder where the money will come from to pay for the services UKIP pledges to protect.

Because despite all the talk of cutting government down to size, UKIP’s ‘mission statement’ is awkwardly silent on what parts of the government – other than contributions to the EU! – might be axed. I mean, there’s a pledge to ‘bring Quangos under Parliament’s control and cut the cost substantially’ and that’s about it. Really, there’s not much more than that. Who knew John Bull rode a unicorn?

Take energy, for example. UKIP wish to eliminate subsidies for renewable energy and, er, replace them with subsidies for nuclear power. That’s a policy for sure but it’s not necessarily a cheaper one. And since UKIP also want – not altogether unreasonably – to ‘give the public power to require binding local and national referenda on major issue’ it’s not certain they would even be able to build their new nuclear power stations either. What if the people say No?

Global warming, of course, ‘is not proven’ (actually it is; the question is what is the most effective and efficient way of dealing with it) and we need to free ourselves from ‘dependence’ on ‘foreign oil and gas’. Why? Because it is oil and gas or because it is foreign? It’s not clear. (The mainstream libertarian view is that it doesn’t much matter where we source these commodities.)

Indeed, the only government department whose budget UKIP promises to slash is, naturally, International Development. I suspect much of that budget is spent with dubious efficiency and all the rest of it but the idea cutting foreign aid will pay for everything else is populist wankery of the most deceitful kind.

This should not surprise. UKIP is a right-wing populist – even Poujadist – party. And that’s fine! But labeling themselves such is at least more accurate than the pretense they are really libertarians.

It’s a queer sort of libertarian that wants to double the number of Britons incarcerated at Her Majesty’s pleasure. But that’s UKIP’s policy. A crowd-pleasing policy perhaps but not necessarily a libertarian one. And while it is true that many libertarians see a useful role for referendums and direct democracy, I think it is also true that many libertarians are quite rightly sensible to the fact that many of our fellow-citizens are not at all liberal and that, this being regrettably so, the tyranny of the majority is much to be feared.

Again, increasing the police budget and spending more on national defence (another thing for which UKIP stands) are perfectly respectable views. Even so, a libertarian-minded fiscal hawk might wonder where the money will come to pay for all this. He – it is usually a he – might also wonder if UKIP’s support for eliminating university tuition fees and boosting the ‘Citizen’s Pension’ to a ‘substantial’ level is really compatible with reducing public debt. He only asks, you know.

But he might also wonder if UKIP’s enthusiasm for increasing the state’s power is really all that compatible with libertarianism as the term is at least sometimes (and in my mind, properly) understood. UKIP wishes to ‘Free the police force from the straitjacket of political correctness’ and it wants to repeal the Human Rights Act because this is necessary to ‘end abuses by convicted criminals and illegal immigrants’. Perhaps. There is, mind you, at least a credible libertarian argument for supposing that placing limits on the police’s powers is one way to protect individuals from the state. Equally, it must be possible that the protections afforded by the Human Rights Act are not exclusively enjoyed by ‘criminals’ and ‘illegal immigrants’ and might also be something to be cherished by clean-living, stout-hearted Britons.

Then there’s the dog-whistling. ‘Permanent’ immigration should be frozen for five years (why only five?) and thereafter only open to those who are well-educated, wealthy and ‘fluent in English’. In other words: Australians and some South Africans are fine, Poles and Nigerians may be less welcome.

Again, I am sure this is a view that would poll rather well. I’m also sure it’s not the traditional libertarian view. UKIP profess a belief in free trade but they’re also happy to restrict freedom of movement. I think this economically suspect but, in some respects, that’s less important than the substance of the dog-whistle which is, in the end, unfortunately xenophobic.And since libertarianism is, at its best, an internationalist creed this seems antithetical to libertarianism in the terms I understand it.

UKIP make this pretty clear in the final section of What We Stand For. They say: ‘Our traditional values have been undermined’. But what are those traditional values? A whites-only immigration policy? Women in the kitchen? The working-classes knowing their place? Gays denied the right to marry one another? UKIP doesn’t say.

It gets worse. ‘Children are taught to be ashamed of our past.’ Really? It is not so long since I was at school myself but I do not recall – outside of divinity lessons – any great instruction on how to feel properly ashamed. Must I now presume that my friends and relatives who are teachers are actually indoctrinating their pupils in a massive programme of national self-abasement?

Then there’s this. ‘Multiculturalism has split our society’. Well, define your terms please. If by multiculturalism you mean those people who are stupidly tolerant of forced marriages, honour killing and the general thwarting of women’s rights to self-expression and fulfillment, then you have a point. But those people are in a minority. There are some obvious – and serious – problems with integration but there is nothing wrong with multiculturalism provided those myriad cultures operate within the norms of British standards of behaviour. Below that common denominator there is ample room for difference and individual preference.

But if you fail to define what you mean by multiculturalism you should not be surprised – or act offended – if some people wonder if your use of the loaded, imprecise word ‘multiculturalism’ is actually code for something else.

UKIP conclude that ‘Political correctness is stifling free speech’. Actually, it is Britain’s parliamentarians, cloth-brained prosecutors and fatheaded police officers who are doing that. Can’t blame Europe for this. And yet these are the people and authorities whom UKIP argue should be given more power, not less. It’s a rum old world right enough. But should we be surprised by any of this? Probably not. After all, senior UKIP figures want to pass laws telling British citizens what clothes they may  – or rather, may not – wear. Live and let live? Up to a point, mate.

I don’t think UKIP do themselves any real favours with any of this. The UKIP supporters I know (small sample-size alert!) are not, really, on board with this kind of tripe. There’s a whole heap of stupidity out there – as Rotherham social services have recently demonstrated – without there being any need to add to it. Nevertheless, what’s deemed political correctness these days used to have a different name: good manners. It’s not ‘politically incorrect’ to tell a Paki joke, it’s just usually stupid, boorish and rude. And while we can all agree that ‘PC culture’ has occasionally plumbed extraordinary depths of witlessness it is – or, rather, should be – at its best a reminder to treat people as individuals not citizens defined by their ethnicity, religion, class, gender or sexual orientation. Bureaucracy struggles with this; libertarians need not.

Most of all, however, I think the libertarian tendency is a matter of temperament. At its best I believe that libertarianism is relaxed, open-minded, forward-facing and optimistic. It is a tendency that believes, occasionally naively, in humanity. There is a cussed don’t-tread-on-me streak to it too for sure, but fundamentally libertarians believe the best is yet to come. They embrace the future. (It’s not, I think, a coincidence that many libertarians are sci-fi geeks.)

This necessarily means there’s a tension between libertarians, Tories and Conservatives (the latter two being overlapping but still distinct groups). That can be a good thing, not least since – again at their best – each group should usefully challenge the others’ prejudices, assumptions and preferences.

UKIP, on the other hand, strikes me as being a party for reactionaries and monomaniacal euro-obsessives. Their vision of Britain is, I can’t help but feel, a Britain besieged and on the point of collapse. Despite Mr Farage’s cheeky-squirrel countenance and pawky, two-gins-before-lunch demeanor, they seem a party of terrible pessimists, convinced the world has gone to the dogs. They are an angry party for angry people, and while libertarians are often and rightly dismayed by politics (and would like to be left unbothered by politics) I like to think that an essential part of libertarianism is its faintly touching belief that many things are getting better.

Not least because they are. Britain, like other developed countries, is in many – and  many significant – ways a better, freer, more tolerant, liberal, happy, relaxed place than it was back in the day. There are serious difficulties that must be overcome but the trend toward human freedom – in Britain and, in fact, across the world – has been moving in the right direction. This is a good time to be alive and, recent economic setbacks notwithstanding, most of our people have never had it so good. If that is true here it is even truer in other, less ostensibly fortunate, parts of the world.

Libertarianism is a broad church but, in the end, if I’m a libertarian then UKIP can’t be very libertarian. And, of course, vice versa.

PS: UKIP’s website also offers you the chance to enter a draw for a whole, shiny, real Gold Sovereign. Because, as you know, gold is ‘a safe haven in troubled times’. Perhaps it is. But appealing to goldbugs is a sure sign of crankery.

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