What space in British politics for those who really believe in individual freedom?
The recent vote on same-sex marriage has shown how shrunken is the space in British politics for those who value a consistent notion of individual freedom and choice.
Take the Conservative Party: this is a group of people who see themselves as the defenders of the individual against the predations of the state. And yet, over half the parliamentary party voted against reducing the role statute has in the personal lives and choices of gay people. Strip out those who voted for the Bill because of loyalty to the Government and the proportion would probably be much higher.
The Labour Party, on the other hand, saw only 22 vote against the Bill and 217 in favour. And yet this is a party that is far more relaxed about the expansion of state powers particularly in areas such as regulation, economic intervention and tax.
The truth is when you dig down into the beating ideological heart of our MPs and their grassroots supporters beyond the carefully crafted policy statements and the leadership speeches (what Henry Drucker called the party ‘ethos’) you find that British politics is dominated by one party that believes economic freedom is more important than social and political freedom and one that believes the opposite. A division that neatly matches the distinction John Tomasi makes between the philosophical schools of ‘classical liberalism’ and ‘high liberalism’ that have been so influential in each respective party.
In essence, Conservatives are comfortable to let the economy run its course and develop its own unpredictable features based on trillions of individual choices but, mostly, have very clear views about the shape of society, constitution and culture and are happy to use the power of the state to impose that view no matter what the principle of individual freedom may demand.
Labour have clear views about the economy and will use the state to tweak and shape as they see fit to achieve certain outcomes even if that means effectively expropriating more income or constraining certain economic behaviours. But the Party is far more comfortable about a wide diversity of choices and unpredictable outcomes in the spheres of lifestyle and culture.
This is a dispiriting state of affairs if, like me, you tend towards the view that individual freedom and choice in economic life AND in social, political and cultural life is a good thing. Indeed, those in both parties who share this view seem constantly on the defensive these days. The progressive conservatives led by Cameron are being crushed by a wave of backbench traditionalists. And in Labour, speaking up in praise of the market and economic freedoms is most definitely not a route to a triumphant political career.
It is almost as if a certain strand of political thinking, which probably represents a fair proportion of the general public’s view, is gradually being squeezed out of existence.