Liberty in the U.K.
May 2015
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Liberty in the U.K.

by Matthew Lacey

British Libertarianism is good, but we're engaging with it for the wrong reasons.Last week the British electorate chose the Conservative Party to govern the country and by default, David Cameron to reinstate his position as Prime Minister. With his re-election Cameron managed something not achieved by a British incumbent since Anthony Eden in 1955-- to grow both his share of the popular vote and his volume of seats in the House of Commons. This means that the Conservatives now hold a slim majority and can govern without the support of a coalition partner as was necessary when he took office in 2010. It is an extraordinary feat for PM and party, in a country with an increasingly fractured electorate and rising concern about the effect of government austerity on the poor. This was also an election that was projected almost unanimously to conclude with a second successive coalition government.

The "small" major party in British politics, the Liberal Democrats were the ideologically centrist partner to Cameron in the 2010 coalition who have been all but wiped from the political map 5 years later. Their number of MP's in Westminster tumbling from 57 in 2010 to just 8 in 2015. The partnership was divisive at the time amongst UK Liberals and as the torrid election numbers show, they have been duly punished for getting into bed with the Tories, despite their valid stated reason for doing so -- to put country before party and provide stable government, in the midst of an economic crisis. This was a "cruel and punishing" election according to the now former deputy Prime Minister and Lib Dems party leader, Nick Clegg.

Britain is a country where recently, libertarianism and liberalism have had limited public debate, certainly when compared to the US. As was the case with this election, the economy, taxation and the National Health Service are areas in which voters can feel the day-to-day consequence in their lives. If I am taxed more, I can measure the implication in my pay check at the end of the month. If wait times in NHS Accident and Emergency departments increase this year, I can see and feel that compared to last year. Therefore these subjects garner much more in the way of column inches and provide a suitably easy base for journalistic questioning, pointing at previous failings or the realism associated with projected successes. Less measurably, a little time is also given to parties apparent leanings. Right vs. left and each parties capacity to govern for the interest of the many instead of the few.

Since Thatcherism in the 1980's split the UK between north and south both economically and ideologically, the two largest parties in the UK Labour and Conservative, have increasingly sought the appearance at least, of proximity to the ideological centre. A necessity in a country that broadly understands the economic success available with free trade and limited private regulation, but also desires widespread equality and believes vehemently in its public health service. In a country that wants its cake and to eat it, politicians have had to spread their ideologies thinly to appeal to as many potential voters as possible.

But, in 2015 the left/right dichotomy was reinstated after Labours Ed Miliband, foolishly in hindsight, looked to appeal to the moderates and "vulnerable". Now another recent ex party leader, he wanted to engage those who were still raging at the perceived lack of consequences in the financial sector post 2008 and the apparent gains for the rich under the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition. In doing so, he gave the Tories license to sidestep back out of the middle and towards their strengths of driving the economy and focus on wealth creation instead of wealth distribution. Despite the fact that only 37% of votes cast were Conservative, because of the countries first past the post election system, the UK elected the latter. As a by product (although quite likely in reaction to the 2010 coalition) the 2010 Lib Dem voters ousted their centrist views and voted elsewhere in 2015. Britain made a choice to back Cameron's manifesto of balancing the economy through further cuts in public spending and wringing out any GDP growth the country can manage. Unbeknownst to many Conservative voters this also means a move toward a more libertarian approach of governance. Most notably this will start with quickly scrapping Labour's Human Rights Act (HRA), which subsequently aligns closely a national in/out referendum in 2017 on our inclusion as a member of the EU. The HRA broadly sets out fundamental rights and freedoms that individuals inside the borders of the UK have access to, including the right to fair trial, freedom from torture or degrading treatment and freedom of expression. Whilst the Conservatives say that these rights are entirely sensible with regard to their inclusion in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), the HRA undermines the role of UK courts and goes beyond the UK's obligations under the ECHR. The EU referendum is similarly driven by the UK's perception that the EU represses the country's political liberty. The promise of a referendum is driven by Eurosceptic Tory backbenchers and the broader electorates concerns regarding immigration.

But what implications would a repeal of the HRA and/or EU exit have for liberalism here? And frankly, for compassion in a society built with an understanding of welfare and consideration of the less advantaged at its post war heart?

As is arguably becoming more prevalent across the west, the UK electorate is buying into the idea that we should be scared first and considerate second. That we should fear people born outside our borders and that many of them want to cross that line to take our jobs and claim our benefits. If not to claim our benefits, then they are here to do harm and hurt us and as such we should be able to lock up or deport whomever we see fit, for whatever we deem fit. As the political classes have indulged or in some cases - such as that of the emergent Eurosceptic UK Independence Party - played on these anxieties, unwittingly they have legitimised the stripping of our empathy and started a stimulation of assertive change, maybe without reasonable thought to its long term implication. Regardless of any truth that exists in examples of modern immigrants coming to Britain for benefits or jobs, or extremists who seek opportunity to do harm to British citizens, courting a culture of fear engages our less rational selves and with it, on mass we lurch dangerously close to becoming fundamentalists ourselves. Fundamentalist nationalists, conservatives or libertarians against the cause without really considering the effect. Fundamentalist believers in the idea that foreigners are a negative influence in our country and communities, despite the fact that according to the Fiscal Impact of Immigration study, migrants to the UK made a net contribution of £20bn ($31bn) between 2000 and 2011. Fundamentalist fear of Islam on a similarly blanket basis, despite the fact that less than 1% of Muslims in western Europe are "at risk" of radicalisation according to research by Angel Rabasa, author of Euro Jihad and senior political scientist at RAND, a global policy think tank.

You could argue though that is right, why shouldn't we be able to decide who is in our country and under what terms they are here? It makes sense and it should be up to those that control a country's borders, what goes on inside them. But this is not the issue. The concern for the British people should be our motivation for engaging with this dialogue and who might be demonised in the process. Are we acting on fear? If so, are we considering the consequences of acting on that? A referendum on the EU should bring with it debate and discussion about the pros and cons of our part in the union, but the public must make the effort to be informed for themselves across a spectrum of opinion. We should not take what we are told by anyone -- politician, newspaper or and other information source -- as gospel and correct.

In his concession speech last week, Clegg stated "Fear and grievance have won. Liberalism has lost. And it is more precious than ever". This culture of fear is taking hold and clouding our thinking. We should do our utmost to remedy that in order that we can make these and other decisions relating to individual liberty, with a clear head.