Video: Is UKIP a comfortable home for libertarians?

Harry kicked off the talk by saying that unfortunately UKIP has suffered from some misconceptions but his mind was made up that UKIP was a comfortable home for adherents of the non-aggression principle. I did find it strange that the very next thing Harry said was that objectively UKIP is not libertarian, which for me somewhat conceded the proposition to the floor. Why did he say that?

Factually, UKIP does support an income tax, and it supports state-provided healthcare and education paid for from that tax, which means there will be redistribution of wealth under a coercive system. Yet UKIP, he claimed, was libertarian leaning and the most libertarian leaning of any party. That meant that Harry could feel at home.

For Harry ideas that are not put into action are inert, and putting them into action is very hard work. That means having an institutional party to do that hard work.

A party has several aspects, which Harry listed:

  • Policies, which are what you stand for but have to be a blend between what you believe and what is achievable.
  • Voters, in order to win elections, must be won in large numbers which necessitates policies that have broad appeal.
  • Constitution, allowing a specific ideological stance
  • Members, who’s stances shifts over time but which is also visible to voters.

Harry claimed that it is not possible to achieve “broad cultural change” without participating in elections. That “teeth” and broad appeal were required to make those changes. He dismissed pressure groups as incapable of achieving change outside of narrow issues or policy areas.

He told us that most voters vote in a positive way for a party they want to see govern, not in a negative tactical way; and that voters want to know where you are coming from as a group and from where you get support. The reason for that is that they want to know that while in government, responding to changing circumstances, your instincts and incentives match their own. If you don’t talk to people about healthcare and education and the whole host of other things that they get from politicians, from the state, then they won’t be interested in talking to you voting for you.

Harry claimed that UKIP is libertarian in its constitutional document, which now contains a sound statement of intent. So people will look to it’s constitution and know the party’s instincts.

At this point, Harry went on to make his main point, that when people look beyond the paperwork to the members they will demonstrate libertarian credentials. The young people joining UKIP are libertarians and those new members will slowly shift the dominant ideology of the group and leave the old school of Tories and anti-EU lefties stranded and ready to leave. The party must have mainstream policies for the reasons above, but people will apparently know where their heart is by looking at this membership.

So what of those policies?

Harry boasted UKIP’s Friedmanite voucher system to introduce choice, diversity and value to education. He boasted the flat tax policy which, though being a tax, was at least transparent and difficult to meddle with. He defended the policy of direct democracy and referenda. On this, he acknowledged the tyranny of the mob but suggested it was a useful protection against bureaucrats in areas where decisions must necessarily be democratic. On spending he was proud of UKIP’s pledge to scrap whole programmes worth 10% of spending.

The burka ban, immigration, and gay marriage he had less time for, but suggested they were not as illiberal as we might have heard and benefited from a closer examination.

Making his final pitch, Harry reminded us that a party is essential for effecting broad change; that attracting defecting voters was hardwork, but UKIP’s package, spokespeople and branch institutions allowed it to build a base of habitual UKIP voters; that the institution needs to be paid for, which means having members which must be attracted by having broad appeal and a good package.

He addressed the idea that the EU focus made UKIP seem transient, and claimed that awareness of its other policies allowed it to gain a form of permanence (because the referendum rug cannot be pulled out from under them if they stand on the other issues).

He said UKIP has an opportunity to stake out the classical liberal ground. That it is starting to steal votes from Labour as well as the Tories and that this was thanks to this package and its broad appeal.

My conclusions

Frankly, having played the talk through a couple of times I’m confused. It seems strange to me that a party can have ideologically compromised mainstream policies that are not objectively libertarian when examined, and yet be observably libertarian to the public. I’m not sure it matters that UKIP doesn’t really use the word libertarian or name the movement’s principles, but the limitations of mass media mean voters won’t receive the detailed explanations Harry offered us.

Also, the basic claim made is contradictory on it’s face. It is as if Harry said “it is essential to effect changes via elections and people will vote for our mainstream authoritarian policies because they like how libertarian we are underneath”. It might be awfully clever politically but I have no idea how that can actually work.

I want to support something that talks explicitly about moral principles and changes the assumptions about what is and is not beyond the pale. That’s something that blogs and books did for me by explaining over and over why today’s news events are good or bad. If a policy suggestion is well-intended but coercive I’d like to see TV pundits and newspaper columnists chew it up and spit it out because it is coercive, even when well-intended. Once that happens no-one will get away with coercive policies ever again, but I don’t see how UKIP’s weird message can produce that kind of genuinely broad and deep cultural change while being contradictory on the surface. A party that was ideologically pure and lost every election, such as the lefty enviromentalist’s Green party, could do a better job at making this kind of change, and I’m far from convinced that well-designed pressure groups don’t have a role too.

However, if your purpose is merely to get a school voucher system tried in the next 20 years, then UKIP is more interesting. I think if the UK tried a voucher system, and the consequences were allowed to speak for themselves then the idea might become mainstream, might, but without the why being talked about I don’t see the mainstream adopting consistently libertarian positions long-term. Yet, if I’m wrong and UKIP is able to get it tried then we might learn differently. To succeed in that respect UKIP must do a lot better at putting those things onto the public’s agenda.


  1. To me those who advocate libertarians joining UKIP are not unlike those who, prior to the last election, advocated libertarians joining the Tory party because they were less statist than the incumbent Labour government. For me, the problem with libertarians committing to UKIP is similar to the problems of libertarians backing the Tories – neither party is actually libertarian. The UKIP policies you mention just goes to illustrate that. And frankly I have better things to do with my time than support a party that does not share my core beliefs.

    This is not to say that there couldn’t be benefits to temporary alliances with UKIP (and other parties as well). But the non-libertarian UKIP is not a home for libertarians, and most certainly not a comfortable one.

    Hayek’s Postscript to “The Constitution of Liberty” entitled “Why I am not a conservative” is a useful source when it comes to this sort of thing.



  2. Fair enough, but would you join an actual, balls-out libertarian party if that was on offer, or are you off the whole idea of joining political parties?



  3. In all honesty, I don’t know but I doubt it. The LPUK saga/fiasco left an extremely bad taste in my mouth and I’m not sure I have the time or the energy to do anything other than pay an annual membership fee. That said, an actual, balls-out libertarian party would certainly get my vote. And I’ll be watching Gavin Webb’s new venture with interest.



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