Henry Hill urges the libertarian right of the Tory Party to be constructive in its criticism and avoid becoming a Momentum-esque movement on the fringes, unable to influence policy and win people over
In her Conference speech, Theresa May explicitly rejected the “libertarian right”. It stung, and it has produced a perfectly understandable response. But hard as it might be, I very strongly believe that liberal Tories need to bite their tongues, or risk doing their enemies’ work for them.
A couple of months ago, I got into a Twitter spat with Tim Montgomerie about authoritarian public health legislation. The phrase which lured me in was “Conservatism is not libertarianism!”
I had originally planned to write about that, but that article fell victim to a hectic pre-conference schedule. In light of May’s speech, however, I think it’s worth revisiting.
Simply put, there is very little the opponents of liberty would like more than for us to set ourselves up as one end of a binary with Theresa May and the Government at the other. That is, to make Tim’s false exhortation – “Conservatism is not libertarianism!” – functionally true.
This warning is addressed specifically to liberals and libertarians in the Conservative Party. If you’re a free agent, or a member of another party, it’s not so relevant to you. But if you’re a liberal Tory, you recognise at least one of the following truths:
- That freedom has been a fundamental part of what British Conservatism is for centuries, at least
- That the best practical way to advance liberal ideas is inside one of the – indeed currently the only – great parties of government
If you agree with either or both of those, then you must recognise how badly the cause of Tory liberty will be served its adherents allow themselves to be boxed in as inveterate enemies of the May Government.
There’s no denying, after Conference, that liberals will find much to dislike in the May programme. But let’s face it, that has always been the case. David Cameron and George Osborne might talked a better game, but they were scarcely non-interventionists – remember the National Living Wage, or their make-or-break bid to keep us harnessed to the Brussels’ regulatory ratchet?
But if we start painting horns on her portrait, we’ll overlook the fact that there are areas where liberals might be able to work with the Mayistes. The reason Montgomery et al were kicking off in the first place is because, despite carrying through the sugar tax, she’s neutered the rest of Cameron’s planned public health crusade.
Then there’s her record on smoking: she absented herself from the original votes on the ban, but better still she voted against the ban on smoking in cars as recently as 2014.
Of course, I want someone to scrap the sugar tax and the smoking ban. But given that we don’t have that, it would be foolish to ignore areas where freedom could make advances under the May regime. The IEA has done great work on how sin taxes hurt the poor the most, and given that the Prime Minister is defining herself against liberal metropolitans dictating to the masses…
This is freedom that fits entirely into the Party’s ‘One Nation’ tradition. As George Dangerfield, in his seminal The Strange Death of Liberal England, wrote of politics a century ago:
“In England, the Conservatives… traditionally believed in a man’s right to drink strong waters. The Liberals… were inclined to protest, and sometimes even to believe, that drink was the Devil. In the public houses, therefore, the Conservatives had a nice little chain of political fortresses, where their cause was loyally upheld by poor men in their cups; and these were not to be surrendered at any cost.”
It is a fallacy to assume that pro-working class Toryism must at every stage mean left-leaning Toryism. But if we close Downing Street’s ears to liberal alternatives, it will end up meaning that by default.
That’s why we have to grit our teeth and strive at all times to critical friends – even very critical friends – but never enemies. To always look for the positive way to engage, and resist the temptation to lapse into out-and-out hostility. Otherwise our prophecy will fulfil itself.
Not only might those in power start rejecting our ideas simply because we’re having them and we’re the enemy – although this is exactly how the political mind often works – but we risk cutting ourselves off from the ability to influence the party ‘upstream’.
If ambitious and talented Conservatives start to think that association with liberal organisations and ideas is going to hurt their standing in the eyes of Number Ten, they’ll stop. Instead of pumping liberty into the headwaters of Toryism, we may end up instead an isolated pool, slowly stagnating on the Party fringes.
This is the most serious risk of all. Remember, Theresa May became Prime Minister because, despite all their advantages, every liberal candidate in the Conservative leadership race fell at the hurdles. Every single one. It’s comforting to shout about how beastly Mayism is, but more important that we take a hard look in the mirror and work out why she had such an easy time of it.
I want to see freedom given its proper due as one of the fundamental pillars of British conservatism. I want to see liberal ideas adopted where they can be, which for now means where they serve the ends of Downing Street. And I want to see a future Conservative Prime Minister from the liberal, perhaps even libertarian tradition.
That’s why when May takes pot shots at “right-wing libertarians”, I’m inclined – for now at least – to suck it up. As Neil Wilson pointed out in his own response to the speech, there is a lot more to the Tories than our “libertarian viewing lounge”, and amongst the country the clamour for genuine liberalism is no more widespread.
Britain and its citizens would be better off if May governed in the liberal Tory tradition – but she can win without us, and would doubtless be content to do so if we let ourselves get cast as the bogeymen. We forget that at our peril.
Henry is the Assistant Editor at Conservative Home. Follow him on Twitter: @HCH_Hill
The views expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Conservatives for Liberty