Interview with Lembit Opik

I met Lembit at The Freedom Association’s “Freedom Festival North” in Harrogate recently, where he gave a very amusing after dinner speech. Having heard his views on the Coaliton, the Lib Dems, the EU and libertarianism throughout the course of the day I thought i’d ask him to elaborate in an interview, to which he kindly agreed.

You have called yourself a “libertarian” – an increasingly broad phase – what does it mean to you?

 Libertarians defend the right of each person to live how they wish, as long as they are informed about those choices and do not cause intolerable harm to third parties.  This means you have the liberty to do stupid things which may harm you, as long as you can demonstrate you are sane and know the risks.

The concept of ‘tolerable harm’ is important, and not something explicitly covered by J.S. Mill in his seminal work on the subject of freedom.  By tolerable harm I mean negative effects on third parties which must be permitted for a free society to operate.

For example, I might find a piece of art offensive: however, this harm to me must be tolerated as the effect upon me does not justify the banning of that art.  Without the concept of tolerable harm, everything could be theoretically banned on the basis of the most minor inconvenience or negative effect on others.

The Tory Party branding could be banned because someone claims blue upsets them, and The X-Factor taken off air on the basis that some artists find its portrayal of the music industry patronising.   Introducing a ‘reasonableness’ consideration such a ‘tolerable harm’ makes libertarianism a more demanding creed than, say, authoritarianism which tells you what to do.

An example of authoritarianism is the mandatory helmet law for motorcyclists: the only person directly affected by the decision on whether or not to wear a helmet is the rider: yet in 1973 the British Government decided to enforce a law which clearly compromised the right to self-determination on this iconic issue for millions of people ever since.  Yet such moves are persistently justified as ‘for your own good, and because of the cost to the health service of not enforcing this move.’

In reality, it seems to me that politicians fall into the trap of thinking they know better and can enforce these ‘good’ policies on a dumb population who don’t know any better.  This is why, in my judgement, libertarianism is currently a political path less travelled, despite the central importance of the concept to a genuinely free and enlightened society. 

How has your political philosophy developed over time and what/who influenced its evolution? 

I’ve become more committed to libertarianism over the last 30 years.  While vaguely supportive of it in the 1980s, what I’ve seen successive governments do in the name of the public good has angered me to the point of directing my actual employment into the defence of motorcyclists’ rights at the Motorcycle Action Group.  I love the role because it requires the conversion of a principle into its application in practical ways.

When Paddy Ashdown was at the height of his powers around 1989, I was persuaded to join the Lib Dems, precisely because he seemed to be following a freedom based path himself.  Economically, I’ve drifted towards the left for various reasons.

However, I long ago abandoned the belief that governments do much more than meddle around the edges of economics, unless they take an extreme ideological position such as introducing a ‘command economy’ of some sort.  I feel the current government is basically proving that Chancellors may seek to ride the bucking bronco of economic planning, but sooner or later they all get thrown off and for pretty much the same reasons.

This is why I abandoned my Economics degree in Bristol University and pursued philosophy which I found more intellectually authentic. 

With hindsight, how do you rate the performance of the Coalition government? 

The Coalition government provided stability for the UK – and did so for five years with relatively few crises.  The reason for this was the asymmetry of the coalition, with a philosophically clear Conservative party and a relatively directionless Lib Dem Party.

The latter won some individual victories, such as a change in tax thresholds for the poor, but utterly failed to make any kind of significant mark on the overall direction of the Government or the country.  Ironically, this was possibly good for Britain, in the sense that Lib Dem Leader Clegg’s apparent and on-going acquiescence to Cameron’s agenda made governing rather easier than it would have been if he had exerted himself philosophically.

Overall then, the coalition was the right solution given the electoral mathematics of the 2010 General Election, but an avoidable political disaster for the Lib Dems. 

After the devastating election, what do you think is the best way forward for the Liberal Democrats? 

Clegg’s legacy is the worst General Election result in the party’s 30 or so years of existence, and the worst for the liberal movement since 1945.  It was NOT caused by the collation, but, rather by the inept failure of the leadership to visibly defend liberal values.

It follows that the recovery must be based on rebuilding the broken ‘social contract’ between ‘Liberal Britain’ and the Lib Dems.  The new Leader, Tim Farron, knows all this and is taking a realistic approach to the challenge – which is unquestionably going to be a long haul.

It will require the restoration of political credibility around core values, and the promotion of those at first a local and then a national level.  All that will take many years.  The Party also has to introduce mechanisms which will prevent the kind of ‘entryism’ which gave an inappropriate leadership control over the organisation at a crucial time.  Perhaps all future leaders should have to be a local Councillor at some stage. This sort of condition isn’t necessary in the Conservative Party because it’s based on a different ethos.

By contrast, liberalism is very much a ‘grassroots’ kind of movement, and the descent from on high (European Parliament) of a leader ill-equipped to operate effectively in that very localised environment had a damaging same effect on the party’s performance.

I made all these predictions very publicly in 2011, though sadly my efforts resulted in my ostracism rather than a change of course.  The way back for the Lib Dems is written out in black and white in a book entitled ‘The Alternative View,’ co-authored by me and a Lib Dem Councillor in South London in a borough where the Lib Dems did well locally AND in the Parliamentary Constituency.

Our book correctly predicted the catastrophe which was going to happen in 2015, and, I humbly suggest, offers a practical agenda for the reconstruction of the party. 

Do you see an opportunity for them now that Labour has been dragged hard left? 

Corbyn is being consistently underestimated, and, I suggest, wilfully so.   I was entertained by the ‘Corbyn Warnings’ satirical Twitter site which included warnings such as ‘Corbyn obsessed with destroying the moon, warns MP’ and ‘Corbyn likely to explode if stored at high temperatures, warn scientists.’

He is one of the least personally ambitious politicians I have met, preferring instead to promote an ideology.  This makes him immensely philosophically robust, and far less ‘hard left’ than the media and other commentators suggest.

The problem for the Lib Dems is that his genuine sincerity and left wing economic agenda are appealing to liberal-minded voters, who also tend to be left-leaning in their thinking.  The big question is how much Corbyn will focus on the libertarian agenda socially.  If he makes personal liberty a big aspect of his offering, the Lib Dems could well be squeezed into a narrow space between Labour and the Conservatives.

Lib Dem Leader Farron must find a way to define the party as the ‘go to’ destination for personal freedom, with a credible, left-leaning economic agenda.  It’s not clear how all this will pan out, and that makes the next five years for the Lib Dems more interesting than the last, where the outcome was depressingly predictable.

 How do you intend to vote in the coming EU referendum, or could you still be swayed either way? 

I’ve been mildly pro-EU on the whole.  However, they are their own worst enemy, not least through a combination of over-bearing mandates which are then turbocharged by the British interpretation of them.  It’s not a ‘libertarian’ agenda by any stretch of the imagination, and I don’t like that.

Also, it annoys me that the free market economic agenda has become presented at ‘the EU way,’ with little tolerance for socialist policies – which is one reason Greece is in so much trouble now.  These perceptions don’t endear me to where the EU seems to be heading.

Note that it has largely achieved the original three aims of its creation: peace, the abolition of extreme poverty, and the prevention of starvation.  The problem is that they haven’t known when to stop and consolidate – pressing on too fast and leaving the public behind.

It’s like salt – a little of it can flavour a meal, but too much can spoil it.  How would I vote in the referendum?  Simple answer: I vote for whichever path appears to offer the most liberty for the citizen.  Ask me again in a year. 

Do you miss being an MP and would you consider standing again in the future?

The one thing I do miss is speaking in Parliament, and using it as a tool for change.  You can do that through Parliament even if you’re not an MP, and I do precisely that for the Motorcycle Action Group.  However, there are days – and I’m not going to lie – when I watch PMQs and say to myself ‘I wish I was there.’

I might consider standing in the future, but it’s important to always remember you get just one go at life.  I’ve been lucky to serve in the Commons for 13 years, and I don’t want to be greedy and in a hurry to go to where I’ve already been when the years behind are many, and the years ahead unknown.

Lembit Öpik is the Director of Communications & Public Affairs for the Motorcycle Action Group, and is an internationally renowned political speaker

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