Today I’m talking to you about Conservatives for Liberty. It would surprise many people that I have something positive to say about the Whigs. After all, my tutor could spot my papers in an anonymous pile because I always find something to criticise about Whig historians. Their blind optimism, and thinking that progress is good for the sake of it, rubs my inner Roger Scruton pretty badly. And I’m also writing my dissertation on the fall of a Whig government. However, a Tory values tradition, and Britain has a tradition of liberty. And on top of that, I’m actually a free marketeer. Not to the extent of liberals, with whom I disagree on the emphasis on freedom rather than the common good. For me, free markets are about the common good.
In a truly free market, the power goes back to the people and not the vested interest of big business and their friends: no barriers to entering a market, and enough competition that even the lower end of the market has enough power to swing things in their favour by withdrawing their customs, something that is now a problem I’ve observed in things like the ethical fashion vs fast fashion debate. It’s easy for us to say that ethical fashion is cheaper on the long run, because it’s a quality investment that will last longer. Sometimes you just can’t afford the initial investment and you will need clothes, for whatever reason, and fashion at the cheap end of the market is a virtual monopoly. A free market counters that. Anyway, if your emphasis is on the common good, there are some things that could be considered sacrosanct and therefore not in the domain of markets.
Conservatism isn’t about letting “the market” do everything, although the post-1980s surge in stranded liberals and libertarians joining the party would have you think that rather than small state we believe in no state.
The reason why we don’t believe the state should meddle in everything is that it’s easy for power to corrupt, and therefore for the state to stop serving the people to serve its own interests. There are things that we believe should be granted to all in equity, on the grounds that we are humans (a legacy of our Christian identity, probably seen more strongly in the Cornerstone group and the thriving of the Conservative Christian Fellowship, but underpinning the humanist ethos of the party at large), and for that aim we believe the state has a role to play.
The abolition of slavery, celebrated in a exhibition in Parliament, and of which the commemorative postcard hangs on my desk, came about both because of the determination of politicians pushing petitions to Parliament and the consumers boycotting sugar from the plantations. Now we face different issues, like human trafficking and poverty, including the poor conditions of workers abroad making all the things that we enjoy back home. We’re facing environmental problems like deforestation and running out of non-renewable energy sources. There is a list that could go on forever. A very facile objection to libertarianism is the accusation of selfishness and a lack of concern for others, but it likely hits the nail on the head regarding very few who would identify as such, and in fact among my friends I can count many who are constantly doing charitable work, fundraising and otherwise giving to the big society that is so dear to us heirs of Disraeli.
I’ve already said that I put more emphasis on the common good, which creates a bit of a false dichotomy. The common good is not something so easily defined, and in fact freedom to me is part of it. Not on an individual level, as the freedom of one person should end when it harms others, although that’s arguably a matter of personal responsibility rather than freedom itself.
In economic terms it’s about, as I’ve said already, giving power back to the consumer. In moral terms, it’s about the sacrosanct basics of what makes us human, and protecting the people against arbitrary government. Contrary to popular belief, the battles of the 17th century were fought by both sides in a tradition that started with the sealing of Magna Carta in 1215. If any of the people who think the Tories supported tyranny actually spent any time reading political thinkers on absolutism they would know that’s not the case.
I don’t always agree with everyone involved with Conservatives for Liberty, in fact my closest friends can testify I have taken a few issues with some of them, but I believe they’re an important part of the conversation in the party, and at a time in which authoritarianism is on the rise, both on the right and the left, they’re doing an important job for society as a whole (and probably need all the support they can get).