A few libertarian bloggers have given up recently : Obo, arguably Mr E counts, and the Devil, Chris Mounsey, who is outgoing leader of the Libertarian Party UK. They seemed depressed, not thrilled with the coalition but no longer furious. Depressed, perhaps, by the proof the coalition gave that none of the main parties are in any way libertarian, whatever they might pay lip service to.
The Libertarian Party has been a big disappointment. For decades, the Libertarian Alliance had been pamphleting away, rising above party politics, seeing itself in a position comparable to that of socialists in 1870. It was the long road, making the argument, winning one mind at a time, arguing against every new restriction on our freedoms, from the seat belt ban in the 1980s to the ban on smoking in public places.
That particular ban had a surprising and temporary effect in the pub I was drinking in at the time. It came in during the summer so it was no hardship to migrate outside to the smoking shack. But in there, unprecedentedly, people found they were facing, across the table, each other. Conversation ensued. Politics came up. There were some surprisingly well-informed people sitting round the table but nobody – not one single person – had even heard of libertarianism.
That was the effect of a quarter century of LA campaigning: doodly squat. Nobody had even heard of them. Around that pub table, they’d have been pushing at an open door, a majority even wanted firearms to be legalised. But the LA hadn’t even turned up, for these people.
So the launch of LPUK was good news, now there was a political party to spread the word. After all, what would be the point of forming a political party if you weren’t going to do party politics?
I don’t know the answer to that question, but someone in LPUK must, because that’s what they’ve done.
Political parties aren’t think tanks. Doctrinal purity is a handicap. What matters, the only thing that matters, is having an effect, moving something in the right direction. Not everything, that’s not going to happen, but something. And then something else. For a new party with a philosophy very different from any other in mainstream politics, this means getting the thin end of a wedge in somewhere, finding things that will strike a chord with people, that will be an open door, when pushed against.
So LPUK announced its first manifesto promise: to legalise firearms. Not every pub is a rural one like my former local; not every table has several gun owners sitting round it. I agree with this policy and I’ve tried arguing it with people. It’s a hard one to get through, there are so many reflexive objections, it takes time. It’s not an open door.
Was the tactical intention to cause a fuss? Did they think the press release would be taken notice of? If so, they didn’t take into account the number of crank press releases that are received every day. Legalising firearms? People we’ve never heard of? Bin it.
But was there even a tactical intention, or was this an expression of doctrinal purity? I ask because the notorious car crash of an interview between Chris Mounsey and Andrew Neill suggests no forethought at all. It wasn’t so much that Mounsey made such a ham fist of it, it was the obvious fact that they hadn’t even considered the possibility that his blog would come up in the conversation.
Any group of people who were actually serious about making a political challenge would have planned for that interview. They would have thought about the hard questions and come up with broadcast-friendly ways to handle them effectively.
Their blog is, at the moment, filled with posts about the difficulties the leader-elect is facing as a consequence of a business dispute. Who cares? Really? Maybe there’s a powerful story there, but I’m buggered if I can see it through the mounds of verbiage. There’s nothing crisp, soundbittten, memorable. This isn’t serious.
Why, though? Far from being a cause for despondency, the coalition should be energising. First, great! Fantastic! Labour isn’t in power, there’s talk of a repeal bill, some tightening of expenditure. Brilliant. Don’t carp because they’re not libertarians. Of course they’re not libertarians, they didn’t say they were. Oh, I know Cameron used the word, but he’s also progressive and traditional. He’s whatever’s right at the time. And that’s an asset for a politician. LPUK doesn’t have to be like that, but it does have to move in that world as a shark, rather than as a snack for Andrew Neill.
More importantly, perhaps, the coalition does disenfranchise a lot of libertarian-minded people and, if they have confidence in their arguments, LPUK should be confident they can persuade others who are not yet so minded. It’s an opportunity. There’s a vacancy, for a political party that represents classical liberalism and libertarianism because, just as all political parties are coalitions, that’s the coalition LPUK needs to forge. I think it’s, potentially, a big one.
It ain’t going to happen at the moment, though. LPUK needs a complete change of approach. It needs to be calculating, prepared, rehearsed. It needs to pick targets and these will often be local issues. There are also some national ones – how about championing the thousands made insolvent by tax every year? Why not learn tactics from Greenpeace? Why not take the whole thing seriously?