Of all of their political parties that most Brits have heard of, only UKIP – the United Kingdom Independence Party – calls itself “libertarian”.
Being only two decades old, UKIP – now polling 38% for the European elections this year and about 15% for the general election next year – has achieved a success on paper that the American Libertarian Party can only dream of.
Indeed, in my work of helping the US liberty movement achieve more success in changing the minds of the people and the politicians and policies that they support, I often point out that American activists can learn much from what UKIP has been doing right.
Both UKIP and the US libertarians form insurgent, anti-establishment movements in an early stage of development: they are both influencing and drawing strength from public dissatisfaction with the current political settlement, but have not yet made significant changes to national electoral outcomes. For example, UKIP has not a single seat in the British parliament, and only a handful of representatives in the American House or Senate self-identify as aligned with the liberty movement’s goals.
So it was with some curiosity that I attended my first UKIP meeting on a visit back to England last month.
It was a public “town-hall-style” meeting in the picture-postcard county of Devon. An audience of around 60 heard three candidates and party executives speak for about 90 minutes.
At similar meetings in the US, I am never the youngest in the room. In UKIP’s meeting in Devon, I was. So when questions were invited from the floor, I pointed out as much, and asked if UKIP, therefore, had a problem. (It does.)
Fortunately, one of the speakers was the Chairman of the party, Stephen Crowther, who responded to my question with a fair one of his own: how did someone of my age manage to get out of work on a Friday morning? (I didn’t. I was on holiday.) Later, (during the obligatory tea and biscuits at the end of any public meeting in rural England), another member of the audience offered a different explanation: older people, he suggested, were the only ones who could remember how things were before we joined the EU.
That was sincerely meant but, to me, unconvincing. After all, the younger members of the American liberty movement do not have much experience of their country when it was much freer (before the Patriot Act, NDAA, extensive state-sponsored cronyism corporatism etc.) but they don’t need it: they discover their birthright of liberty by reading their own history, the Constitution, and the work of the brilliant thinkers who developed the classical liberal tradition that excites them so much.
In fact, most of the energy that drives the liberty movement in the US is that of young adults. These men and women are becoming sufficiently numerous and their passion is sufficiently strong that the change toward liberty that we shall see in American politics over the next two generations will likely one day be seen to have had its root in this decade in much the same way that the last two generations of progressivism and Statism were rooted in the ‘60s.
In the US, speeches made at anti-establishment, pro-liberty meetings are filled with statements of the inspiring principles of individual liberty – of free enterprise, the progressive magic of real capitalism, freedom from state interference in (and surveillance of) one’s personal life, personal responsibility and the Rule of Law etc.
In contrast, the speeches in Devon consisted entirely of factual assertions and policy solutions. If it weren’t for Crowther’s utterance of three expressions at the very end of the 90 minutes – “libertarian”, “self-government” and “small government” – it would not have been clear what political principles or vision united all of the policies that had been offered. Moreover, given the lack of any exposition of those ideas as guiding principles, the only people in the room who would have known what those three terms meant were the ones who, like me, had studied them long before they found themselves at a UKIP meeting. Since neither mainstream British politicians nor the British media ever use such terms, the people in the room who knew what they meant could definitely be counted on one hand.
Of course, a political party should focus on facts and policy. But if that is all a new party is doing – especially if the policies are, albeit out of necessity, largely negative, such as pulling out of the EU, reducing immigration, and offering a political home for those who are less than comfortable with gay marriage, then those with the political idealism and energy required to turn an insurgent movement into a mainstream movement with longevity – also called young people – will be left entirely uninspired and, potentially worse, alienated.
During the following week, I spoke to quite a few Brits about UKIP. I found many quiet supporters. Their motivations were typically down-to-earth and British: skepticism of the country’s prevailing political settlement and class, a preference for people who call things as they see them, and a pragmatic desire to try new solutions to problems when the old ones have consistently failed. And there was not a bigot or racist among them.
That’s all well and good – but not enough to prevent UKIP from winning its next battle (the European elections next week) but losing the war (to save the nation’s sovereignty, and with it, a small chance of keeping the astonishing long Anglo tradition of personal liberty and common law).
In contrast, at a meeting in the US of the liberty-curious, at least one of those expressions that the party’s Chairman used at the end of his speech – “libertarian”, “self-government” and “small government” – would be not used once in closing remarks, but repeated many, many times in the exposition of an exciting, positive, restorative vision for the nation. The approach would be to clarify and emphasize the fundamental principles of liberty, and only then discuss specific policies, taking care to show why they coherently pull toward the positive, liberal vision.
Throughout history, political movements that have captured the young – and thereby secured their longevity – have inspired and impassioned, leaving no doubt about the intention to build something bigger and better than exists today.
Positive vision inspires; policies alone do not. To win in the long-run takes both.
Young activists of the American liberty movement gain passion and energy by educating themselves on their own history and their own identity as a nation that is established on liberty and established to protect liberty. In other words, the future of American freedom is not just in the imagination of a few disaffected agitators, but a continuation of a rich, deep, tradition of liberty that has elevated mankind for centuries.
The wheel of freedom does not have to be reinvented, and excited libertarian Americans draw inspiration from the fact that they are heirs to one of its most sublime political realizations. They are not only fighting for liberty: they are fighting for the best of their identity as Americans. When you know you have something wonderful, passed down over generations at great cost, you don’t give it up lightly. Not to the US federal government, and not to the European Union.
If UKIP truly is a libertarian party concerned with British identity, then it is clearly missing its biggest marketing opportunity: the American tradition of freedom IS the British tradition of freedom. To understand it is to be excited by it – to become a patriot in the best (and proper) sense. The ideas of liberty alone change lives and nations. But when they are part of one’s national identity, as they are for English-speakers everywhere, they have the power to move one to tears.
UKIP’s job must be, then, to put young British adults in touch with their classically liberal birthright of the common law, limited government, live-and-let-live, free enterprise, and resistance against the kind of lack of political accountability and authoritarianism that the EU represents, and to teach clearly how the prosperity and freedom we enjoy depend on all of them.
And of most immediate importance for UKIP’s long-term electoral chances, a party of excited, positive, liberal visionaries (which is what true libertarians are) would attract many fewer questionable reactionaries whose views can be too easily labeled racist or sexist etc. by hungry media, than UKIP does today.
Like the USA, the UK is in a potentially radical, teachable political moment. This time of uncommon dissatisfaction with the status quo is equivalently one of heightened interest in alternatives and openness to new perspectives. But it is not yet clear which way Britain will turn, if it will turn at all.
UKIP is currently the biggest party political beneficiary of this zeitgeist in the Britain. If the party doesn’t explain what those words like “libertarian” in its platform mean, how can anyone be blamed for looking at its concentration on immigration or gay marriage and, absent context, doubting that UKIP is libertarian at all? There is a classically liberal case to be made for UKIP’s stance on immigration in the current context of EU rules and the British welfare state, but it’s not an obvious one, and it’s certainly not one that can be worked out from just listening to UKIP’s policy positions. In the absence of the careful exposition of liberal principles and that case, the media will keep painting Ukippers as having questionable motivations because it’s too easy and shifts copy.
Nigel Farage talks about creating an earthquake in British politics. I hope he does. The country’s complacent social democratic establishment needs a reminder of who works for whom, and whatever the ultimate flavor of UKIP’s politics, exit from the EU will do more for British liberty per se than any other single policy currently supported by any party. But an earthquake is a rather short-lived event. What really matters is whether that political earthquake remakes Britain’s political landscape for good – in both senses of that word. And that will depend on whether UKIP really is Britain’s first classical liberal alternative since Thatcher.
If UKIP really is a “libertarian” party (and the jury is very much still out), and wishes to benefit from the inherent popularity of liberty, then it must prove it. It shouldn’t talk about pulling out of Europe without explaining the threat of all big government to liberty; it shouldn’t focus on immigrants without explaining that excessive immigration offends the British sense of fairness chiefly because of a dehumanizing welfare state and the feeling of insecurity that comes from having one’s ability to influence the politics of one’s own society removed by politicians who are foreign to it; it shouldn’t talk about wind farms without explaining the threat to efficiency and prosperity posed by subsidizing any industry at the expense of others, and it should not talk about gay marriage without being very clear that a legal commitment between loving people is not a problem – but an EU court that will use related legislation to force institutions and individuals to act against their consciences and property rights, absolutely is.
Most of all, it shouldn’t talk about any of the above without returning, again and again, to a celebration of a unique legacy of freedom, won over 1,000 years by a people that will continue to build a prosperous and liberal future, when left free to do so by a limited, accountable government that serves at the pleasure of the people – and never, ever, the other way around.