Authoritarianism seems to be on the rise, says Chris Dillow, citing the rise of Donald Trump and the Brexit vote. After 30 years of tub thumping about liberty, a style started by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, today’s politicians, he observes, seem to have gone very quiet about it.
One reason for this might be that libertarian ideas were never that popular in the first place. Of course, if a pollster asks someone about their own freedom they say they want as much of it as possible but that doesn’t always extend to freedom for others.
Selling social libertarianism to the British has been difficult. Politicians like Roy Jenkins who led the socially liberal measures of the 1960s were way ahead of the electorate. It took until last year for the British Social Attitudes Survey to show that the majority in favour of capital punishment had finally disappeared. For most of the last 45 years, had that question been put to a referendum, the death penalty would almost certainly have been re-introduced. It took until the mid-1990s before a majority agreed that abortion should be legal other than on medical grounds, and that majority seems to have stabilised at around 60 percent.
Attitudes to homosexuality took a while to change too. Only 5 years ago, Ipsos MORI found that those who thought same-sex relationships were not wrong at all were still in a minority.
We are now just about at the point where, if asked, the public might vote for the socially liberal measures of the late 1960s but it has been a long time coming. Liberals sometimes talk of a progressive majority in the UK but if there is one, it’s very recent and not very big.
If people are lukewarm about social libertarianism, economic libertarianism is even further out on the fringe. Radical deregulation, state shrinkage and privatisation sound like mainstream ideas because they are espoused by some very wealthy, powerful and influential people. Every so often, therefore, a think-tank will publish a report, a politician will make a speech or a journalist will write an article advocating deregulation and a much smaller state. But, despite all the speeches and column inches, the voters are really not interested in significantly reducing the size of the state. Over the past 30 years, all the small-state advocates have managed to do is increase the proportion of the population that thinks taxation and spending should stay the same and reduce the proportion that thinks it should increase. Even that has started to reverse over the last couple of years. Support for cutting the state has never gone above 10 percent.
Chart by British Social Attitudes survey
Contrast this with the re-nationalisation of utilities and transport, which has, for 20 years, been dismissed as a throwback. Until Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader, few mainstream politicians had advocated it and, apart from the odd article in the Guardian, it seemed to be permanently off the political agenda. Anyone supporting re-nationalisation was dismissed as a crank.
The trouble is, despite two decades of omertà on the subject, most voters still think it would be a good idea.* There is even a small majority in favour among Conservative voters.
It is the state-shrinkers not the re-nationalisers who are the eccentrics. The only reason it looks the other way round is because the former have more editorships and think-tank funding.
The voters that delivered the Leave verdict were a coalition of traditional shire Tories and working-class Labour voters. Economics is part of the story but by no means all of it. There are clear clusters of attitudes and values which correlate strongly with the Leave vote. They are anything but libertarian.
Last year, British Social Attitudes looked at the factors behind the rise in UKIP support. It found not only that authoritarian attitudes were strong among UKIP voters but also that they were not that far out of step with the rest of the population.
UKIP’s website used to describe the party as libertarian and its constitution still does. Its supporters, though, have firmly rejected libertarianism in both its social and economic forms. The same could be said of Leave voters generally. These are not people who want less state, they want more. A lot more.
More border force staff, more prisons, more police officers, more nationalisation and more money for the NHS.
Professor Alan Wolfe’s excellent quote, which sums up the politics of the last 30 years, sheds some light on this:
The right won the economic war, the left won the cultural war.
Or, as David Goodhart put it, when he presciently predicted the emergence of a ‘post-liberal majority’, this period saw a victory for the social liberalism of the left and the economic liberalism of the right. The trouble is, most voters were never really that keen on either.
*That doesn’t necessarily mean it would be a good idea but that’s an argument for another day.