The not so new illiberalism

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.

Screen Shot 2016-08-04 at 12.05.14

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.

Screen Shot 2016-08-04 at 12.37.01

Chart by YouGov

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.


Chart by Lord Ashcroft Polls.

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.

Screen Shot 2016-08-04 at 14.47.11

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.

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12 Responses to The not so new illiberalism

  1. P Hearn says:

    Amazing that voting to leave a highly centralised, semi-democratic, supra-national body like the EU is regarded as authoritarian. What is the EU? A bastion of freedoms and laissez-faire attitudes that allow each state to keep its own values, customs and traditions and simply trade together in any way they see fit?

    The right hasn’t won any arguments in Britain since 1945. Not one.

    Education is state provided, and nobody at all would even consider allowing it to be privatised. Round 1 to the Left.

    Health provision is state provided, and anyone who questions that will be killed by a hate mob. Round 2 to the Left.

    Most things privatised are subject to huge controls which make the “market” thus engendered nothing more than a charade. Railways. Electricity – still nationalised in all but name. Round 3 to the Left.

    The right has had some fleeting electoral victories, but in the main the cosy consensus that Nanny State, the BBC and the local council know best persists in the UK. The hysteria over Brexit sadly proves that the UK is little more than a department of Brussels, many of its citizens devoid of any hope without someone to tell them what to do, so they have no need to think for themselves.

    Cradle to grave dependency. Round 4 to the Left.

    • Simon Jones says:

      Where exactly does it say that “voting to leave a highly centralised, semi-democratic, supra-national body like the EU is regarded as authoritarian”? The point of the post is that there is a high degree of correlation between people who voted Leave and those who hold authoritarian views. However, as any fule kno, correlation and causation are two different things.

      • P Hearn says:

        “Authoritarianism seems to be on the rise, says Chris Dillow, citing the rise of Donald Trump and the Brexit vote”

        • Rick says:

          Make no mistake, this is a vote for more government. it was primarily an anti-immigration vote which means more border controls, more restrictions on movement and more public servants to enforce it. People voted for sovereignty because they want the government to do more.

          It will also mean more red tape and documentation needed for trade. The negotiations and trade agreements will be a bureaucratic nightmare.

          • P Hearn says:

            I couldn’t disagree more. Getting rid of a massive tier of government in the form of the EU parliament is a vote for less government, period. It goes well beyond the simple £10,000,000,000 nett annual direct cost.

            Border controls are already the government’s job. This isn’t a new function, it’s amongst the most basic requirements. Sensible checks on who comes and who goes, risk profiling immigrants, plus the ability to throw out foreign criminals that inevitably get through the filter, is the order of the day.

            The British are a pragmatic lot. When something doesn’t work for them, no matter how many establishment figures and “progressive” liberals assure them it’s really for their benefit and nanny knows best, they can smell bovine manure a mile off and will throw it off at the first opportunity.

            To mistake the current mood as wanting MORE government is to repeat the fundamental error of the Remain campaign. No lessons learned it would seem.

  2. Jim says:

    You could vote for Brexit if you were an authoritarian and you could vote for Brexit if you were a libertarian (as I did), because Brexit just means the power to decide which route to go down returns to the UK electorate. Either side hopes theirs will win out and they’ll get what they want, they can’t all be winners of course. Its entirely possible that authoritarians did predominantly vote for Brexit, but Brexit in and of itself is not an authoritarian concept.

    • George Carty says:

      The biggest motivation for Brexit voters — a desire to control immigration — is certainly an authoritarian one though.

      • Jim says:

        Yes and no – controlling who gets into the country is not the same thing as trying to control everyone who is already in the country. You could quite possibly be in favour of controlling immigration without wanting a Big State, identity cards, the return of hanging and flogging and nationalisation of the railways.

  3. Ben says:

    Minor point – the Ashcroft graphic posted shows that if you are authoritarian you were much more likely to vote leave, not that if you voted leave you are much more likely to be authoritarian. If you looked at the data tables behind the poll it shows a less extreme reading of things. For example of the 12,000 polled about 6,000 thought that multiculturalism was a force for good and 4,000 a force for ill.

    That said, I still think the evidence available points to a big authoritarian block in the leave vote.

    • gunnerbear says:

      “That said, I still think the evidence available points to a big authoritarian block in the leave vote.”

      Not really, just people hacked off at having mass immigration foisted on them, hacked off at the fact that f**kwitz in the HoC wibble about the s**te that is global warming and the same tossers put measures in place that wreck UK industry even as competitors like Germany mine more lignite….which is in essence wet peat….to burn to provide their people with stable energy supplies.

      People are hacked off at the fact some ex-Communist a**ehole of an EU commissioner or judge can interfere in the running of the UK state and set aside things the people want…don’t think for a minute the Death Penalty would not be restored if the electorate were asked….

  4. Pete North says:

    “Selling social libertarianism to the British has been difficult.”

    Mainly because it has never been sold to them. It has been imposed on them. And somehow they are surprised when there is a mass rejection of it.

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