Liberty. That’s the theme of the conference being held tomorrow by the Centre for Policy Studies, being held to commemorate the 40th anniversary of its foundation by Margaret Thatcher and Sir Keith Joseph. It is the single word, as it were, in the CPS’s mouth. Let me put a few of my own into it. The suggestion from the think tank is that liberty in Britain should wax but is waning – and that the Conservative leadership has wasted its chance in government to tackle the problem, as John O’Sullivan suggested in a curtain-raising article for the conference in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph.
There is a case for claiming that the liberty hasn’t declined at all: that people are more free now than they were when the CPS was established. In the personal sphere, for example, people are apparently more free to express their sexual preferences: in 1975, for example, the age of consent for gay people was 21, and to support same-sex marriage was to “think the unthinkable”, to borrow a phrase associated with the think-tank’s early years. But this assertion is challengeable: the current laws against child abuse, under which there are severe penalties for crimes that are arguably victimless (such as the possession of child pornography), simply didn’t exist in the 1970s – the decade of Jimmy Savile and the Paedophile Information Exchange.
My point is not that these laws are wrong, but that the CPS’s assumption is right. 50 years on from the new social freedoms of the 1960s, and 30 years on from the new economic ones of the 1980s, liberty has decreased, not increased. What we drink, what we smoke, what we speak, how we drive, how we bank, how we live: all these are far more restricted by law than was the case in the 1970s. The reasons for curtailment may be contestable – health and safety, Islamist terror, the Dunblane atrocity, NHS costs – but the direction of travel is clear. It is worth noting that less liberty has not been accompanied by more equality, the trade-off assumed during those debates of the Thatcher era. Strikingly, Britain is both less equal and less free than when Harold Wilson was Prime Minister.
This hasn’t stopped modern politicians from pushing the case for equality. The last Labour Government introduced new equality legislation with little, if any, push-back from the then Conservative Opposition. Indeed, equality – and how to achieve it – became a talking-point during those early Cameron years. (Greg Clark, now a Minister and a columnist for this site, went so far as to prefer Polly Toynbee to Winston Churchill – in terms of how each imagined poverty, at least.) Liberty, by contrast, did not. The new Party leadership was, if not hostile to the idea, at least indifferent to it. This was illustrated by the snuffing-out of the torch of freedom, the Party symbol since the Thatcher years. It was replaced by a tree.
There are two contrasting ways of thinking about the flight from liberty. One is that it is a bad thing, and represents the loss of nerve by the Conservatives that lost them three elections in a row, and didn’t win them a fourth. Another, very different, take is that voters never wanted freedom in the first place. In this way of seeing the world, the social freedoms of the 1960s were followed by a wrecking wave of crime, disorder and anti-social behaviour, and the economic ones of the 1980s were succeeded by the fall of well-paid manufacturing jobs and the rise of badly-paid service ones – by squeezed wages, longer hours, job competition from migrants and static, if not declining, living standards, not to say a deterioration in the quality of life.
It is certainly true that Conservatives are less keen on liberty than their language suggests. Consider the example of housing, a cause dear to the heart of ConservativeHome. The law that shapes housing in Britain is the Town and Country Planning Act 1947, introduced by the Attlee Government when socialism was sweeping all before it. The act enhanced the role of the state in planning and restricts the supply of houses. The comparatively modest changes to planning made by this Government provoked an outcry from the Tory base, with backbench MPs queuing up in Westminster Hall to voice the outrage of Conservative councillors. Imagine the bomb that would go off were a Cameron-led Government to sweep the 1947 Act away, and bring liberty to housing supply.
This tension within conservatism is a reminder that one man’s liberty can be another’s compulsion. In the world of political theory, there is positive liberty and negative liberty and outright libertarianism – and members of the Conservative family can fly at each other’s throats about all three. What we all share is a common aversion to the big state. There is agreement that the larger the state grows, the weaker society gets: that it crowds out the space in which those mediating institutions grow and flourish – churches, clubs, charities, societies, voluntary provision. As someone who doesn’t seem to be the CPS’s favourite Conservative politician put it: “there is such a thing as society – it’s just not the same thing as the state”. Increasingly, young people seem to agree – as Mark Wallace has reminded us.
I am all for liberty. Just as more homes won’t come without more planning freedom, so more jobs won’t be created without a more liberal economy, and savings won’t rise without more personal choice – the kind that George Osborne offered in his last budget by sweeping away the annuity rules. But there are solid reasons for the decline of the language of liberty in modern politics. What Margaret Thatcher championed was not so much liberty, the abstraction, than freedom, the British particular: Parliamentary government, the rule of law, our unwritten constitution, the established church – in other words, that paradox, “ordered liberty”, the product of history, culture and inheritance. I will wager a modest sum of money that “freedom” is a more frequent word in her speeches than “liberty”.
That inheritance was common property in 1975. There was no Human Rights Act, no Scottish Parliament, no European Union, no Belfast Agreement. Fewer women worked in the labour market, and there were fewer ethnic minorities. The immense wave of immigration that marked the Brown and Blair years hadn’t happened. There was a single threat to our security and interests – the Soviet Union – and not (arguably) three: Islamist extremism, Putin’s Russia, the rise of China. Lynton Crosby prefers to stress what a Conservative Government could do to make you more secure, not more free.
You can maintain that he is misreading the signs of the times. But it may be significant that the new challenger to Cameron’s right – UKIP – hasn’t yet made freedom its battle-cry. During the 1970s, the language of liberty became compelling. But 1975 was a long time ago, in the age before globalisation. Crosby’s punt on security looks better suited to the spirit of the age.