Ten months ago, I reported in these pages that libertarians were under attack and losing influence within Britain’s Conservative Party. Happily, that situation has changed.
The catalyst was the Tories’ second successive landslide defeat. Voters had decisively rejected William Hague and his nationalistic campaign. His position was clearly untenable and he duly resigned the morning after the general election. This has provided the opportunity for libertarians to regain their influence on party policy.
The resulting leadership election produced no fewer than five candidates. Michael Portillo, the socially liberal former shadow chancellor, was the obvious frontrunner and declared his candidacy almost immediately. Michael Ancram, Hague’s party chairman, soon followed and made his opposition to Portillo very clear. lain Duncan Smith (with strong contacts in the Bush administration through the Heritage Foundation and American Enterprise Institute) was next. David Davis, an influential backbencher with links to the Adam Smith Institute (ASI) and the Institute of Economic Affairs (lEA), also joined the contest. The final candidate was Ken Clarke, John Major’s former Chancellor of the Exchequer, and the only candidate who supported Britain’s joining the euro currency sphere. Ann Widdecombe, the authoritarian champion of the Christian right and self- proclaimed virgin, unexpectedly failed to attract enough parliamentary supporters to sign her nomination form. She then
declared her wish to return to the backbenches.
The first stage in the election was for members of parliament to select two candidates to be put to a ballot of all members of the Conservative Party. There were three parliamentary ballots with the candidate polling the fewest votes dropping out. Then party membership chose between the remaining two candidates by postal ballot.
A prominent Portillo supporter, Peter Lilley (who, as Hague’s deputy, had labeled free marketeers as members of an anarcho-capitalist sect) quickly sought to re-establish his libertarian credentials during the campaign. The Social Market Foundation published his pamphlet arguing for the limited legalization of marijuana. He proposed that individuals be able to purchase cannabis from licensed outlets, such as liquor stores, and that cultivation be legalized. He stopped short of advocating full legalization on Dutch lines but indicated that he was willing to consider the merits.
Portillo won the first two ballots with Ancram and Davis dropping out. Most of Davis’ supporters transferred their support to Duncan Smith and most of Ancram’s supporters (though not Ancram himself) switched to Clarke, who won the final ballot, narrowly beating Duncan Smith. Portillo came in third by one vote and failed to make it through to the membership ballot. Portillo’s elimination was a major upset and there was much media speculation about how the front-runner managed to turn an initial lead into defeat and humiliation.
The simple answer is that Portillo ran a poor campaign and tried to be “all things to all men.” His campaign team included several from the europhile left of the party who might have backed Clarke had he declared his candidacy earlier. Portillo’s homosexual past cost him, crucial right-wing votes. Lilley’s pamphlet had prompted journalists to ask Portillo to state his position on the legalization of cannabis. He initially indicated his support and then tried to retract, thus appearing indecisive and lacking in principles.
More importantly, Portillo’s support for tax ‘cuts was lukewarm at best and he proposed increased spending on the National Health Service, state schools, and foreign aid. He declared that he would ban patty spokesmen from speaking on European issues at the forthcoming party conference. This “centralist” agenda may have been an attempt to win support from the left of the party. In practice, it only cost him
Letwin has demonstrated his libertarian credentials through his eloquent and stubborn opposition to Tony Blair’s Terrorism Bill.
the support of free marketeers’ and eurosceptics who doubted his commitment to their cause.
Duncan Smith, by contrast, boldly stated his opposition in principle to Britain’s joining the euro. He set out a platform that included major tax cuts, ending the National Health Service’s monopoly, and introducing education cred- its. The policies of Davis were remarkably similar and most of his supporters transferred .their allegiance to Duncan Smith in the final parliamentary ballot.
Attempts by Portillo’s campaign leaders to bully several MPs into voting for him failed spectacularly. A member of his team briefed the Sunday Telegraph that he had the support of Lady Margaret Thatcher. The story was strongly refuted by her office,. thereby suggesting that Duncan Smith was her favored candidate. Portillo’s campaign was severely damaged by this fiasco. ‘Many local activists bitterly opposed Clarke’s support for Britain’s joining the euro and Duncan Smith won the membership ballot decisively by 61 % to 39%.
Since Duncan Smith’s election, his shadow cabinet appointments have strengthened the influence of libertarians. This is because Portillo, Clarke, and their key supporters chose to return to the relative obscurity of the backbenches. Oliver Letwin has replaced Widdecombe as Home Affairs spokesman. He is a committed free marketeer (he wrote Privatising the World) with a strong commitment to civil liberties. His mother, Shirley, was one of only six Ph.D. students of Hayek at the London School of Economics. Letwin has already demonstrated his civil libertarian credentials through his eloquent and stubborn opposition to Tony Blair’s Terrorism Bill, gathering media plaudits for his efforts.
The leading libertarian in the shadow cabinet is John Bercow, who has advocated gay civil unions and drug legalization. Libertarian sympathizers in the shadow cabinet include Eric Forth, David Maclean, and Bernard Jenkin. Significantly, Maclean and Jenkin were Duncan Smith’s campaign managers. Forth, in partnership with Maclean, had previously acted as the party’s “Ron Paul” in the House of Commons. They cleverly used parliamentary procedures to delay government legislation and kill off Private Member’s Bills (including some introduced by Tories) that would increase regulation or taxation.
David Davis secured the key post of party chairman. He recognizes the need to broaden the party’s appeal, especially to black and Asian voters.· One of his first initiatives was to purge the “Monday Club/tone of the oldest conservative pressure groups, whose platform called for a halt to immi- gration, government financial assistance for voluntary repatriation of immigrants, and the restoration of capital punishment. Three mem~ers of parliament were required to sever their links with the organization.
The rise of the Christian right appears to have been halted with the departure of Hague and Widdecombe. This is despite the fact that Duncan Smith is the party’s first Roman Catholic leader. It appears that the Renewing One Nation (Hague’s influential social policy group) has been downgraded to an “affiliated” organization, a status shared by the Conservative Christian Forum that supplied its staff. The CCF has softened its stance on homosexuality under severe pressure from the new leader’s office.
Under Davis’ influence, Conservative policy advisers are once again turning to the ASI and lEA for radical ideas. This is a big change from the days of Hague’s leadership, when policy advisers virtually ignored the free-market think tanks, and Lord Skidelsky, the chairman of Social Market Foundation, resigned from the party after accusing Hague of killing ideas within the party.
A key Davis appointment is that of Mark MacGregor as the party’s chief executive officer. MacGregor was chairman of the Federation of Conservative Students when it was
The strange reality is that today it is the authoritarian right, rather than the libertarians, being purged. “
strong and libertarian. He is a major shareholder in a public relations company that organizes conferences for the ASI and lEA. It’s as if Grover Norquist were appointed to run the Republican Party.
The strange reality is that today it is the authoritarian right, rather than the libertarians, being”purged.” The policy debate will be vigorous over the next two years. Libertarians, inside the party and think tanks, will need to argue their case convincingly against the authoritarian right, who will fight for their cause.
Media opinion suggests that it will be easier for the party to embrace social liberalism than radical free-market policies. Opinion polls suggest that the electorate remains hostile to further privatization, especially in health, education, and welfare. The challenge for libertarians is to develop innovative pro-liberty policies that can be sold effectively to the media and the public. The events of the last’few years show that this is an opportunity that should not be spurned.