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Britain's 'Libertarian' Coaliton

The UK's shotgun-wedding coalition government has combined the civil libertarian instincts of the Liberal Democrats with the economic liberalism of the Conservatives to create a libertarian synergy not seen since the 1916-1922 coalition government of Lloyd George.

Omar Hossino - October 14, 2011

It’s been a year and a half since “the coalition” entered the UK political lexicon. For two years before elections, the common wisdom was that the Conservatives were in line for the helm of government after over a decade of Labour rule. After some dud leaders, the Tories had hit gold with the charismatic David Cameron who promised to lead “the party of social justice” and stressed, “progressive ends, conservative means.” It was a complete makeover: harsh Thatcherism and free market radicalism had given way to the kinder, gentler Conservatives. Nothing would stand in the Tory path; it was their turn to rule.

Nothing that is, except for Nick Clegg. After the stunning performance of the leader of the Liberal Democrats in the first-ever televised Prime Minister’s debate, his star quickly rose. Just a few weeks through the general election campaign, he’d pulled from far behind to polling ahead of Cameron and Brown. Nobody knew what would come next. Nor did anyone know how Liberal Democrats might act if they did get their hands on power; they had never actually governed and their diverse factions held contradictory beliefs. When the final results came in, Cameron won, but needed to buddy up to his rival Clegg to get his majority—and thus was born the coalition.

Despite predictions of a softer conservatism, fate had other plans—the coalition breathed life back into the Thatcherite dream of limiting government. In a polity where party discipline is strict and party manifestos taken seriously, both are on uncertain ground: instead, the civil libertarian instincts of the Liberal Democrats has combined with the economic liberalism of the Tories to create a libertarian synergy not seen since the 1916-1922 Liberal-led coalition of Lloyd George. The country where the Whig science of politics was born may yet serve as a beacon of classical liberalism in the twenty-first century.

The UK had already come a long way from the trenches of socialist Old Labor. Both right-wing Thatcherism and New Labour Blairism buried those bad old days of the mid-twentieth century which saw direct nationalization of industry. Yet, the birthplace of the science of freedom is far from free. The Heritage Index of Economic Freedom pegs the UK’s economy as the 11th freest in the world and 4th in Europe. The UK lags behind in the area of government expenditures, which in 2010 equaled 44% of GDP. On social freedoms, the results are worse. The Press Freedom Index places the UK at 19th in the world on freedom of speech; ten points lower than largely libertarian Ireland next door.

Then came the coalition. In the last year and a half the rocky merger has proved itself one of the world’s most libertarian governments. As the United States moves to bail out banks, the car industry, enact government healthcare, nationalize local education standards, and curb civil liberties in the name of counterterrorism, the United Kingdom is one of the few Western democracies actively cutting the size and scope of the state.

So far, the coalition has moved to reduce spending faster than any government since Thatcher, with £81 billion in cuts. The drastic austerity program in response to the economic crisis marks a departure from the medicine of Keynesian stimulus being used across the world. The welfare system is being reformed to emphasize individual responsibility by requiring recipients to actively look for work and lasting only temporarily. On the education front, free schools will give parents, charities, and the private sector a larger role in the education of their children. Universities will no longer be given a blank check by the taxpayer, but will be paid for by higher tuition fees.

The libertarian impetus doesn’t stop at economics; the coalition is committed to civil liberties. From the outset, they threw out the previous government’s National ID card. A Localism Bill is being planned to accelerate decentralization in what has become one of the western world’s most unitary states. Enactment of fixed-term parliaments will weaken the near-absolute power of British governments by limiting their ability to call early elections. Throwing away “control orders”—legislation forbidding movement to those only accused of terrorism—shows a government serious about civil liberties. And to top it all off, they still intend to pass a Great Repeal Bill in a rollback of nanny state regulations.

The coalition has attempted at every turn to distance its rhetoric from smaller government: Nick Clegg at the Liberal Democrat conference in September 2010 said that his aim was not to dismantle the state, nor smaller government and Cameron has emphasized a “big society” rather than a smaller state. But rhetoric aside, in the UK we find the only government with policies consistently aimed at expanding the liberty of the individual and curbing the power of the state.