A key feature of Western liberalism must always be small and limited government. Theresa May’s shift to centrism means that no party wishes to uphold this important principle any longer.
Since the shift of the Liberal Party in the early 20th century towards social liberalism and away from classical liberalism, it has been left to the Conservative Party to advance principles of small government and individual liberty. For the decades following, the Conservatives championed this principle in election after election, with these principles becoming perhaps most prominent with the advance of Thatcherism in the 1970s and 1980s. Beyond the 1980s, a post-Thatcherite small government consensus was reached in the Conservative Party and arguably in the Labour Party as well. But the election of Cameron in 2005 put the Tories on a road to centrism, a road which has only been consolidated by Theresa May recently. Mrs May’s statements of centrism and pro-intervention have confirmed the worst fears of the libertarian; that no party is now committed to reducing the size and scope of government, and to allowing the liberty of the individual to flourish.
Her proposals to be “pragmatic” about deficit spending, to be a country that works for everyone, and perhaps most significantly, her statements that government is a force for good and ought to step up not back, all show that those who wish to reduce the scope of government have no one to represent them. The Labour Party remains more collectivist and statist than they have for decades, while the Liberal Democrats, with Tim Farron as leader, stray further from the classical principles of liberalism than for a long time. The Conservatives and Theresa May have now confirmed their inevitable jump on the bandwagon of ordoliberal statism which Labour and the Liberal Democrats joined long before. Regretfully, with UKIP punching one another and with nothing to spout but populism, the libertarians, who remain the only ones wishing to limit government, have no party or politician to turn to.
It is unfortunate that this lack of willingness to accept the empirical successes of the free market is no longer seen or championed by any party leader. The free market enabled the rapid growth in technology and incomes in the 19th century, so why should we repress it now? It is the greatest free market ever created that became the largest economic superpower in history; the United States is living proof of why Britain needs limited government. It was because the United States and 18th to 19th century Britain acknowledged a few simple facts that they grew so fast. Governments and bureaucrats do not know better than individuals and firms what should be traded and how much should be traded; the whole premise of government intervention is that the state can produce or trade better than a firm or consumer in the free market, but this is fundamentally untrue. It is confusing how no legitimate party leader acknowledges the inherent efficiency of free and competitive markets and inherent inefficiency of government intervention in economic affairs. The Conservatives did once recognise this; they ran on platforms of rolling back the frontiers of the state, but now they throw themselves into the unfortunate consensus that government should step up not back. Lord Acton once famously remarked that power corrupts; it would not be unreasonable to suspect that the Conservatives in government have been corrupted upon being given the power to intervene. Perhaps this issue can all be put down to that one Lord Acton quote; it is simply the case that the Conservatives are no longer brave enough to resist the temptation to intervene, as Thatcher always had the conviction and courage to do.
It is always tempting when an economic problem pops up for governments to seize that opportunity to intervene and to seem to the public as if they are doing something to stop a problem, when often the solution is to do nothing. What Theresa May needs to do is to take some of that Thatcherite bravery, and some of the courage that Margaret Thatcher had when she refused to intervene in the freedom of individuals and firms. For British libertarian values to be maintained, the Conservatives must go backwards to their individualist and free market roots, not forwards to some illusion of social democracy under the premise that it will win votes. Principles must be put over what might get a politician more easily elected, otherwise this country is put at the mercy of that attractive, innocent, yet oh-so destructive thing: centrism. Centrism is merely the term used by those who wish to expand government by the back door, and we must be very cautious of it, however innocent it seems.