Thursday, 7 February 2013

Libertarians and Conservatives, Conservatives and Libertarians

Now that L'Affair Neville has died down and gay marriage is plainly going to pass into law, it's time to work seriously to heal the wounds felt by both of UKIP's libertarian and conservative wings. We 'Kippers are opinionated and passionate lot, and sometimes it can feel that we are actually two parties in one, with an older deeply Conservative wing and a younger profoundly Libertarian one, both staring at each other in mutual incomprehension.

So do young firebrand libertarian's have a home in what would seem such a socially conservative party? Or, to put it another way, will social conservatives, apparently all long in the tooth and on the "wrong side of history" still have a home in UKIP in the future?

The answer is, in my opinion, is that the Libertarian and Conservative philosophies can, at their best, be politically symbiotic rather than antagonistic. You plainly can't meld the two as they start from completely different stand points, but both philosophies have great strengths and also great weaknesses, and  whether you cancel the strengths or cancel the weaknesses depends on how they are applied in practical politics.

Take Libertarianism. Amongst it's many strengths as a philosophy are it's belief in the nobility of the individual and individual endeavour, intellectual courage and a definite, if at times rather blinkered, vision. It's central weakness - and one common to most ideologies - is it's lack of empiricism, leading it to ignore the realities of the human condition. To hear many of the more fanatical libertarians go on, you would think that society consisted entirely of people with Oxbridge level intellects in perfect physical health, with boundless opportunities at their disposal. It's no accident that almost all libertarian's are well to the right of the IQ bell curve and highly educated, though often somewhat egotistical and lacking in emotional empathy towards those less fortunate. Crucially, what libertarians often tend to forget is that those with talent and ability tend to control change, whereas those less able tend to have change imposed upon them.

Now take Conservatism. It great strength is a love of existing institutions and traditions and a more empirical understanding of the human condition. The best of conservatives are not automatically against reform when necessary, but will always wish reform to be organic and if possible within the framework of existing institutions. In Edmund Burke's great phrase, they see society as "a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born".

But amongst the  great weakness of the Conservative approach is it's inherent myopia: time and time again, conservatives fail to see opportunity or threat until too late, leading to a squandering of chances or the prolonging of unnecessary misery.  It's no accident, to take one example, that the exploitation of shale gas, which has already lead to such a bonanza  in the more Libertarian United States, is only just getting off the ground in Conservative Britain. At it's very worst, of course, the Conservative tradition is a proxy for sheer cowardice in the face of change or for the cynical guarding of vested interests. 

The best approach forward to UKIP is to recognise that we very much need both traditions, and in fact would be lost without either of them: a party that was wholly Libertarian would have nothing at all to say to those less fortunate in society, and therefore without any hope of acquiring political power. However, a wholly Conservative party would find itself constantly outflanked and outmanoeuvred by those with more vision and intellectual courage. 

What I believe we should work towards is a party that takes the libertarian's love of liberty and new ideas, but accepts the need for that constant conservative voice whispering in their ear "ah yes, very good, but have you considered...", no matter how irritating that voice may sometimes be. 

What I would serious propose is that we construct a debating forum where the Libertarian and Conservative wings of the party get together, make peace and thrash out ideas on how we progress. 

Perhaps we could set up a fringe meeting at the next conference where we choose a panel of speakers, say two each from each wing of the party, or perhaps guest speakers from elsewhere, and debate one or more contentious issues of the day. (Thankfully, though, gay marriage will no longer be an issue, so the chances of both wings of the party murdering each other are much reduced.) Or we could adopt a question time format where UKIP members get to throw questions at our panel on any subject they wish.

Who knows, in the process we may even get to like each other!

Anyone who would like to help set something like this up please get in touch with me  on twitter (@andrew_cadman). All ideas welcome.

*PS - anyone who wants to talk this idea forward in their own way is very welcome to do so.