Kneejerk Libertarian

London Mayor Boris Johnson is no friend of freedom

"She incarnates all the nannying, high-taxing, high-spending schoolmarminess of Blair's Britain. Polly is the high priestess of our paranoid, mollycoddled, risk-averse, airbagged, booster-seated culture of political correctness and health'n'safety fascism."

So wrote Tory Member of Parliament (MP) and newspaper columnist Boris Johnson in 2006, in a stinging attack on Polly Toynbee, The Guardian columnist and outspoken supporter of Britain's New Labour government. His Polly-bashing rant encapsulated everything that Boris claimed to loathe about Britain under New Labour: it was fearful, dull, killjoy, illiberal, hectoring, and bossy.

If Polly, impeccably middle-class and more than a little snooty, personified New Labour, then Boris—all shaggy blonde hair, accidental wit, and bumbling persona—personified the reaction against it. Polly wants order and respect and believes you can change the world by taxing fat cats an extra 5 or 10 percent. Boris wants fun and freedom and for the government to withdraw its snout from our everyday lives.

Or so some people believed. How foolish they were. On May 1, Boris was elevated from trouble-making columnist and MP to mayor of the great city of London—and in his first two weeks he has enforced the sort of miserabilist, petty authoritarian measures that will have Polly and her allies nodding enthusiastically as they read their morning papers over bowls of muesli.

First, Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown coated Britain in CCTV cameras, dished out Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBO) to misbehaving kids, brought in new laws to limit free speech, and basically turned Britain into an open prison—and Boris berated them for it. As a libertarian myself (though of the left-leaning rather than the right-wing variety), I wrote numerous articles for Boris when he was editor of the The Spectator, attacking Blair's zero-fun, zero-tolerance approach to life, love, and liberty.

And yet, Boris's first actions as mayor have reeked to the high heavens of Blairite bossiness. The very first thing he did was ban the consumption of alcohol anywhere on London's public transportation system. As of June 1, it will be against the law to sip from a bottle of ale or swig from a can of lager on London buses, trams, and the Tube. Boris says his new law of mini-prohibition is designed to tackle "aggressive behaviour by drunken yobs."

This is the same Boris who once opposed New Labour's ban on smoking in public places. Despite what he says, it isn't true that London's trains and buses are awash with fist-waving drunks. Last year there were a whopping 1.6 billion passenger trips on the London Underground, and only 1,806 reported assaults. That is one assault for every 449,690 commuters, which makes London's tube system safer than Perth railways in sunny Australia, where last year there was one assault for every 222,360 commuters (This is worth pointing out because Brits have a tendency to move to "happy, peaceful" Australia when they tire of the crime and grime here at home).

As John Stuart Mill knew only too well, regulating the consumption of booze is really about regulating the people themselves. Mill argued that attempts by temperance groups and governments to diminish "the occasions of temptation"—by making booze expensive or shutting down pubs—were suited "only to a state of society in which the labouring classes are avowedly treated as children or savages."

So it's a relief to see that some "savages" in London are rising up against Boris's illiberalism by organising an "Anti-Boris Tube Crawl." On the day the ban comes into force, a Facebook-based group of young radicals plans to get on the London Underground or bus network and drink with abandon. In their own words, they will "do a Rosa Parks and slur ‘No I won't get off the fucking bus you fatuous Etonian fuckhead.'"

In his previous life, Boris also bemoaned the way young people were not allowed to kick back, relax, and experiment, but instead were expected—under threat of receiving an ASBO from the courts—to be well-behaved bores.

In 2005, he commissioned me to write an article about Britain's boring, pro-Blairite pop music scene, which "preached safety, caution, respectability and good manners" and turned youngsters into "good little Blairites even before they reach adulthood."

Now, Boris has joined the Blairites in declaring war on youth. He announced that young people who commit even minor misdemeanours on public transport will have their travel passes confiscated, and they won't get them back until they carry out some form of community service. Like a Stalinoid, he'll deny internal freedom of movement within London to any youngster who fails to behave in a Boris-approved fashion.

He used to refer to the fanatical sections of the environmentalist movement as a "new religion," whose adherents like the "sweet moralistic feeling of telling someone to stop doing something." Now he has banned London officials from taking internal flights in the UK because flying farts out too much CO2 into the environment.

Most shockingly, Boris is installing so-called "knife arches"—metal detectors to check if commuters are carrying weapons—in train and bus stations, and he might put them on busy streets, too. He wants to get rid of the "scourge" of rising knife crime. Like all authoritarian rulers, he has twisted the stats: knife crime in Britain is not rising. The most recent crime survey by the Metropolitan Police showed that knife crime has dropped by 15.7 per cent over the past two years, from 12,122 to 10,220 incidents.

Boris's "knife arches" send an important message about the shifting relationship between the state and the individual. If we must pass under a "knife arch" when we hop on a bus or even pop to the shops, then we are no longer free citizens—we are objects of suspicion and potential criminals. These arches, like his booze ban and his threats against misbehaving youth, will radically alter life in London, making its inhabitants feel even more watched and distrusted than we were under his Labourite predecessor, Ken Livingstone.

Why did so many observers, including some American libertarians, get Boris so wrong? The truth is that he was always a kneejerk libertarian—that is, his libertarianism was only a party-political reaction against the New Labour elite. His views were never founded on a trust in the masses to make wise choices and to live as they saw fit. Now that he is in power, Boris has ditched the anti-authority posturing in favour of pushing through his own authoritarian agenda. Londoners, I hope, will react with anger against his illiberal, intolerant regime.

Brendan O'Neill is editor of spiked.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Guy Montag||

    You mean Mr. Dondero lied to us?

  • ||

    I've always disliked this "left-wing vs. right-wing" libertarian dichotomy. If you aren't for economic, political, and civil freedom, you aren't a libertarian. In the U.S. we call them liberals and conservatives. If we can't agree on that, then what's the point of defining ourselves as libertarians?

  • ||

    There are three liberties for libertarians: economic liberties, civil liberties and personal liberties. One or two out of the three isn't enough to qualify you as a libertarian. For example, US liberals are in favor of civil and personal liberties, but not for economic liberties. Paleo-conservatives (Birchers) are in favor of economic and civil liberties but not personal liberties.

  • Guy Montag||

    US liberals are in favor of civil and personal liberties,

    Don't forget the Leftists, who are only Liberal about hard drugs and sex, but not a single other thing under the sun.

  • ||

    If "personal liberty" is limited to getting an abotion, then maybe liberals can stake some claim on that. But on every other matter of personal liberty they are as bad or worse than the conservatives.

    And I agree Boris is no Libertarian, though I'd probably take him over Bob Barr.

  • ||

    "Knife arches"?!?! I assume this is what follows after Gun Control, and precedes Pointy Stick and Slingshot Control.

  • ||

    Since I consider myself as libertarian, I've always felt that a spectrum of "libertarian vs. authoritarian" on such things as economic, personal, and civil liberties makes much more sense than "right vs. left", but such is life in the U.S.

  • Episiarch||

    I got your "knife arches" right here.

    Didn't we predict that Boris would be interesting? However, this is a sucky sort of interesting.

  • ed||

    I don't believe I've ever met a true libertarian. Not here and not in "real" life. A lot of people come close, but there's always at least one attribute that trips them up. That's probably the best we can hope for: honest individuals with their minds in the right place and the courage of their convictions. In other words, the antithesis of "politician."

  • Guy Montag||

    ed,

    Hawkishness can't be one of them, can it? :)

  • x,y||

    I do not see the difference between (1) personal liberties and (2) economic/civil liberties? The latter seem to be subsets of the former.

  • ||

    Epi,

    Your link to "knife arches" says: FORBIDDEN you do not have permission to access...

    ...suggestions?

  • Josiah||

    Remove the file name from the url, visit that, then add it back. It's blocking the off-site referrer, so if you go to a local page first it works flawlessly

  • Episiarch||

    Your link to "knife arches" says: FORBIDDEN you do not have permission to access...

    Wow, they must have blocked it after a few people linked.

    Try this.

  • B||

    "Like a Stalinist thug, he'll deny internal freedom of movement within London to any youngster who fails to behave in a Boris-approved fashion."

    I'm sorry, but anyone who compares the elected mayor of London to a Stalinist thug surrenders his right to be taken seriously, especially since you state in the article that he is only removing passes of those who break the law, and not just arbitrarily denying those passes on a capricious whim.

  • B||

    "If we must pass under a "knife arch" when we hop on a bus or even pop to the shops, then we are no longer free citizens-we are objects of suspicion and potential criminals"

    I am curious, do you feel the same way before you travel on a plane?

  • ||

    Episarch - got it. Thanks...

    ...and those are my kind of guys - bring a gun to a knife-fight!

  • ||

    Guy Montag | May 29, 2008, 12:30pm | #
    US liberals are in favor of civil and personal liberties,

    Don't forget the Leftists, who are only Liberal about hard drugs and sex, but not a single other thing under the sun.


    Don't forget the far Rightists, who are only Liberal about (the one true)God and Guns and not a single other thing. Hucka-love anyone?

  • ||

    B | May 29, 2008, 1:32pm | #
    "If we must pass under a "knife arch" when we hop on a bus or even pop to the shops, then we are no longer free citizens-we are objects of suspicion and potential criminals"

    I am curious, do you feel the same way before you travel on a plane?



    Yup! And walking into a courthouse, buying a gun, encountering a "drinking/driving checkpoint" and so on...

  • ||

    The problem in London is not so much the level of murders from knives but the fact that there are so many young people who are so threatening. You see them everywhere and the city has become an increasing tense place for people who just want to get on with things. There are a great many people in London you don't want to meet eyes with and certainly don't want to accidentally bump into. Their behavior is calculated to cause alarm and threat. I understand fully why Ken wants to give the good people of London a chance to go about their business without these fearful people adding to their anxiety. Even in the most Libertarian imagination there is no place for allowing others to threaten your peace.

  • ||

    Up until now, it was OK to drink alcohol on London public transport?? Is one allowed to drink anything on a city bus or subway anywhere in the US?

  • Elemenope||

    The problem in London is not so much the level of murders from knives but the fact that there are so many young people who are so threatening. You see them everywhere and the city has become an increasing tense place for people who just want to get on with things. There are a great many people in London you don't want to meet eyes with and certainly don't want to accidentally bump into. Their behavior is calculated to cause alarm and threat. I understand fully why Ken wants to give the good people of London a chance to go about their business without these fearful people adding to their anxiety. Even in the most Libertarian imagination there is no place for allowing others to threaten your peace.

    Just carry a bigger knife.

    I don't see the problem. It worked for Dundee, after all.

  • ||

    Robert Adamson | May 29, 2008, 1:42pm | #
    The problem in London is not so much the level of murders from knives but the fact that there are so many young people who are so threatening. You see them everywhere and the city has become an increasing tense place for people who just want to get on with things. There are a great many people in London you don't want to meet eyes with and certainly don't want to accidentally bump into. Their behavior is calculated to cause alarm and threat. I understand fully why Ken wants to give the good people of London a chance to go about their business without these fearful people adding to their anxiety. Even in the most Libertarian imagination there is no place for allowing others to threaten your peace.


    Well, when you remove the right of the average citizen to protect him/herself from said "threatening people" by banning personal protection devices like guns and knives then only the criminals will carry them. I don't see how that improves your situation any.

  • Paul||

    If we can't agree on that, then what's the point of defining ourselves as libertarians?

    Tough question, Marcvs. I think that within libertarian circles, we can make some distinctions. For instance, there are some anti-death penalty libertarians, and some pro-death penalty libs. Abortion is another area of some libertarian disagreement. Another that comes to mind are hawkish libertarians vs. more pacifist libs. I don't have any problem seperating libertarians with those philosophical distinctions as 'left-leaning' or 'right-leaning'.

    For the most part (I've found), libertarians are better about disagreeing with themselves (and keeping it civil) than other parties. But I could be wrong.

  • Guy Montag||

    Kwix,

    Yea, those folk are pretty bad too. But, they do seem to be a bit more open about it.

  • ||

    As for "knife arches", I present to you a marvel from way back in the last century, the ceramic knife. Though you would do well to locate either a military version or one of the "off brand" ones that don't contain any metal.

  • Duke||

    Liberals are for pot and promiscuity. Conservatives are for guns and tobacco. Libertarians are for all four plus pornography.

  • ||

    Articles like this are the reason I label myself a small "L" libertarian. If drinking on the subway is now a human right, then we have a problem with definitions.

  • ||

    Guy, I have to disagree.
    Far Leftists know that you can't make your own decisions regarding things like "subsistence" and "greed" so they will do it for you in order to "protect you" from the evils of the world and to keep you from "influencing" others.
    Far Rightists know that you can't make your own decisions regarding things like "selflessness" and "vice" so they will do it for you in order to "save you" from the evils of the world and to keep you from "tempting" others.
    Sorry Guy, I don't see any real difference in the far extremes, one wants to save my body the other wants to save my soul and neither deigns to let me decide what is best for myself.

  • LarryA||

    Londoners, I hope, will react with anger against his illiberal, intolerant regime.

    Dream on. See below.

    Your link to "knife arches" says: FORBIDDEN you do not have permission to access... suggestions?

    Lean against the wall. Remove the knife from your pocket. Repeat, "I will not commit further antisocial acts" 5,000 times.

    I am curious, do you feel the same way before you travel on a plane?

    Yes.

    The problem in London is not so much the level of murders from knives but the fact that there are so many young people who are so threatening. You see them everywhere and the city has become an increasing tense place for people who just want to get on with things. There are a great many people in London you don't want to meet eyes with and certainly don't want to accidentally bump into. Their behavior is calculated to cause alarm and threat. I understand fully why Ken wants to give the good people of London a chance to go about their business without these fearful people adding to their anxiety. Even in the most Libertarian imagination there is no place for allowing others to threaten your peace.

    But they told us when they banned guns all these problems would disappear. Then they told us when all the cameras were in place all these problems would disappear. Then they told us when they started handing out ASBOs all these problems would disappear. Then they...

    You can't create civilization by treating citizens like criminals. You create civilization by forcing criminals to act like citizens.

    I present to you a marvel from way back in the last century, the ceramic knife

    I prefer the Executive Letter Opener. But if you're on a budget visit any juvenile detention facility, jail, or prison and ask about the warden's shiv collection.

  • Guy Montag||

    Kwix,

    I was speaking of the individuals within both camps. The "Leftists" seem to like to use a lot of codewords and slight-of-pen to mask their true intentions. The "Rightists" do not seem to do it anywhere near as much.

  • Guy Montag||

    A well sharpned, extra hard-lead pencil works pretty good too. As heard on the G. Gordon Liddy show in the previous century.

  • Mr Anonymous||

    For example, US liberals are in favor of civil and personal liberties, but not for economic liberties.

    Fairness doctrine's a pretty strong attack on civil freedom.

    As for personal freedom, was that meant to be a joke?

  • ||

    Perhaps it's time for me to hand in my libertarian card, but I just don't find myself all that outraged by behavior restrictions on mass transit. I've never found myself rankled by the (seemingly ubiquitous in the states) policy of no food or drink.

    Metal Detectors I could see being an issue, as it must at the very least limit the wardrobe choices of some folks (I'm looking at you hipsters and goths). I have trouble getting too up in arms about it.

    Now if ol' Boris starts demanding that metal detectors go up in "Public Spaces" ie private businesses that freely allow in members of the public, then I'll be up in (ceramic) arms!

  • lauren cooper||

    i'm not bovvered!!!

  • ||

    I was speaking of the individuals within both camps. The "Leftists" seem to like to use a lot of codewords and slight-of-pen to mask their true intentions. The "Rightists" do not seem to do it anywhere near as much.


    Eh, fair enough but I wonder how much of that is "cloaking" and how much if it is just the jargon of the people.

    Remember when "liberal" meant David Hume and John Stuart Mills instead of FDR and Obama? Yeah, me neither and that's kind of the point.

    Then again, these days left-liberals do seem to be hung up more on PC issues, thereby actually making it harder to express what they really mean. I kind of miss the "bourgeois-pig" rhetoric of the '60s. At least it was honest.

  • ||

    BrianTerrel | May 29, 2008, 3:12pm | #
    Perhaps it's time for me to hand in my libertarian card, but I just don't find myself all that outraged by behavior restrictions on mass transit.
    ...
    Now if ol' Boris starts demanding that metal detectors go up in "Public Spaces" ie private businesses that freely allow in members of the public, then I'll be up in (ceramic) arms!


    How about random checks of civilians on a "public streets" with wand style metal detectors. I mean, if you can't get from private business to your home in any fashion without being subject to a metal detector or other search without probable cause doesn't that kill the notion of "freedom of movement"?

  • ||

    FWIW, in the UK it is illegal to "carry any sharp or bladed instrument in a public place (with the exception of a folding pocket knife, which has a blade that is less than 7.62cm or 3 inches)."

    A multitool(Leatherman) MAY be legal but "it is for the person to prove on the balance of probabilities that he/she had good reason for possession."

    The penalty for carrying a knife that's a tad too long or that you don't have "good reason for possession"? "A minimum six month prison sentence, or maximum of two years and/or a fine." Just for carrying, not for harming a person or thing.

    Also, "public place" is meant as anywhere accessible to the public, so for example a private campsite, which members of the public must book to use, is a public place. That definition extends "public" into all spheres of "private business".

    Sources:
    Cambridgeshire Constabulary
    GoExplore.net

  • ||

    In America we call this phenomena "Bob Barr"

  • ||

    This is easily the worst article I've ever read on Reason.

    You're comparing a ban on alcohol consumption on public transport to Mill's writings against laws furthering the total prohibition of alcohol consumption. Fail.

    Then you suggest that the removal of state-subsidized free transport cards from criminals (minor misdemeanors though they may be) is somehow Stalinist? For the USA readers here, adults are required to pay for these cards (electronic tickets) while they are provided free to youth. The little bastards could still ride all they want without doing the community service, they'd just have to pay like everyone else.

    Now he has banned London officials from taking internal flights in the UK because flying farts out too much CO2 into the environment. I don't believe you. Banning these flights was mentioned in the debates but has it been implemented? Reference please. When he mentioned it I thought it was geared more toward budgetary savings than emissions. Please correct me if I'm wrong here.

    When it comes to knives and violent crime, you poor sods are fucked all around. Ken, Boris, whoever; I haven't heard a single idea that's even remotely practical. Banning all weapons, even if done successfully, leads to gangsterism in a city environment.

    And what exactly is Boris illiberal about, or intolerant of? Kind of missed that in your article, and it was your summary sentence. Surely you don't mean your poorly argued three main points there, do you? You suck.

    Sincerely, Galthran
    (who neither lives in or gives a shit about London, just hates to read drivel)

  • ||

    You're comparing a ban on alcohol consumption on public transport to Mill's writings against laws furthering the total prohibition of alcohol consumption. Fail.


    Well, if Mill's writings don't stir you, perhaps Hume will:
    It is seldom that any liberty is lost all at once.

  • Damn Liberal||

    "Like a Stalinist thug, he'll deny internal freedom of movement within London to any youngster who fails to behave in a Boris-approved fashion."

    And yet you want to privatize roads so that private companies answerable to no-one can deny you the right to travel freely.

  • ||

    I think the left/ right debate at the top of these comments detracts from the article. A friend of mine described spiked as a British equivilent to Reason. There are some differences in political culture between the US and the UK. Us approaching from the left can throw labels like free market anti-capitalism around, but essentially we are vaguely on the same level.

    His points about Boris are well founded and well placed to be put on Reason against the uninformed, but well meaning prejudice, that the Tories and Boris are anything close to libertarian.

  • Left-Lib||

    There are many who agree with libertarian policies, or principles, or both that disagree throroughly.

    There is not only right-libertariand and left, but Mutualists, Anarchists, Geo-Libertarians, Agorists, etc. etc.

    I agree with libertarian policies and some principles but I disagree with other principles. I also reject anarchism and think government should regulate pollution (ala tragedy of the commons).

  • Brett||

    "He announced that young people who commit even minor misdemeanours on public transport will have their travel passes confiscated"

    These travel passes are tax payer funded, so shouldn't exist in the first place. What a pity the author's "libertarianism" doesn't extend to property.

    Just the usual leftist parading as a libertarian.

  • Fig||

    In America we call this phenomena "Bob Barr"


    Man, I thought I was the only one that noticed. He's a REPUBLICAN people. How did everyone fail to notice his actual actions and voting record? Maybe he cares about economic liberties, maybe, but he doesn't give a flying fruit about civil liberties. And I just don't understand how people didn't see the potential of Mary Ruwart -- she's a woman (also the most articulate of all, in my opinion), which a crap ton of people are just itching to vote for.

    It's kind of funny, in a very sad way, that knife crime is even an issue. If only those Londoners could arm themselves properly.

  • ||

    also the most articulate of all, in my opinion

    Yeah, the LP is screwed, then.

  • Ranter||

    Wow! A politician lied his ass off to win office! I never saw that one coming!

    Seriously folks, the LP isn't "screwed." The LP has an electable candidate, although he is a classical liberal, not a libertarian. Personally, I think that's close enough. His stance on drugs may be an expedient flip-flop, but his stances on constitutional government, privacy, and government power in general date back longer than his involvement with the LP. He even apologized for voting for the U.S.A.-P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act; how many other Congresspeople have done so?

    As for you purists out there, Mary Ruwart got a seat on the Libertarian National Committee, so what's the big deal? You might have lost the nomination, but now your girl Ruwart will stick around a lot longer than Barr will.

    One question, why the heck is it that most purist libertarians seem so damn pessimistic (even borderline fatalist) about future prospects for liberty?

  • Robert||

    What's the difference between personal and civil liberty? I don't think I've ever seen that one drawn before.

  • ||

    ChrisH | May 29, 2008, 12:42pm | #

    "Knife arches"?!?! I assume this is what follows after Gun Control, and precedes Pointy Stick and Slingshot Control.

    Guy Montag | May 29, 2008, 2:28pm | #

    A well sharpned, extra hard-lead pencil works pretty good too. As heard on the G. Gordon Liddy show in the previous century.




    Harsh language is next.

  • alexis||

    "Now he has banned London officials from taking internal flights in the UK because flying farts out too much CO2 into the environment. I don't believe you. Banning these flights was mentioned in the debates but has it been implemented? Reference please. When he mentioned it I thought it was geared more toward budgetary savings than emissions. Please correct me if I'm wrong here."

    One of the lefties asked him to find an alternative to a new bridge over the Thames in East London. He looked very interested and said "what did you have in mind, some sort of catapult perhaps?". I can't see him banning flights. Having flown many many miles for meetings though I can attest to the fact that they are generally pointless.

    Harsh language is next.

    I can assure you that offensive speech was outlawed there many years ago.

  • Joe Mawmah||

    People seem confused about Boris' odd behaviour since gaining office; I'm not sure why. He is, after all, just another fucking politician.

  • Nibble||

    The LP has an electable candidate


    I thought they had Bob Barr?

  • دردشة||

    Thank you, my dear on this important topic You can also browse my site and I am honored to do this site for songs
    http://www.a6rbna.com
    This website is for travel to Malaysia
    http://www.m-arabi.com

  • قبلة الوداع||

    thank u man

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Video Game Nation: How gaming is making America freer – and more fun.
  • Matt Welch: How the left turned against free speech.
  • Nothing Left to Cut? Congress can’t live within their means.
  • And much more.

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement