Foreign Correspondent: A British Libertarian Party?


London, England. "The need for a modern Cobdenite movement which would combine a belief in both personal and economic freedom with nonintervention overseas has still to be met. It might attract much more general support than the conventional Tory or Labour politician would suppose." So wrote Samuel Brittan, Economics Editor of the FINANCIAL TIMES in his latest book CAPITALISM AND THE PERMISSIVE SOCIETY.

Brittan's swing from the left to the right is yet another example of what one leading journalist termed "the fashionable trend towards laissez-faire capitalism." This is by no means wishful thinking—the trend has been increasingly noticeable over the last few years. The three most apparent factors in my mind which have contributed to this change are: the continuous information flowing from the Institute for Economic Affairs (I.E.A.), the large increase in the sale of Ayn Rand's and other libertarian books, and the changing political situation. Whereas the first two factors were the prime causes of the new trend, there is no doubt whatsoever that recent political events have increased the momentum. Prior to the 1970 election all rightists were consolidated in their opposition to the Labour Party. But since the Conservatives abandoned (immediately following the election) every point of their splendid election manifesto, the fires of the rebel right have been stoked with the fuel of broken promises.

Whereas a new philosophy is spread by a process of intellectual osmosis, on rare occasions there appears on the political horizon a figure who has the courage and foresight to exploit new ideas, thereby expanding that process. It is hard to gauge the extent of one man's influence in the political arena, but it is certain that Enoch Powell, the prickly thorn in the side of consensus politicians, the greatest intellect to sit in the House of Commons this century, will go down in history as the rebellious politician who in Orwellian Britain proclaimed Capitalism as man's greatest gift to mankind! Only time will tell whether he is depicted as a latter day eccentric, or as a statesman whose infallible insight and perceptive intuition made him clearly aware of the grim dangers in the nation's path and who braved ridicule and political ostracism in order to instil in the people a real sense of urgency.

The dissension on the right and the formation of new groups is in relative terms analogous to the period following the American elections in 1964. As patriotism and empire—once the hallmark of the Conservative right—gave way to the emergence of more coherent political thought, as the Conservative hierarchy moved left and their interventionist policies failed with increasing rapidity, a vacuous stage was left. Into this vacuum created within the Conservative Party there moved the small but significant group of Free Marketeers who seemed to give life and direction to the bedeviled and bewildered.

The battle which followed resulted in a field day for the press, and the Monday Club, formerly the most powerful pressure group within the Conservative Party was torn asunder. The free market people and the libertarians, having dealt the death blow to the Monday Club, combined forces and turned on the momentarily euphoric government.


Armchair libertarians they are not, and with the sweet taste of victory still lingering, they have forged ahead to form new groups—purist and nonpurist—each pursuing its own projects, while in battle forming a common front against the enemy.

Success along similar lines has been achieved on the back benches of the House of Commons. This is largely due to Powell's courage (he twice resigned from the Cabinet, once over increased government expenditure) [and, as this issue goes to press, he announced that he was giving up his seat in Parliament because he couldn't ask voters to support the Conservative Party in the election called by Prime Minister Heath for February 28 —Ed.]. Powell's courage, coupled with his enormous intellectual power in debate and his unassailable logic, has created a hard-core of well informed M.P.'s (Powell's Prodigies) armed with I.E.A. literature who continually assail the government on questions ranging from free trade to the free price of gold.

Because of this and Powell's high popularity among the ordinary people, many more M.P.'s are at least paying lip-service to the virtues of the free market. This has helped to clear the way for a number of similarly inclined very free market young men who are standing as Conservative candidates. That the Constituencies have chosen them against the wishes of the Central Office shows a marked change of attitude.

Not so long ago the universities were a vast wasteland and only in a few far flung corners such as St. Andrews did you hear the name of Adam Smith spoken with due reverence. Then began a race to see how far right one could respectably go. They are now tripping over each others' feet in their determination to move in that direction!

This may sound like a passing flirtation with a new fashion but thankfully it is not. As with any new idea there are the pacemakers, and those who follow cautiously. For many people the enthusiasm with which these ideas are received has given them an added impetus. Pessimists they are no longer and in our halls of learning the names of Hayek, Mises, Rothbard and Rand echo our hopes for the future.

By and large the leading newspapers in England are more sceptical of radical ideas or new trends than are their counterparts in America. Apart from THE GUARDIAN, which is vaguely left of centre and has given the libertarian movement wide coverage for some time, there has been a definite change of editorial policy noticeable among the others. A case in point is Samuel Brittan whom I quoted previously. He was at one time very much to the left in economic matters, but the continual failure of interventionist policies persuaded him to look into other ideas—to the free market—for the answers. Today he is one of the prominent spokesmen for Friedmanite economics!

THE SPECTATOR, an influential weekly, has also moved further to the right. Patrick Cosgrave, the political editor, has asked David Farrer of the editorial staff of FREEDOM FIRST, to write a full page article on why he moved from the left to Ayn Rand. THE DAILY MAIL, which is not exactly intellectual, now has Andrew Alexander, one of Britain's top political correspondents, writing for them and he is extremely sympathetic to the libertarian cause.

But in my view it is the change in the editorial policy of THE DAILY TELEGRAPH which I have found to be the most fascinating. Four years ago it preached true-blue stick-in-the-mud Conservatism. Today they can boast that they have the three brightest young men in Fleet Street on their staff, and these "young Turks of Fleet Street"—all editorial leader writers—are devouring the works of Rand, Mises and Rothbard! In their columns they are urging the libertarians to break away from the Monday Club, hailing the new Selsdon Group as truly libertarian and write disparagingly of the government, the moocher and the parasite. Shades of Randianism, no less! (Michael Harrington, who is one of them, has been given permission to write an article on Rand's philosophy. All of this I am sure, points to a definite intellectual change.)


Breakaway groups are very often a sign of dissatisfaction in any political party but more often than not they tend to just wither away. However now and again the seeds of such dissatisfaction are sown on fertile soil, and so it is with England today. For 1973 has been the season for new groups and much to the government's consternation they have all the signs of survival. Some of them are: the Anti-Dear Food Campaign (the old Free Traders) Economic Radicals, the Tuesday Club, Powellites, Selsdon Club, the Adam Smith Club; and now since the Society for Individual Freedom has become avowedly libertarian its membership, too, is on the rise.

Political pundits familiar with splits in the Republican Party in 1964 are apt to compare it with the Conservative Party in England today. The split between the Whigs and the Tories is widening, mainly due to the "phantom capitalist" Enoch Powell. In the past when the party has been in trouble they have pulled out Powell to pull in the votes. But Powell has of late been refusing to go along with that. Recently in a full blaze of publicity he expounded his own ideas about a realistic budget. Not only that, but in his famous speech at Stockport he warned the Government he would not necessarily ask the British people to vote Conservative at the next election! And then, before they could recover from the shock, again in a full blaze of publicity, he handed out his idea of a deflationary budget. Then followed the most startling political event since 1949. The Liberals, who had held only six seats, won two of the safest Tory Constituencies! This is not just midterm dissatisfaction, and the question no longer is will we have a new party—but when?

Whatever Mr. Powell and his rebels decide to do, whether it is to stand as independents, form a new party or remain for the time being to fight socialism from the "inside," England is in for the biggest political shake-up since the Home-Rulers left the old Liberals to join the Conservatives. Only this time we will witness the Whig elements leaving the Tory Party. How libertarian this new party will be will depend on how active the libertarians themselves are in promoting their ideas.