The UK Independence Party (UKIP), which is on course to either win or come a close second in the British segment of this week's elections to the European Parliament, describes itself as a "libertarian, non-racist party seeking Britain's withdrawal from the European Union." How apt is that description?
The third part—seeking withdrawal from the European Union—is undeniably true. The second part—non-racist—has prompted raised eyebrows in some quarters. But having met many of the party's officials, activists, and candidates over the years (including this wonderfully straight-talking chap), I'm prepared to give UKIP the benefit of the doubt. But does UKIP deserve the label "libertarian"? Here, I'm with Rational Optimist Matt Ridley:
As the Ukip campaign ploughs steadily farther off the rails into the anti-immigrant bushes, in search presumably of former British National Party voters, it becomes ever easier for small-government, classical liberals—like me—to resist its allure. Nigel Farage once advocated flat taxes, drug decriminalisation and spending cuts. Now his party has dropped the flat tax, opposes zero-hours contracts, is hostile to gay marriage and talks about subsidising farmers and growing the defence budget.
To be clear, there are some libertarians involved in UKIP, and more supporting it from the sidelines. The party's antipathy toward the political elite certainly has a libertarian flavor to it, as do a few of its individual policies. But UKIP has always been an uncomfortable alliance of libertarianism and populist nationalism. And in recent years, it is very much the populist nationalism that has come to the fore. Now, as Dr Matthew Goodwin, co-author of Revolt on the Right, puts it:
UKIP are winning over the "Left Behind" groups in British society… These are voters who hold a very different set of values to the professional, middle-class majority: they are far more nationalist, Eurosceptic, fiercely opposed to immigration and feel like they have no voice in politics. They look out at a country they neither recognize nor want to be a part of.
In this context, it is hard to see a UKIP electoral victory striking much of a blow for individual freedom. It may represent a kick in the face for an out-of-touch political class, but—alas—it isn't libertarians doing the kicking.
UKIP may once have been a libertarian political force. But for me, that label has been out-of-date since at least 2010, when the party ran its UK general election campaign on a virulently anti-immigration platform. Since then, the party has been beating an ever-more reactionary path. Libertarians still cheering its rising fortunes should perhaps be careful what they wish for.