The conservative British daily The Telegraphy, reports today that David Ruffley MP wants to break free of supposed Liberal Democrat shackles on free market policies by abolishing the Business Department, headed by the Liberal Democrat MP Vince Cable. Well abolishing the Business department was Liberal Democrat policy before the last general election and the Coalition agreement between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. So Ruffley wants to outdo the Liberal Democrats on free markets by adopting Liberal Democrat policy! Of course it is true that the Liberal Democrats are less keen on market influenced reform of public services than the Conservatives, most notably with regard to the National Health Service,along with schools. Though there is some ambiguity here since the top dıown means by which the government is introducing these changes itself conflicts with the market tendency to find new, changing and variable solutions to satisfying demands. And as I point out in my last post, it is Conservatives not Liberal Democrats who favour immigration restrictions, itself a major attack on individual liberty along with free labour markets. It is true that Liberal Democrat party members are less instinctively prone to free market language than Conservative party members, and that during Tony Blair’s premiership, the Lib Dems often presented themselves as protectors of public services from New Labour market reforms.
However, this is not the full story, and many of the Liberal Democrat reservations about pubic sector reform have related to the top down means which are against the spirit of markets. It is the case that the Liberal Democrats have been edging towards a more free market classical liberal friendly position. Major steps include: the publication of the Orange Book: Reclaiming Liberalism (2004) with essays by prominent liberal democrats sympathetic to market leaning policies; the election of Nick Clegg as party leader (2007), who has more clearly distinguished the Liberal Democrats from social democracy and the left than a series of predecessors; the formation of LiberalVision (I can’t check the date of founding right now, but a few years ago, I am a contributor to the website) as a party group with a strong classical liberal/libertarian identity; the formation of Liberal Reform earlier this year, as a party gathering sympathetic to a greater role for markets. None of these marks the conversion of the Liberal Democrats to classical liberal purity, but each is a step in a more classical liberal direction. Anyway, the Conservative Party, including the party right is not pure either, mixing centrist concessions to powerful lobbies demanding state action and right social conservative attacks on cross boarder labour mobility, and various areas of individual liberty.
The real absurdity of Ruffley’s Lib Dem bashing from a free market direction is that he was speaking at the Institute of Economic Affairs, the leading body in the UK promoting classical liberal free market small government ideas. The Director General of the IEA cannot belong to a any political party, or express party political partisanship. Nevertheless, there fact is the present Director General Mark Littlewood used to be chief press spokesman for the Liberal Democrats and founded LiberalVision.
There is an element in the Liberal Democrat left which cannot accept classical liberal ideas in the Liberal Democrats, though that is where the party came from, as the descendant of the Liberal Party of the 1840s. There is a very strong element on the Tory right which needs to think it has a monopoly on classical liberal thinking, and does not just disagree with the Liberal Democrats but needs to hate them. The basis of that is not and cannot be classical liberalism, it is the Tory (Conservative traditionalist) assumption the they are the natural people of government, and anyone else competing with tim for power must be grubby opportunists, who cannot possibly compete with them on issues of liberty and market economics.