A few days ago Cicero met with one of the better known figures in the Libertarian Alliance, Brian Mickelthwait. Brian writes for various blogs that I enjoy reading- including Samizdata.
Ahead of our meeting Brain expressed "scepticism" about the Libertarian credentials of the Liberal Democrats: "My charge was that when you meet a Liberal Democrat you never know what he will believe. The one who talks to you is likely to say what you want to hear. But the others will simultaneously be telling other people with quite different views what they want to hear. So don't vote for these lying creeps."
Political parties- all of them- are coalitions of people who quite often disagree with each other. Apparently we are not supposed to "air our dirty linen in public", but actually one of the reasons that the Liberal Democrats appealed to me was that they were prepared to talk about issues and policies amongst themselves in public. The eclipse of the Liberal Party as a force in government led to the party becoming a ginger group for pioneering ideas- ideas that were subsequently put into place by other parties. Liberalism was about ideas more than power.
However, over the past fifteen years something important has happened in British politics. Social changes have undermined thecoherentt "class" basis for the Conservatives and Labour. As a result the ideological underpinning of first Labour and now the Conservatives' agenda has weakened drastically. The consequences have been the creation of PR driven, increasingly unideological political agendas- so-called "triangulation". However, the Liberal Democrats have actually gone in the other direction. More and more the debates inside the party have begun to relate to first principles of Liberal ideology.
The emergence of a group of successful over achievers in the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party- David Laws, Edward Davey, Nick Clegg, Susan Kramer and so on has brought the debate to the highest level. The publication of "The Orange Book" was a key step in framing the debate in much more explicitly economically Liberal terms.
At the time, the leadership of Charles Kennedy was reluctant to engage with the debate- and many activists in the party found it difficult to accept the policy conclusions that were drawn in the book. However, although Ming Campbell has continued to call himself a politician of the centre-left"- a position I have explicitly rejecte. Nonetheless, the new leadership has actively engaged with the economic Liberal positions. Meanwhile the members have actually got round to reading the book. New policies- especially on deregulation-explicitly come from the freedom agenda, while the debate on taxation has shifted from a tax and spend perspective to the ideology of "setting limits to the role of the state"- which for me is the hallmark of Liberalism. From our commitment to civil rights is emerging a far more Liberal approach across the board-especially in taxation and the wider issues of the economy.
To a degree the Liberals and Liberal Democrats never wholly lost the free market agenda- Malcolm Bruce was talking about similar issues when he was industry and treasury spokesman 20 years ago- but there is no doubt that there was and remains a significant constituency for a more Social Democrat "social justice agenda" inside the party. However to me this is no more shocking than seeing Social Conservatives and Libertarians inside the Conservative Party. The reality is that any political party is a coalition.
The publication of a follow up to The Orange Book: Britain after Blair continues to advance the debate inside our party in the direction of an explicitly freedom driven agenda. Although the debate continues, the fact is that issues like land tax, flat tax, deregulation and so on are being taken seriously, even by those who do not necessarily support them.
So the answer to Brain Micklethwait is no, we are not yet wholly Libertarian- but no party is, or is likely to be. However there is an increasing number of Liberal Democrats who are absolutely Economic and Social Liberals. I believe that the tradition of J.S. Mill in our party makes us far more open to the ideas of Hayek than any other political party. I also believe that as the Labour and Conservatives descend into Butskillite mush, the Liberal Democrats will develop a firmer ideological edge over our rivals, and that as a party we will reap the rewards.