More liberal with promises than in policy

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The Independent Online
Like writers, governments tend to be remembered for few achievements - and not always those for which they thought they would be remembered. John Major promised little and delivered less: the National Lottery. Margaret Thatcher tamed the trade unions and inaugurated privatisation, which came about largely by accident. Harold Wilson promised a technological revolution that never happened but gave us the Open University instead.

His government, more specifically Roy Jenkins, gave us something else as well: a set of laws - on abortion, divorce and homosexuality - which increased the sum of human freedom and human happiness. The two notions, freedom and happiness, are not the same. One does not always or necessarily lead to the other. This does not lessen the value of freedom as a good in itself.

Lord Jenkins's reforms were admittedly the product of the dedication of others: Leo Abse, Lord Arran, Humphry Berkeley, David Steel. But it was he who adopted them, and the Wilson government which saw to it that they became law.

The present government has no such ambitions. On the contrary: if Mr Jack Straw has any object at all - apart from securing his own advancement - it is to stop people doing what they want to do at any given moment. Apart from his own departmental legislation, the causes he promises to take on board in the Jenkins manner both involve restricting freedom.

The first of these is fox-hunting. For myself, I have never been able to see this - unlike, say, the legalisation of drugs - as a straight libertarian issue. It involves cruelty to animals. We control slaughterhouses, though not very effectively. We prohibit badger-baiting and cock-fighting, though not witness-bullying and barrister-baiting, which rightly remain much loved national sports.

I have always found the digging out of foxes abhorrent, not to say thoroughly unsporting. It should, I think be prohibited by law. If the wretched animal has managed to get home he should at least be allowed to raise a paw at the crimson-coated buffoons who have been chasing him.

Even so, and with this qualification, there is something petty and vindictive about the pursuit of fox-hunters. In addition, it has been attended by more untruths - for my mother taught me that in polite society it was impermissible to use "lies" - than any political controversy since the Westland affair. I went into them briefly last week. There is no need to go into them again.

The second cause which Mr Straw is expected to favour is that of compelling clubs restricted to men to admit women as well. A variant is that what is being proposed is that clubs which already admit women as second-class members should be compelled to give them the same rights as are enjoyed by the men.

I give an illustration of a similar set-up. The shares of Associated Newspapers, which owns the Daily Mail, are quoted publicly. And yet it would be impossible for anyone to take over the paper because the share-structure of the controlling company is rigged in favour of the Harmsworth-Rothermere family. Modification of company law would lie with Mr Stephen Byers at Trade rather than with Mr Straw. And does Mr Byers propose to do anything to remedy this inequity? Of course not.

Nor, I imagine, does Mr Straw propose to do anything about women and clubs. But it makes a good story. The features editors become even more excited than usual and mobilise the feared Fleet Street Harpies to write articles about how they do not want to be members of a club full of boring, fat, drunk old men but that it is a crying scandal all the same and something should be done about it, so God bless you, Mr Straw, and more power to your elbow!

There are more serious matters. Asylum seekers, prisoners, suspected persons - we have all seen or are now seeing their rights being taken away before our eyes. There is very little we can do about it; or not yet. As Walter Bagehot wrote, there is no arguing with the brute force of a parliamentary majority. The most effective protest Londoners can make is to refuse to vote for the Labour candidate for mayor unless he happens to be Mr Ken Livingstone, a practising libertarian.

There is the theory that Mr Straw is pursuing the policies he is because he and Mr Tony Blair wish to ingratiate themselves with the readers of the paper I have mentioned earlier, the Mail. It was Mr Blair's "forces of conservatism" speech which led that paper finally to break off relations with him - though the admiration of the late Lord Rothermere and Sir David English for Mr Blair was at no stage equalled by the editor, Mr Paul Dacre. And it was that same speech which laid down, more clearly than ever before, Mr Blair's hostility to liberalism: "It is time to move beyond the social indifference of right and left, libertarian nonsense masquerading as freedom."

At the time I described the speech as "fascistic". I do not want to change the word, except to point out that the origins of fascism lay in the philosopher- politicians of the French Revolution. Likewise a form of totalitarian- ism was always implicit in Mr Blair's very comprehensiveness. At Bournemouth he eliminated those who represented the forces of conservatism from the consensus. They could no longer form part of the General Will.

There is now a widespread admission in the People's Party that the speech was a mistake. But if this was so, it was because it appeared to reject citizens who had voted Labour for the first time in May 1997 rather than because of any threat which his words presented to a free society. For freedom has always been a minority interest; rather like cricket or rugby.

Certainly liberalism has not always been represented in the Liberal Party. "How is it," the 19th-century libertarian philosopher Herbert Spencer asked, "that Liberalism . . . has grown more and more coercive in its legislation?" In 1885 W E Gladstone wrote that Liberalism's "pet idea" was "taking into the hands of the State the business of the individual". In 1892 he wrote to Queen Victoria: "A moderate Liberal is becoming a thing of the past." And the Liberal government of 1906 was one of the most interventionist of the 20th century.

But I am not talking here of interventionism such as the minimum wage or the acceptance of the European social chapter; rather, of the conviction of Mr Blair that he knows - even for those of us who are neither criminals nor suspected criminals - how people should run their lives better than they know themselves, and of the desire of his ministers to concern themselves with matters of daily life which are none of their business.

There is clearly a gap in the political market. There is no Freedom Party. Mr William Hague might have filled it; just as he might have given his party a cause worth fighting for by insisting on an elected House of Lords. His instincts are liberal, both economically and socially. But at the last moment his courage always fails him. It was the same with Mr Major. When Mr Hague's friend Mr Alan Duncan essayed a few mild observations on the legalisation of drugs, he was forced to recant, as if he had asserted in the Europe of the Counter-Reformation that the earth went round the sun.

Mr Charles Kennedy presents greater cause for hope. His instincts are liberal too, like Mr Hague's, and unlike those of Mr Blair and Mr Paddy Ashdown. Whatever he does, he is unlikely to retain or improve on the 46 seats which his party won at the election. Mr Kennedy, at least, has nothing to lose.