Uninspiring, complacent, and an explicit rejection of liberalism.
It’s been a fun couple of weeks for political commentators. First, we had an early draft of the Labour manifesto, the leaking of which sparked accusations of incompetence in the party. Next, we had the real thing to prove those accusations true. A few wonderful media gaffes from the gift that keeps on giving, Diane Abbott. John McDonnell’s shuffling papers. Corbyn’s car runs over the foot of a BBC cameraman. Good show, old chaps.
Now, with the release of the Conservative Party manifesto, the real scrutiny begins. There are very few people who genuinely believe Corbyn will lead Labour into 10 Downing Street. There are more people, indeed, who are wondering whether the Tory majority will reach triple figures. Suffice to say, then, that the contents of the Conservative manifesto are a vision of what we, as a nation, will endure over the next five years.
To that end, it’s all very… well, dull. And that’s to be expected, really. Theresa May knows she’s heading for a clear majority, and producing a manifesto of radical – and so, divisive – policies is an unnecessary risk. It’s clear from the rhetoric of the document that May is appealing to a wide spectrum and has shifted the party to the left. As the manifesto states, she is rejecting the “ideological templates” of both left and right to “embrace the mainstream view that recognizes the good that government can do.”
Record scratch. Libertarians, make sure to take an antihistamine before reading on.
So much for ideological neutrality. So much for the Kumbaya of conservatives and libertarians within the Tory party that previously united around economic liberalism. “We do not believe in untrammeled free markets.” Is that so? “We reject the cult of selfish individualism.” Indeed?
There are many statements to object to here from a libertarian perspective. The idea, firstly, that the “mainstream view recognizes the good that government can do” assumes that “can” equates to “should”. The opposite is the case. An electorate that asks what government can rather than should do for them is precisely to blame for the plague of public sector overreach the Tories have utterly failed to address since 2010.
How about this: “We know that our responsibility to one another is greater than the rights we hold as individuals.” This statement is an outright assault on personal liberty. For one, conscience is the domain of the individual; responsibility, morality, and charity cease to be such when they are compelled. I need not quote Friedrich Hayek here, but it would be apt to do so. More substantially, though, is the implication it has for individual rights – you don’t need them if government can legislate for you to act correctly.
This isn’t simply a case of May rejecting the libertarian notion of taxation as punitive and the role of government as largely non-essential. This is, instead, a complete rejection of the social philosophy of individualism from which we rightly believe responsibility and matters of conscience arise. Liberty-minded Tories may well wish to consider this point carefully, because so-called Mayism is not simply the landscape of the next five years, but the first step in what seems to be a radical and fundamental realignment of Tory party values.
This rhetoric is reflected in the policies. I do not wish to detail every aspect of the 80-plus page manifesto, but I will briefly outline what I believe to be the most significant – and worrying – aspects of the next parliament.
Taxation (is Theft)
Like each of the categories into which the plans may fall, there are, on the surface, several positive policies here. The expected increases in the personal allowance to £12,500, and the threshold of the 40p tax rate to £50,000 are welcome. So too is the guaranteed lock on VAT. Of most appeal is the reduction of Corporation Tax to 17%, a potential boost for business and investment, and a necessary foil to the ridiculous 26% proposed by Labour.
The fun ends here. Of note is the lack of any actual figures involved in these cuts. Will revenue increase or decrease thanks to the cuts? By how much? Next is the promise to “simplify the tax system”; again, we are provided precious few details beyond that simple statement. Specificity is a real issue in this manifesto, with vague wordings aplenty. In theory, libertarians should support such a move; in practice, this could lead to some people paying more.
The most objectionable taxation policy, though, comes in the form of the Immigration Skills Charge, a levy on businesses who hire skilled foreign workers. This is a particularly insidious policy, mainly for its discouragement of market practices, but also for the oddity of charging businesses for the outcome of bad government policy – loose border controls.
Remember when austerity was a thing? Neither do I, but even the mere mention of it is absent in the manifesto’s spending commitments, which, I guess, is at least more honest than the fake austerity promised by the Cameron administration. The usual suspects are all here: £8bn more for the National Health Singularity, £6bn more for schools, the retention of the economically nonsensical Double/Triple-Lock pension promise (although, in fairness, May has slapped pensioners in other areas, so there’s at least that), £23bn for a “National Productivity Investment Fund” (digital infrastructure, railways, muh roads, and the obscure dimension of “skills”), and “the largest programme of investment in our armed forces for generations” – naturally in the triple figures.
Still no mention of quite how we pay for this stuff, mind.
There are other things, too. We’ll maintain the commitment to foreign aid spending at 0.7% of GDP. Details on the “overhaul” promised by Priti Patel are conspicuous by their absence. “There may be specific European programmes in which we might want to participate and if so, it will be reasonable that we make a contribution.” How specific? Not specific enough to outline in the manifesto, clearly.
Meddling… sorry, regulating and other miscellaneous interventions
Let’s start with the good, I guess. A commitment to save business £9bn through the reduction of red tape and the “One-In-Two-Out Rule”, although no indication of how this will affect the Great Repeal Bill. Support for fracking, rightly called a “revolution”. The expected repeal on the ban on new selective grammar schools. Repeal of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, and ID requirements when voting to tackle electoral fraud.
And here’s where the anti-market interventions kick in. There are promises to ensure that “people working in the ‘gig’ economy are properly protected”, apparently being unaware that many in the gig economy are in there specifically to avoid government “protection”, so-called. The “fair corporate pay” promise is particularly insidious; May “will legislate to make executive pay packages subject to strict annual votes by shareholders”, which would presumably be a practice the shareholders would demand themselves if they wanted or needed it, but no matter.
Of most annoyance are two policies on energy prices and immigration. Despite actually admitting that lower energy prices could be achieved simply by exercising a bit of personal responsibility and shopping around, there’s still a pledge to insert a tariff cap, which is likely to have a clustering effect more than achieve any fair or market-driven reduction in costs. The immigration commitment of “tens of thousands” might sound desirable, and I have expressed my support for strict border controls before on this site: that said, immigration is not a fixed numbers game, but instead should be decided on necessity to fill gaps in the labour market. The manifesto contains no real details on how this figure will be achieved, except for tightening Visa applications from non-EU countries, and booting out foreign students within six months of finishing their degrees.
And here we arrive at the point of return to this manifesto’s anti-individualism – internet censorship and mass surveillance. The Snooper’s Charter passed without a whimper from the Opposition, and it seems protections and extensions are going to be easy game in parliament going forwards. One particular line, in regards to internet regulation, is telling: “Some people say it is not for government to regulate when it comes to technology and the internet. We disagree.”
I thought they might. One such “disagreement” is the promise to “put a responsibility on industry not to direct users – even unintentionally – to hate speech”, which is code for “demand they take action against stuff we tell them to”. The risk here is palpable. Who defines hate speech, and what right does the government have to censor it? We’ve seen most recently in Canada the effects of such a philosophy of contempt for the freedom of speech, in Bill M103 – an anti-Islamophobia law that conveniently neglects to define Islamophobia – and Bill C16 – the gender identity protections that catapulted staunch opponent Dr Jordan Peterson into the limelight.
To quote the good doctor, “this is not a road we want to go down.” For the duration of the next parliament, though, we really don’t have a choice.