The Liberal Democrats are relatively good civil libertarians, but when it comes to lifestyle freedoms one wonders how widely a party can interpret the word ‘Liberal.’ There is no branch of Liberal thought that can comfortably justify the high levels of nanny-statism we experience in the United Kingdom. Disappointingly the party that calls itself ‘Liberal’ is now one of the nanny-state’s greatest cheerleaders. After joining the Liberal Democrats in 2008 (I was young. So very, very young…) I very soon realised that the LibDems are not a political party – they are a small clique where ‘Liberal’ is a just term for everything they like regardless of the word’s definition.
The notion that the state should generally not impede the lifestyle freedom of individuals is an idea that Liberal (with a capital ‘L’) thinkers, such as John Stuart Mill, can comfortably lay claim to. This tradition of thought was woven into the Liberal Party of old to some significant degree albeit not without caveats and exceptions. The Liberal Democrats, however, have abandoned this notion almost entirely. Just skim LibDem Voice op-eds over the last few years and you’ll find members happy to promote: the Sugar Tax, Plain Packaging, the Prohibition of Drugs (in its entirety – no, really. All drugs.), Minimum Alcohol Pricing, and much, much more.
By evacuating this political ground so spectacularly, the Liberal Democrats did a number of things. Firstly, they became less distinctive from New Labour. They lost any claim they had to being an ‘anti-authoritarian’ party. This also opened up a massive unguarded front on which their enemies could attack them. By creating confusion about what the ‘Liberal’ in Liberal Democrat was referring to, no one did more to weaken the Liberal Democrats own brand that the Liberal Democrats. More crucially, by departing from this particular piece of political ground, the Liberal Democrats left it open to be assumed by another political party. Enter UKIP.
It is a boon to outsider parties to be considered ‘anti-authoritarian.’ By championing lifestyle freedoms on the side, UKIP hoovered up support from people who had been neglected by the three “LibLabCon” parties. It strengthened UKIP brand as the true outsider party and allowed UKIP to plausibly deny being a one issue party. To micromanage the intimate lifestyle choices of the electorate is to talk down to the electorate. This is not the main reason people are voting for UKIP, it is, however, why UKIP is so immune to scandal. In contrast, the Liberal Democrat’s seemingly endless capacity for sanctimony amplifies their own indiscretions when they inevitably occur.
By transforming into lifestyle paternalists, the LibDems willingly ceded political land that was undisputedly theirs. It was from this political land that UKIP broadened their own support base and strengthened their brand. Much of UKIP’s wider policy remains underdeveloped and strikes me as very ‘Little England’, but by seizing what should have been policy mainstays of the Liberals, they coloured themselves as rebels. This has only been further reinforced by Nigel Farage’s earnest pint drinking/fag smoking image. When I was a LibDem, I remember many discussions about why people who described themselves as ‘liberals’ didn’t automatically vote or identify as Liberal Democrats. For those of us outside the clique, the definition of the word still applies.