Not long ago, I wrote something nasty about Margaret Thatcher for the Libertarian Alliance. Yet even I will concede that in order to be so cruel about the old cow one must inevitably come across as sympathetic to some less than civilised people. In order to attack the Thatcher government and its record one must to some extent deny the existence of the many problems this country faced in 1979: the rampant inflation; the militant trade unionism; the lack of self-respect as a nation; the high rates of direct taxation; the low levels of home ownership. I will concede that even if one takes a dim view of the Thatcher government, there are many allowances that can, and indeed must, be made.
However, when considering the latest tax credits debacle, I am unable to make similar allowances for Mr Cameron and his government. This particular episode is a perfect example of economic illiteracy, legislative incompetence, and constitutional ignorance.
The estimate is that the proposed tax credit changes will leave 3 million households roughly £1300 worse off. Of course, in a purely libertarian order such a reform would be welcomed. But the error here is to conflate the free market with the already existing regulated capitalism. Not only will this remove the crutch from those whose legs have been broken by the state, it will only save a miserable £4.4bn (if that)! Libertarians may be divided on many issues, but on this they have spoken with one voice, with both the Libertarian Alliance and the Adam Smith Institute calling out the government. In these statements, the two organisations effectively argue that welfare is necessary to attempt to correct the distortions caused by the government and that tax credits are probably the most efficient method of doing this.
But the tax credit affair, or ‘tax credit-gate’ as I expected it to be referred to by now, demonstrates not just bad economics but bad legislating and a poor grasp of the British Constitution (a poor grasp seen previously with Cameron’s promise regarding the Scottish Parliament). Eager to ram this through Parliament, it was introduced as a statutory instrument rather than as an Act of Parliament, as secondary legislation rather than primary, thus allowing the Lords to block the proposed changes. The government should have anticipated a reaction from the Lords, whose life peer trash isn’t majority Tory. Instead of admitting defeat on this, the line from Tory HQ became “this is a constitutional crisis!” No it isn’t. But no doubt the government will use this as an opportunity to flood the Lords with more Conservative “lords.” Not only is this government economically clueless, it is also totally inept and without class.
The cuts to welfare are to accompany a National Living Wage, of course. What does it mean? It means no one over the age of 25 with a productivity of less than £9 an hour will have a job after 2020. That’s nice.
Price floors are never a good idea. And yet, while shelved for now, during the last Parliament Mr Cameron seriously touted the idea of a minimum price for alcohol, backing down after a year only on advice from pollsters. The idea, however, remains “under serious consideration.”
More worrying, however, is the government’s blanket ban approach to drugs classification. You may recall in the Speech from the Throne this year the Queen announcing the government’s intention to crack down on “psychoactive substances.” What is a psychoactive substance, you may ask?
“(1) “Psychoactive substance” means any substance which—
(a) is capable of producing a psychoactive effect in a person who consumes it, and
(b) is not an exempted substance.
(2) For the purposes of this Act a substance produces a psychoactive effect in a person if, by stimulating or depressing the person’s central nervous system, it affects the person’s mental functioning or emotional state; and references to a substance’s psychoactive effects are to be read accordingly.”
This is most troubling. Perhaps I am a cynic, but I read the above as no clearer than “a psychoactive substance is anything, with a few exceptions,” or “a psychoactive substance is illegal and an illegal substance is psychoactive.” The absurdity of this definition has meant all kinds of exemptions have had to be made, including church incense! If our drug legislation is so vague that the Home Office needs to step in to clarify that church incense is “OK” then we are in a bad place, to put it mildly! It is small wonder that the minister in charge doesn’t understand the legislation, either. Oh, well, we’re only talking about “crimes” punishable by up to 7 years in prison.
The foreign policy of the Cameron government has been nauseatingly neocon. Not content with having destroyed Libya in 2011, the Cameron government is planning a vote in the next few weeks on whether we should bomb Syria. Intervening in a five-way civil war? What could go wrong?
Having been elected primarily in order to “cut the deficit”, this government has proceeded at a snail’s pace with this task. Indeed, our national debt has doubled under Mr Cameron’s watch. And what, precisely, have the Conservatives cut? Have they abolished the Department for International Development? Have they shut down the BBC? Have they saved a few billion sacking everyone in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport? A real libertarian government would shut these down within the month. But surely a Conservative government should have shut them down within five and a half years? If pushed, I will accept that they had the Lib Dems on their backs during the last Parliament. But this argument doesn’t apply to the most recent budget.
Instead of cutting, the government talks about cutting. In fact, they engage in pathetic gimmicks like the ‘Charter for Budget Responsibility’, meaning that, in normal times, the government will have to run a surplus. Of course, the lawyer will spot the weasel word “normal” immediately. Yet, we have no reason to suppose that even Osborne will abide by his Charter, sealed at Runnymede presumably.
In a measure both Puritanical and aimed toward the creation of a police state, there is Cameron’s unholy alliance with the internet-service providers to force customers to ‘opt-in’ to view not only pornographic material, but any material deemed “extreme”, “inappropriate”, or “obscene.”
I have saved the best, or worst, until last: the Cameron government’s ‘counter-terrorism’ measures. As Sean Gabb noted at a conference this month, the threat from Islamist extremism is overplayed. Have Islamist terrorists killed anything like the 3,500 killed by the IRA? Or do they even kill at the same rate as the IRA? The answer to both is “no.” We didn’t introduce a police state to protect us from the IRA, so why should we have one now?
And yet, the Conservative government is intent upon the creation of exactly that, a police state. “Extremism” is to be tackled by whatever means necessary. One of these means is thought-policing. Not only are “extreme” views not to be given any platform, but there is to be such a thing recognised as “non-violent extremism”, non-violent extremists meaning those who “may not advocate violence but [who] do promote other parts of the extremist narrative.” In a clear assault on freedom of speech in this year’s Speech from the Throne, the euphemistically named ‘Extremism Disruption Orders’ were introduced. If you are served with one of these, you are silenced for being an extremist. An extremist is, incidentally anyone whose morality differs significantly from, say, the modern Church of England – or indeed the modern Conservative party.
One of the reasons to lament the loss of the Liberal Democrats from power is that they forced Cameron’s government to back down on its Communications Data Bill. The Lib Dems are gone now, so the Bill is back. Better known as the Snooper’s Charter, it will give the government the right to collect what is also known as ‘metadata’. Metadata is all of the data generated as a result of any communication, including the identity and whereabouts of the sender and recipient, and when the message was sent. The volume of data in the government’s hands would then be colossal. And, as the CIA have reportedly said, “we kill on metadata.”
Oh, but I am being too harsh! After all, the Conservatives are fighting against the dinosaurs in the Labour party who want to take us back to the 1980s! The Conservatives are fighting for a strong economy, with low taxes, low welfare, and high wages! The Conservatives are laying solid foundations for sustainable growth, with 0% inflation and unemployment at its lowest level since 2008! The Labour party is a threat to national security and the Conservative party is here to keep you safe! Blah, blah, blah.
No, Mr Cameron’s government may have redeeming features. If so, I am yet to discover them. Like Mrs Thatcher, only worse in this regard, its style may be wonderful at times, but it is lacking in substance. I do rather hope that those libertarians presently in Conservative Future, when looking back on their lives, will regard their active or passive, explicit or implicit support for this government as a most dishonourable and embarrassing blemish on their otherwise faultless libertarian records.