Is It Time to Establish
a British Libertarian Party?


Essay by
Wendy McElroy


July 2008

Which opportunities for libertarians?


The following essay is a response to the foregoing question asked by Sean Gabb of the UK Libertarian Alliance.

The 2005 British General Election offered a snapshot of a society in political transition, with all the confusion and opportunities that change entails. The Labour Party's 'victory' with only 35.2% of the popular vote points to widespread disillusionment on the street. But precisely which opportunities does political disenchantment present to libertarians?

Specifically, is it time to establish a British Libertarian Party?

The question contains assumptions. For example, it assumes that libertarian goals can be achieved through the electoral process; it takes for granted that seeking political power is consistent with libertarian principles and, so, the question 'To Party Or Not?' is a strategic one. In the past I have argued that electoral "politics will not bring freedom any more than violence will bring peace." For the sake of discussion, however, I accept the assumption and run with it.

The question also has a context. A British Libertarian Party must compete with the expediency of other options. Even if a British Libertarian Party is desirable, does it constitute the best use of scarce resources such as time, talent and money? Would those resources be better expended on alternative strategies: education, exerting influence within an established party, or campaigns of civil disobedience?

My answer to whether it is time to establish a British Libertarian Party is "no" ... but it may well be past time for British libertarians to become more politically high-profile and creative. As libertarians, we celebrate the endless innovations of the free market in meeting economic demands. We should also abandon orthodox thinking on political strategies and go beyond the standard tactic of running yet another candidate for yet another office, all the while expecting justifiably-jaded voters to react with applause. And if the innovative strategies fail, they have the added benefit of not precluding electoral action as a follow-up; indeed, they may lay a sounder basis for doing so.

Why do I reject a British Libertarian Party as premature? One reason is the example of the U.S. Libertarian Party, which has gone full-cycle from heady optimism about achieving power to now functioning largely as a pressure group within the Republican Party.

Lessons from the U.S. Libertarian Party

The U.S. Libertarian Party officially formed in California on December 11, 1971 as a prelude to the 1972 Presidential elections. I was living in the Los Angeles area then and, by the time Ed Clarke announced as the LP Presidential candidate for 1980, I had clocked a few years in one of the LP's most active Southern California regions. The euphoria of those days seemed validated when Clarke captured 1.065% of the total vote, which constituted five times the vote count of the previous LP candidate Roger McBride.

Nevertheless, my stint with the LP was short-lived. In 1982, Carl Watner, George H. Smith and I founded The Voluntaryists in Los Angeles — an organization and newsletter named for the philosophy of voluntaryism championed by the 19th century English libertarian Auberon Herbert. The Statement of Purpose declared, "The Voluntaryists are libertarians who ... promote non-political strategies to achieve a free society. We reject electoral politics ..." ("Neither Bullets Nor Ballots") Thus, from the formation of the U.S. LP to present day, I have closely followed the organization's progress either as an advocate or an informed critic.

From first-hand experience, I saw the strategic disadvantages of a Libertarian Party. Most committed LP members (rather than those who are mere dues payers) consider electoral politics to be superior to other libertarian strategies such as education, civil disobedience or establishing alternative institutions. They single-mindedly channel time, money, and hope for freedom into the prospect of electing a candidate and, so, making a difference.

Given that electoral politics is merely one method of 'making a difference', it is important to ask whether attendant costs render it a less desirable method than others.

The costs or disadvantages include:
  • BURN OUT. The grand vision and emotional swirl of electoral politics tend to overwhelm less glamorous strategies like sustained education so that libertarianism becomes channeled into a collective effort that defines success by a specific moment, by one night's measurement: a vote total. When the measurement is a wash out, activists who have given their hearts and years of effort to "the dream" are inclined to walk away in disillusionment; they walk away not merely from electoral politics but from libertarian activism itself. The change in personnel from campaign to campaign resembles nothing so much as the shift change at a factory.

  • DILUTION. The more successful or desperate a political party becomes, the more likely it is to downplay controversial stands in the hope of increasing voter appeal. A common practice is to eliminate 'troublesome' language from the debate; thus, a political party narrows rather than broadens discussion. A comparison of the 1972 LP Platform with the current one is instructive. Under "Foreign Policy", the 1972 platform lists subcategories of

      1. Foreign Aid,
      2. Ownership in Unclaimed Property,
      3. Currency Exchange Rates;
      1. Military Alliances,
      2. Military Capability; and
      1. Diplomatic Recognition,
      2. Secession,
      3. The United Nations.

    Under "Foreign Affairs" the 2006 platform lists only one category: Immigration. Foreign affairs have become far more controversial and important since 1972 but this turn in events seems to have occasioned silence rather than discussion by the LP.

  • DIVISION. Nothing seems to breed factionalism as surely as a political party. Committee squabbles are endless; aspiring candidates and their supporters expose each other; backroom deals abound; there is a scramble for scarce donations; incessant debate surrounds the inclusion of a single adjective into the platform. The very structure of a political party establishes a cut-throat competition for position and power rather than a co-operation toward a common goal. Short of Marxist meetings I attended in my teens, I've never seen such animosity and life-long divisions result from petty political disagreements.
  • CORRUPTION. The oft-quoted maxim "Power corrupts" does not have a codicil stating "except for libertarians." The giddiness of political campaigns into which cash flows, often without receipts, lends itself to abuse by candidates and their staff. A case in point: in the wake of Harry Browne's two Presidential bids (1996, 2000) Jacob Hornberger of The Future of Freedom Foundation accused Browne and his staff of outrageous and outright theft of funds. America's main libertarian periodical Liberty backed up the accusations of fraud. It is no exaggeration to say that the LP shattered in the aftermath, and bitterly so.

If the LP were a winning strategy for freedom, then it might be appropriate to accept its negatives as the price of success. But Clark's 1980 popular vote of 1.065% was the zenith of LP success. Over three decades, subsequent Presidential candidates have polled between .25% to .50% with Browne's second 2000 campaign receiving only .36% of the vote. In 2004, Michael Badnarik received .34%.

The result: as the 2008 election approaches, many LP members and chapters have de facto abandoned the Libertarian Party to back Republican Presidential candidate Ron Paul. Due to the Republican Party's entrenched bureaucracy and its method of selecting a Presidential candidate, Paul has no chance of winning his Party's nomination. Nor does Paul express consistent libertarian principles; for example, he suggests using eminent domain to confiscate private property for the construction of a physical wall across the U.S.-Mexico border which will supposedly control immigration. Nevertheless, LP members are running to give their money, time and trust to Paul. The websites of some LP regions now simply refer you to "Vote for Ron Paul" slogans. Another libertarian organization has relinquished its much-coveted tax-exempt status in order to lobby explicitly for Paul. In short and in a spontaneous manner, about half the LP and much of the surrounding movement is now acting as an advocacy group within the Republican Party to ensure that his political positions are heard.

If libertarians had become a pressure point within an established party in 1971 rather than pursuing their own 'corporate identity', would the subsequent decades of effort and multi-millions of dollars been better spent? Could they have been spent any worse?

The questions return us to alternate strategies.

First and foremost is the need for education in its myriad manifestations. The question "Is it time to establish a British Libertarian Party?" assumes that British voters are disillusioned with current political choices and not with the system itself so that the presentation of a new choice within the same system will rouse them. That is debatable. Nevertheless, let's assume Britons are simply awaiting a better choice. How will they recognize libertarianism as such? The answer, in a word, is education. The arduous work of changing the hearts and minds of people, one by one, remains a necessary prerequisite; no short cuts or fast fixes are possible.

"Are we there yet?" — is there a groundswell of libertarian sentiment in the British public, which merely needs to be awakened?

Anecdotal evidence says 'no'. Britain does not remotely resemble a libertarian society; indeed, since the war in Iraq and on terrorism, society has been sucked into a spiral of government control. This alone seems to deny the presumption of a popular libertarian bias on the street.

Nevertheless, optimism about Britain's libertarian bent was stirred by the 1997 survey (and subsequent booklet) entitled Beyond Left and Right authored by John Blundell and Brian Gosschalk. The authors argue that almost 1/5th (19%) of Britons were "libertarian."

In 1999, Nigel Meek cogently argued that the estimate of "1-in-5 Britons as libertarian" was wildly inaccurate. Regarding the data Meek wrote, "the whole enterprise reads like it has been designed by ideological moderates and pragmatists with little understanding of political extremism." In short, the questions asked were designed to produce a desired result. As more valid questions, Meek suggested, 'Do you advocate the privatisation of the police?', 'Would you legalize all narcotic drugs?' or 'Should the production of money be denationalized?' It is difficult to imagine that 20% of Britons would favor the libertarian answers.

The truth or falsity of the 1997 findings may well be irrelevant. It is not clear that surveys prior to 911 have any bearing on political attitudes today, especially when the data contradicts common sense. Britain is not a libertarian society; many Britons may agree with specific libertarian policies, such as the decriminalization of marijuana, but this does not constitute agreement with principle or a broader political agenda.

Education remains a strategic priority which political action should recognize and co-operate with. Even if the ultimate goal of political activists is to establish a British Libertarian Party, the appropriate activity in the here-and-now is to establish a training ground and a stage from which a Party can be successfully launched.

And, yet, political activity will out. The blogs and discussion groups that constitute much of British libertarianism express a loud demand for action rather than mere 'words.'

Two paths suggest themselves.

For those who accept the legitimacy of political action, the first path starts at the same point at which it has taken U.S. libertarian decades to arrive: that is, to function as a pressure group within an existing political party. The Conservative Party would seem the natural choice. This is not merely because of its overlap with libertarianism on free market issues but also because the Party's internal structure allows grassroots groups to exert great influence in the election of party leaders and local candidates. As a more specific recommendation: the Conservative Party's current focus on "choice" within education offers libertarians the opportunity to exert pressure toward true choice — that is, privatization.

The second path is to resurrect the strategy of what is arguably the most successful political campaign Britain has produced: the anti-Corn Law League. The 19th century campaign was a narrowly focused effort to rectify an injustice that impacted working class people. Specifically, the League relieved the public distress caused by duties on the importation of grain that made bread costly. The campaign was not only a resounding success, it also provided a wellspring of credibility to those who led it. Richard Cobden, leader of the League, became an MP in the 1841 General Election. Thus, the campaign became a prelude to political office.

Instead of launching into grand schemes of establishing the same old thing – a political party — libertarians should focus on a narrow campaign that reaches out to the common man and establishes the sort of track record upon which political success can be based.

Is it time to establish a British Libertarian Party?

No. But it is time to translate words into action and to flex the real muscle of an organized minority voice.


© 2008 Wendy McElroy

Wendy McElroy's site
for Individualist Feminism
and Individualist Anarchism

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