At the time of the Conservative victory in the December 2019 general election, political analysts suggested that the tension that would need to be resolved was between the libertarians and the nationalists, the exigencies of these past weeks has settled the argument decisively in favour of the latter.
Libertarianism finds its roots in the essay On Liberty by the Nineteenth Century philosopher John Stuart Mill. Libertarianism is a belief in individual freedom which is only constricted where it reaches the point where that freedom impinges upon the freedom of others. Libertarians demand the reduction of the powers and activities of the state to the point where government’s activities extend no further than the protection of persons and property and the ensuring that markets are free and fair.
Libertarianism is a vision of society that espouses individualism and laissez-faire economics. For a true libertarian, for someone who is an adherent of the principles expounded by Milton Friedman in Capitalism and Freedom, the market is the proper arbiter of what is and what is not done. If individuals choose to live in a particular way, providing their choices do not impinge upon the freedom of others, then no state authority should be allowed to intervene.
Perhaps the Conservative libertarians have always more so by name than by nature, for politicians have always intervened to protect particular interests and constituencies. While nationalists would favour action they deemed in the national interest, true libertarians would not have accepted that the national interest demanded massive expense and loss of life in the ultimately futile interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
If a libertarian manifesto existed at the beginning of the year, any hope of its fulfilment has been swept away. Had the unlikely eventuality of Jeremy Corbyn being elected occurred in December, there would now be loud complaints in the media of government measures being full blown socialism. As it is, it is a Conservative government that has introduced interventions in the economy more far reaching than any introduced in wartime.
The language of war has been used of the struggle against Covid-19 and politicians have acknowledged that when the war is over, countries are going to have to come to terms with its impact. In England, that impact is going to be massive public debt and an expectation that the government is going to remain an active participant in economic life. It is going to require intervention to sustain industries. It is going to mean a huge demand for massive investment in the National Health Service. It is going to require an approach to government as far removed as can be imagined from the ideas of Mill and Friedman.
Nationalists may sit comfortably with state intervention in what they believe to be the national interest, sit comfortably with an unexpectedly easy resolution of the tensions.