Driven by data; ridden with liberty.
Planning Minister Nick Boles has proposed that the National Liberal party should be revived, as an affiliate of the Conservative Party. Speaking to Bright Blue, a modernising pressure group, Boles said that the “heart of the Liberal Democrats beats on the left and the party’s instincts are statist”, whilst the Conservatives “must be our own liberals; we cannot rely on anyone else to do it for us”.
The National Liberal Party fractured from the larger Liberal Party, standing in the 1931 General Election. Despite numerous attempts to reunite the two parties over the next two decades, the National Liberals eventually merged with the Conservatives on the constituency level. The National Liberals retained a distinct brand within the Conservatives, with future Deputy Prime Minister Michael Heseltine contesting Gower as a National Liberal in 1959, before full assimilation with the main party in 1968.
Boles’s description of the Liberal Democrats is broadly correct. Even basic questions on government policy receive inharmonious answers. David Laws, Yeovil MP and Schools Minister, recognised the strange tendencies of his party, which warned against the centralising controls of a National Curriculum in schools, but backed compulsory micro-chipping of dogs and bans on giving away goldfish at fairs. Laws wrote in The Orange Book: “It is time to consider whether the Liberal Democrat of today is true to its Liberal traditions, and, if not, what we should be doing about it.”
However, there are several problems with Boles’s thesis. The Conservatives have readily failed to “be our own liberals”: immigration policies swarm with illiberalism and the Lobbying Bill attacks freedom of association and electoral spending. Private Member Bills emanating from the Conservative backbenches having included plans to ban face-coverings and institute indentured servitude through National Service. Future Conservative proposals are disturbing: civil injunctions may criminalise being “potentially annoying”, and the abolition, rather than the amendment, of the Human Rights Act. On the political debate surrounding internet pornography, Nick Boles himself recognised that adults should not be lectured “about their private enjoyment of pornography”.
The Co-Operative Party is a small grouping within Labour. Whilst there are 32 Labour & Co-Operative MPs in the House of Commons, including Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls, Stella Creasy and Luciana Berger, the party represents about 4% of Labour’s direct membership, and a slim sliver of its affiliated organisations. It is uncertain if the Co-Operative Party’s sister status truly benefits either Labour or itself, especially given the large loans handed to Labour from the troubled Co-Operative Bank.
This National Liberal label would be revived wholly within the Conservative Party. This necromancy would establish a political party gaspingly protruding from the Conservatives, with no distinct identity. It is unnecessary – individual candidates can state their own views and priorities, circling around the national campaign’s common core.
Political parties choose to erect broad churches due to our electoral system. Winning an absolute majority of seats necessitates building wide coalitions in the electorate. These incentives ensure that – despite major differences in political opinion – social democrats are coiled with socialists, classical liberals are placed with single-issue obsessives, and social conservatives rest near libertarians. In countries with Proportional Representation (PR), political representation is more finely grained. There are three large parties in Westminster. In the same country, there are five major parties in European Parliament elections: Conservatives, UKIP, Labour, Liberal Democrats and Green. With these incentives, affiliation usually leads to absorption.
Classical liberals, libertarians and libertarian conservatives need a new party, not an augment to an existing one. A separate National Liberal party, coalescing liberal Conservatives, Orange Book Liberal Democrats and Blairite Labour politicians, would provide shelter for wandering liberal voters.