Britain Back from the Brink of Socialism (For Now)

Well, that was a surprise.

As I outlined in my pre-election article, everyone in British politics, including those in government, assumed from the polls that the British General Election would end in a dead heat, likely resulting in a Labour minority government backed up by the Scottish National Party (SNP). Not only did the pollsters say that; the betting markets did too.

How wrong we all were. The Conservatives were returned with an overall majority, Labour was wiped out by the SNP in Scotland, and the Liberal Democrats (the Conservatives’ coalition partner) collapsed across the country.

So what happened? Pollsters like Lord Ashcroft have ruled out a late swing to the Conservatives, so the comforting idea, for us classical liberals, that people reached for their ballot paper and realized they couldn’t vote for a socialist government seems not to be the case. And it certainly wasn’t the case in Scotland, where the avowedly leftist SNP swept the board.

The currently accepted explanation amongst pollsters is the phenomenon of “shy Tories” — people who were always going to vote Conservative but would not admit it openly. There appears to be some evidence for this in the difference between the large exit poll, which came closer to the actual result than the pre-election polls, and the re-poll of online panelists after they voted.

In other words, people gladly acknowledged they had voted conservative in the anonymous exit poll, but returned to dissembling when back at their computers. (The pollsters, it should be noted, got most of the other vote shares about right.)

If this is the case, then it says something disturbing about the state of liberal philosophy in the UK, which backs up my pre-election analysis. People vote for the more economically liberal parties, but are not comfortable talking about it. This also underscores my point about business leaders having withdrawn from the philosophical debate and the need for them to return. Making the case for free enterprise is too important to be left to politicians.

Another explanation, which at least one pollster has suggested, is the “lazy left” — younger left-wing voters who failed to turn out in the numbers projected in pre-election polls. Yet, this seems highly unlikely in a very tight election where every vote counts — indeed, turnout was up overall. It is, however, a worrying possibility, suggesting the UK’s return to socialism is only one charismatic leader away. All the left needs is someone who can motivate this vote to turn out.

Still, whatever the reason, the Conservatives won, with a slim majority. What will they do now that classical liberals can celebrate — or worry about?

Two large scale projects loom large on the agenda. The first is renegotiation of the European Union treaties to get a “better deal” for Britain – which should mean less regulation and pan-European utopianism. Renegotiation would also require constraints on immigration.

The first of these objectives is plausible, as other nations, including Germany, have made noises about the crushing effect of EU regulation on business. The latter is less so, as EU officials have made it clear that free movement of labor is a fundamental principle of the union, and so it is likely that the EU will be the guardian of the classical liberal principle there.

However, with the EU deeply immersed in the Greek crisis and worried about an aggressive Russia on its Eastern border, detailed renegotiation of treaties that would have to be ratified throughout Europe is the last thing Brussels wants at the moment.

Therefore, it remains to be seen how many concessions David Cameron, safely back at 10 Downing Street, can wring out of Brussels. He has promised an in/out referendum on EU membership by 2017. If Brussels is unresponsive on renegotiation, “Brexit” may be in the cards.

The second project also has a European, although not an EU, dimension. The Conservatives pledged to replace the Human Rights Act (HRA) of 1998, which incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) into British law, with a “British Bill of Rights” more closely aligned with classical liberal British values, as articulated in the common law. There has been some consternation at this on the Continent, as the ECHR was originally drafted by British lawyers to bring a dose of liberalism to war-ravaged nations shaking off fascism.

However, the convention’s language emphasizes positive rights rather than Anglo-American-style negative rights. Its application in overwhelmingly civil law jurisdictions has caused some tension with the British constitution and its doctrine of Parliamentary sovereignty. A British Bill of Rights could well involve more negative rights and be more closely aligned with the common law — an overall win for liberty.

Of course, it’s not as simple as that. Repealing the Human Rights Act would possibly also require the UK leaving the convention, along with the European Court of Human Rights, which would be seen as a very drastic step. Moreover, laws that devolved certain powers to Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland also contain references to human rights that complicate matters considerably. The Scottish Parliament could refuse to accept an “English” Bill of Rights. And scrapping the HRA could be seen as a breach of the Good Friday Agreement that secured peace in Northern Ireland. Thankfully, Cameron has appointed two of his cleverest MPs, Michael Gove and Dominic Raab, to oversee the process at the Justice Department.

Other good news involves the appointment of a fiercely free-market business secretary, Sajid Javed, who is likely to make deregulation a top priority. Regulation of the press, which was seriously threatened after the Leveson inquiry into the hacking of celebrities’ phones, now appears to be off the table.

On the other hand, Home Secretary Theresa May has hinted at an expansion of the security services’ surveillance powers. The spy agency GCHQ (the innocuously named Government Communications Head Quarters) could become as infamous as the NSA if she follows through.

All told, the British election result was moderately good news for liberty, and certainly not the calamity it could have been. So thank a “shy Tory” today.