There has always been a dichotomy in Labour between those representing the party’s working-class roots, and the middle-class element that takes the view that the man in Whitehall (or the Town Hall) knows best. At present, the latter seem to be on top, and the leaked manifesto looks very much like a sustained assault on working-class lifestyles. Considering what the last Labour government did to pubs, the statement that they want to use a mechanism such as minimum pricing to stop the shift of alcohol sales from pubs to supermarkets comes across as breathtaking hypocrisy.
But, as Simon Clark laments, if you want to stand up for lifestyle freedom the other parties don’t offer you much choice either, as they seem to have been infected by the same paternalist virus. The Tory ranks include Philip Davies, who is probably the strongest defender of individual freedom in the House of Commons, but also the minimum pricing cheerleader Sarah Wollaston. The Tories have always been stronger on economic than personal liberty and the Parliamentary party contains few MPs who seem to take much interest in lifestyle issues. Even if they do speak out, it’s usually on the grounds that it will cost businesses trade rather than as a matter of principle.
The Liberal Democrats, despite their name, contain some of the biggest smoking ban and minimum pricing enthusiasts, although there are some honourable exceptions such as John Hemming. And it must be remembered that in the 19th century the Liberal Party championed the anti-drink movement. While Nigel Farage is often seen with a pint and a fag, UKIP is something of an uneasy alliance between classical liberals and right-wing populists and the latter seem to be in the ascendancy at present. The party contains plenty of members whose instincts are much less libertarian than their leader’s.
Sadly, while the principle of economic liberty seems to have become more or less generally accepted, the idea of liberty in terms of how you live your life as an individual is becoming increasingly eroded as the authorities seek to dictate to you – for your own good, of course. The great Victorian philosopher John Stuart Mill famously said “All errors which a man is likely to commit against advice are far outweighed by the evil of allowing others to constrain him for his good”, but you’ll find few present-day politicians willing to stand up and make a staunch defence of that principle. So all you can do really is plug away at each individual campaign in the hope a few victories can be won against the oncoming tide, accepting that no politician is going to be your salvation.
And disappointingly few people seem to appreciate that liberty is indivisible, and that if you want to defend your right to do the things you enjoy, then you need to stand up for other people’s rights to do what they enjoy, even if you have no interest in those things or indeed find them distasteful. All too often, unpopular minority activities are picked off first, but then the campaign is extended once the principle is established. You might think it’s only tramp juice that will be affected by alcohol crackdowns, but before too long you’ll find yourself paying through the nose for 2.8% pisswater.
“First, they came for the smokers...”, as the paraphrase goes. But, in the British context, the pistol shooters came before them.