Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Monday 20 December 2021

The Ego-libertarian party


It is easy to argue against measures designed to stop the spread of the Omicron COVID variant before it has become dominant, as 100 Tory MPs did last Tuesday to defy Johnson. But that is exactly when you need measures to be put in place to protect the public. These MPs have been a constant drag on Johnson during the pandemic, and one reason why he has not been following the advice of his scientists.

There have always been the odd nutters among Tory MPs, but they have never numbered 100. It represents nearly half of all Tory backbenchers (Tory MPs who are not part of the payroll vote). Worse still is that they have, most of the time, the support of the right wing press. Both are way out of line with public opinion. There is a reasonable argument that vaccine passports are a gateway to further restrictions on civil liberties, but that argument cannot be made by the same MPs who are at the forefront of restricting civil liberties for those they don’t like.

They call themselves libertarian, but giving the police the right to arrest demonstrators because they are being too noisy is not libertarian. They call themselves libertarian, but making it illegal to rescue refugees from drowning is not libertarian. They call themselves libertarian, but allowing 6 million British citizens to be deported without notice at the will of Priti Patel is not libertarian. They call themselves libertarian, yet have introduced for general elections gerrymandering of the most blatant kind. I could fill the whole post with sentences like this, so how dare people call this government and its leader libertarian?

But why do they think they are libertarian? The answer is that they do believe in complete liberty and lack of interference from the state - for themselves. I have used the term ego-libertarian, which I got from Robert Saunders (@redhistorian), because it is almost right and sounds good. It is not completely right because it is quite possible that ego-libertarians do not just want liberties for themselves, but just for people like them. Not their class, unless their class is limited to parts of finance. Perhaps liberty for people who can help them, but not for people who could threaten their own liberty, get in the way or are casualties of their fanciful schemes. As Kenan Malik notes, in the pre-civil war US the loudest cries for liberty came from the slave owners. Indeed the Conservative party has become in so many ways a copy of the US Republican party.

So arresting demonstrators who make a noise is fine, because they or people like them would not be demonstrating. Nor would they be rescuing refugees, and they will not be deported by Priti Patel. They after all are the Brexiters who knew the UK economy would suffer but also knew they would not be suffering. These may be the Brexiters who made sure they had EU citizenship, or a second home in an EU country, or moved their company to inside the EU.

There are plenty of selfish people in the world, but having the governing party making crucial decisions in a pandemic for their own selfish interest, rather than their idea of what the national interest is, represents a serious problem for our NHS. These MPs, like the newspapers that push a similar line, are completely out of touch with Conservative voters on these issues.

On Wednesday there was a press conference where the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) said quite clearly that people need to avoid social contacts where possible to try and prevent the NHS being overwhelmed. Johnson at the same event did not go that far. The CMO Chris Whitty was immediately criticised by two members of the ego-libertarian wing of the Tory party: here and here. That in turn led to this headline in the Mail.

For these ego-libertarian MPs, not interfering with the economy is always more important than saving lives. They don’t say that out loud, which is why they turn on a scientist when he advises withdrawal from parts of the economy in order to save lives. For these MPs, following their selfish ideology always trumps science. They have no time for experts if experts are advising them to do something they dislike. For the same reason their commitment to preventing climate change, if it is there at all, is skin deep.

Why ego-libertarian rather than neoliberal? Neoliberalism is not profoundly irrational. It would see that an environment where COVID was rampant would be very damaging to key parts of the economy, as individuals curtail social consumption to avoid catching the virus. Ego-libertarianism is irrational and myopic, seeing only that masks are a nuisance to have to wear, see lockdowns only in terms of the direct impact on business. Right wing newspapers see lockdowns as people buying less newspapers. Their thinking does not go beyond the here and now. Neoliberalism is at heart about giving power to corporations. Ego-libertarians want power for themselves, their friends and those who give them money and/or win them elections.

Boris Johnson is also naturally an ego-libertarian. His original strategy of herd immunity, which is basically doing nothing to get in the way of the virus beyond vaccination, is what ego-libertarians push for. He was persuaded to change that because it would have led to the health service being overrun, and he thought that would be devastating to his chances of continuing to win elections. As a result, the state of the health service, rather than deaths or long COVID, has always been the critical trigger for Johnson to take action.

Hence ‘freedom day’ in July, where all measures designed to reduce cases were abandoned. This was done because Johnson was confident that, even though 1,000 or more people would die every week from COVID, the health service could just about cope. Thus at the end of the day his ego-libertarian ideology was not compromised, because it included his wish to stay Prime Minister. Equally for ego-libertarians who are backbenchers this consideration provides no constraint on their aversion to seeing the economy inhibited in any way.

SAGE, the main committee of experts advising the government, believes measures designed to curtail social interaction are required in response to Omicron. They recommend a ‘circuit-breaker’ that ends social contact between most households indoors and ends indoor hospitality like going to a pub. This, according to both SAGE and independent-SAGE, is vital to ensure hospitals already at their limit do not descend into chaos.

For this reason Johnson will probably follow their advice to some extent, although much too late. This in turn may seal his fate, with the ego-libertarian half of his parliamentary party vowing to be rid of him once this Omicron wave dies down. That in turn means that successful candidates to replace Johnson will either have to be, or pretend to be, ego-libertarians who promise to take even less notice of experts than Johnson did.

I hope, despite everything, you have a good Christmas and best wishes for 2022

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