Free Life 28, September 1998, Editorial: Thoughts on the New Geography of British Politics, by Sean Gabb

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From Free Life, Issue 28, September 1998
ISSN: 0260 5112

Editorial: Thoughts on the New Geography of British Politics
by Sean Gabb

I feel it my duty to write about the anniversary of Mr Blair's coming to power. I cannot think of anything very interesting or original to say about him directly. Indirectly, though, he does allow me to touch very delicately on a subject that has grown increasingly to concern me in the past year.

Sometime around 1990, there was an earthquake in political terms. It had something to do with the collapse of the Soviet Empire - though I suspect that this was just as much an effect of some deeper cause as it was a cause in its own right. It was not like the tremors of 1917 or 1945, that threw down ancient structures and swept away multitudes of their inhabitants. It was rather a great violent upheaval that changed the appearance of the land on which the structures had been raised. Mountains were levelled, and valleys raised up. Rivers were diverted from their course. New barriers apppeared between peoples who had for generations lived peacefully as neighbours, cutting them off from one another, cutting ties of common interest, even confronting them with issues that divided them. Other barriers were smashed down, forcing new neighbours together, requiring them to lay aside previous differences and to develop habits of cooperation in the defence of newly common interests.

That, I am sure, is how future historians will view the period through which we are now living. Undeniably, there has been a break with the past so fundamental that it would almost have been unimaginable ten years ago. Just as undeniably, it has opened a new range of possibilities. We have been liberated from a national and a world order in which the bounds of the possible were clearly marked in all directions. Of course, there are limits in this new world order. But we do not know yet where they lie.

And here is the problem. For those future historians, everything will seem perfectly clear. They will see the new geography, with all its smooth and rough places, and will know the pattern of new friendships and enmities that must develop. We, however, are still wandering about for the most part in a daze. Things are made still worse by the fact that the political has not been like a physical earthquake in its timing. It has happened not in half an hour, but over nearly ten years. The geography has shifted in slow motion. The old paths have not been blocked off by a sudden wrench, but by a gradually rising discomfort about using them. And we do not yet know if the rearrangement is complete.

This explains the tensions that currently exist within the Libertarian Alliance. All through the 1980s, this was a natural point of assembly for anarcho-capitalists, minimal statists, English conservatives, privatisers, and those who wanted to take over the Conservative Party in the name of "the Right". We among these last three all had our differences, but these were insignificant compared with the interests that bound us together.

But what now of these bonds? Weakening since 1990, they may be about to snap in our various responses to New Labour. The privatisers among us have been plainly smitten with Mr Blair; and our meetings ring with his praises, and are attended by his minions - people with whom we might all have once been happier trading insults across a television studio floor. The conservatives were never that committed to privatisation, seeing it largely as a means of rescuing social democracy from collapse; and they hate New Labour almost as much as they hated Old Labour, if for different reasons. As for the Conservative entryists, what place have they in the Libertarian Alliance of the future? Their commitment to ideas was often casual. And they are no longer useful as a bridge between the Movement and the Party, allowing ideas to pass in one direction and young recruits in the other.

As yet, these tensions are manageable. They are constrained by the fact of at least a decade of personal friendship. But we cannot take the continued shape of the Libertarian Alliance for granted. As the earthquake dies away, we can fancy that it has tranformed us from a distant mountain people, known as useful if troublesome allies, into rulers over part of the coastal plain, with the potential to found a great empire of our own. But we can also fear that it has opened a great fissure beneath our feet, and that we are being carried away from each other.

Which of these possibilities is most true is a matter as yet unknown. But what I do feel very strongly - even if I prefer to express it in a clumsy code - is that the mood of self-congratulation that has predominated within the Movement since the last General Election may not be entirely justified. As ever, then, things may be worse than they seem.

Sean Gabb

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