Those of us who hope the Liberal Democrats will reject socialism and embrace true liberalism have many reasons to be disappointed by this year’s party conference. Nick Clegg, for example, returned to his soak-the-rich “fairness” agenda with an attack on “tax avoidance”. He claimed avoidance costs the economy £42 billion a year and is “ethically wrong”. Indeed, it was implied that it was morally equivalent to benefit fraud. In a similar vein, Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, talked of giving HM Revenue and Customs even more draconian powers – hardly a liberal approach to taxation.
It would appear that the Lib Dems’ moral compass is skewed by strong egalitarian beliefs, which are incompatible with both traditional conservatism and free markets. This would explain the notion that trying to protect private property from appropriation by the government in an entirely legal manner (i.e. tax avoidance) is equivalent to stealing from other people (i.e. benefit fraud). It would also explain the Lib Dems’ strong advocacy of redistribution, environmentalism and supranationalism – key tenets of modern socialism.
The egalitarian element within the coalition (which includes some Conservatives) is likely to hamper attempts at radical economic reform. The big reductions in benefit rates necessary to tackle welfare dependency are likely to be off limits; wealth-generating tax cuts for high earners will be out of the question; and businesses will be severely damaged by yet more environmental taxes and controls.
At least the scale of the budget deficit effectively prevents the egalitarians from pursuing more activist policies in pursuit of “fairness”. Nevertheless, the Lib Dems and their ideological allies from the left of the Conservative Party are likely to ensure that the details of the deficit reduction programme are determined primarily by misguided notions of equality rather than long-term considerations of economic efficiency.
A further depressing aspect of the conference was the party’s rejection of free schools, perhaps one of the few truly liberal elements of the current government’s policy programme. The education issue raises troubling questions for the Liberal Democrats: are they a socialist party that believes in a centralised system tightly controlled by the state, are they a conservative party wishing to maintain the status quo, or are they a party of vested interests reflecting the views of local authorities and teachers?