The British electorate speaks with forked tongue

Indecisive outcomes are periodic features of the Westminster model, even though the plurality (first-past-the-post) system is custom-made to secure a single-party majority. Hung parliaments occurred in the 1970s, for example, always resulting in short-lived governments and new elections. For the most part, such hung parliaments have been accidental consequences of close-run competition between the two major political parties, each driven by significantly differing political philosophies. The 2010 Election differs sharply from this model, for reasons that I must explain.

Over the past 13 years, since New Labour under Tony Blair secured a landslide electoral victory, a decisive plurality of the electorate in each of the 1997, 2001 and 2005 elections, threw its support in favour of a political party that has pursued a supposed Third Way in domestic politics, paying lip-service to laissez-faire market economics, while aggressively endorsing a progressive social market policy agenda. Ultimately this Mediterranean diet has proved to be indigestible, as F.A. Hayek long ago warned would be the case, and as the PIGS (Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain) of Euroland unambiguously exemplify.

When governments set out to bloat their public sectors, to protect individuals from the economic consequences of privately uneconomic behaviour, and to securitise their citizens against all misfortunes, from the cradle to the grave, they shape and form a people less and less capable of forging its own success by rational decision-making, hard work, thrift and healthy living, most especially in difficult times. Once a politically decisive majority of the electorate has become addicted to such a diet, and has become individually disabled by that diet, no major political party can distance itself from the “PIGS diet” without courting ongoing minority status; at least until final economic collapse.

In consequence, the 2010 British Election has not been fought out among political parties with significantly varying philosophies, outlined in the form of significantly divergent political platforms. The words of Margaret Thatcher are now unambiguous harbingers of landslide defeat in a largely socialised Britain. So the 2010 Election has been waged over a narrow social market terrain, with the three relevant political parties separated by hair’s-breadth differences on matters economic. In spatial terms, the Liberal Democrats are probably to the left, Labour is in the middle, and the Conservatives are to the right. But the distances are slight.

Given the serious nature of the economic indigestion confronting Mediterranean-diet Britain in May 2010, one might have thought that the voters would have sensed the importance of decisive government. Given the scandals that have encompassed New Labour throughout the Prime Ministership of Gordon Brown, one might have thought that the British electorate would have coalesced around a majority Conservative administration, especially once it became apparent that the Conservatives enjoyed a plurality in the pre-campaign polls. That this has not come to pass, I suggest, is no accident. A plurality of the British electorate is addicted to its PIGS diet. It does not wish to adjust its lifestyle towards rational decision-making, hard work, thrift, and healthy living. By endorsing weak government, this plurality intends to stave off diet change, to continue living unsustainably just as long as it can.

This is the forked tongue message that has flickered out from the British electorate on May 6, 2010. All the rest is pomp and circumstance.

An earlier version of this article appeared on Charles Rowley’s blog.

This is awful, Rowley maybe a very good economist, but as a commentator on his blog he is stunningly aggressive, dogmatic and dismissive, and that’s just his attitude to other free marketeers. He maybe English in origin, but he has completely misunderstood the current British political situation if he thinks the Liberal Democrats are to the left of Labour on economic issues, disappointing though some of their policies are. Perhaps Rowley is thinking of the Paddy Ashdown years, as Lib Dem leader, when the party was ‘promising’ a penny on income tax, outflanking Labour on tax and spend. Rowley relies on insults instead of facts, he is the one guilty of pomp and circumstance.

@Barry – Charles Rowley does express the view that the Lib Dems may be a little to the left of labour (he is not the only one to think this – on issues such as EU socialism, the environment, immigration and plans to tax the rich, there is at least some evidence to support this perspective); but his main point is that the differences between the parties are slight, which is difficult to argue against.

@Richard
Immigration is surely free movement of labour welcomed by libertarians if it doesn’t turn into mass welfare dependency
The EU is a political structure supported and opposed by both free marketeers and statists
Lib Dem plans to tax the rich are disappointing, but more or less matched by raising the tax threshold to the benefit of lower/mid income groups
I agree differences between parties are slight, and I agree that the Lib Dems are very far removed from a full libertarian free market point of view.
But Rowley’s main point is very clearly that the UK electorate voted for ballooning public debts in not giving the Tories a majority, and he uses invective to justify it

@Barry – I agree with you about immigration and the EU. This is the problem with using the conventional left-right spectrum. However, when writing short blog pieces it is sometimes difficult to avoid using the shorthands of ‘left’ and ‘right’ – more accurate alternatives would require too much explanation.

It seems we now have calls from the right that suggest it’s time to elect a new people!Is it not a trifle odd for a libertarian to talks about the electorate as if they were a homogeneous unit? People vote for a whole host of reasons and we really shouldn’t try to make grand sweeping statements about the meaning of this collection of diverse actions.

and nobody votes for a hung parliament of course… But Rowley’s basic thesis that there is little between the parties is true. The Conservatives are more to blame for that situation than anybody. Instead of changing the language they use to explain the importance of a market economy to people they have responded to a changed political environment by simply communicating a confusing and confused messsage

To play devil’s advocate for a moment against Professor Rowley’s thesis, each time the Conservative party mentioned the prospect of swingeing cuts, their polling numbers dropped; in the short term, there was a certain logic in softening the message. Of course, more truth lies in the argument that Tories ought to have been making the case about the unsupportable nature of Britain’s finances for some time—preparing the ground for austerity measures, disabusing the public about the fiction of ‘efficiency cuts’—and not nattering on about ‘sharing the proceeds of growth’. The obliviousness has the ominous feel of fin-de-siècle wild abandonment before an unpalatable comeuppance.

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