Britain’s ‘Generation Y’, the under-30s, have fallen out of love with Westminster politics and the state(Reuters)
In the ruins of Westminster party politics, between the crumbling pillars of broken promises and the shattered glass of optimism, you’ll find Britain’s young people building something new.
They don’t need or want the British state and its creaking machinery. Like feats of Victorian engineering, these tired institutions are impressive, interesting, and have their place in history. But they’re not practical anymore, these dusty relics from the Age of Statism.
This is Generation Y. The under 30s who are the most liberal generation in British history, not just on social issues such as decriminalising marijuana and gay marriage, but on economic ones too.
Spawn of an anarchic internet culture that offers everything on demand and personalised to all whims and wants. Adolescents of austerity, who understand they can’t rely, as their parents and grandparents did, on the one-size-fits-all state as a provider. This generation knows what it wants: the grand prize of individual liberty and personal responsibility. But not for its own sake.
“I’m certainly not in favour of freedom if it doesn’t produce good outcomes. I just tend to think that most policies libertarians espouse are the ones that benefit the most people,” says Anton Howes, a PhD student at Kings College London researching the cultural causes of the British industrial revolution.
He’s also the founder and director of Liberty League in the UK, an umbrella organisation for the growing number of young libertarians across the country.
Jennifer Salisbury-Jones, communications manager at Liberty League and a recent physics graduate, is in agreement with her colleague Howes: a smaller state and less regulation can improve the lives of the poorest.
“Quite often, an interfering state, though it comes with the best intentions, makes life harder for the worst off and it doesn’t quite do what it was intending to do,” says Salisbury-Jones, who is also a campaigns manager at the Taxpayers Alliance, a well-known pressure group pushing for lower taxes.
“We do not pretend to know what is best for everyone, and so we feel that decisions are ideally taken by the persons directly affected by them,” says Mark S. Feldner, a law student and president of Cambridge Libertarians, a group for students at one of the world’s best universities.
“This scepticism about concentrated power, central planning and top-down regulation also encourages individuals to accept responsibility for their own actions.”
Young libertarians are also looking to Ukip’s newest hero, the Tory turncoat Douglas Carswell. A free market-loving, privatisation-touting, tax-cutting libertarian rascal, Carswell just won a by-election in Clacton – increasing his majority – after his defection from the Conservatives to become Ukip’s first elected MP.
Politics, but not party politics
Generation Y marks a noticeable shift in opinion when compared to other generations. They’re not that proud of the welfare state. They’re less trusting of the traditional big public institutions. They’re much more socially liberal, cosmopolitan, and internationalist.
They believe more in markets, lower tax and less regulation. They want to make their own decisions, not have the state – an overbearing parent, of sorts – make them on their behalf.
When the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition moved in 2013 to cap the total annual benefits a household can receive at £26,000, a YouGov survey found that 54% of 16 to 24-year-olds agreed with it against 16% in opposition.
As consequence, Generation Y has been slapped with several different Tory-centric monikers. Generation Right, Generation Boris, Thatcher’s Children. But these mis-characterise many of today’s younger voters.
“If you look at their voting intention, they are nearly twice as likely to be Labour than Conservative supporters,” says Bobby Duffy, managing director of pollster Ipsos MORI’s social research institute.
“It doesn’t really translate as much into political allegiance. There’s a little bit of a shift towards conservatism, but that’s not the main story.”
The main story, says Duffy, is the general disengagement with party politics. For the generation born before the Second World War, 70% feel engaged with political parties in Britain. Just 20% of under-30s feel that connection.
This chasm is enormous. But don’t assume Generation Y is apathetic or politically inactive.
Generation Y are much less proud of the welfare state than their parents and grandparents.(Ipsos MORI)
“They’re much more used to identifying an issue, grouping together around that issue to try to solve it or improve it, and then dissolving and moving on to the next issue,” Duffy says.
“It’s not the whole manifesto approach where you’ve got to buy into some things you may not necessarily agree with. That doesn’t fit with a generation used to tailoring.”
The internet and new social technologies, and the fluidity and flexibility they bring, have shaped this change. It’s easy for a generation used to Twitter and Facebook to cluster around a single campaign, send it viral and use the groundswell of publicity and support to strong-arm politicians.
It’s not so easy to join a party, work your way up and, if your original views survive untarnished by all the boot-licking and compromise just to get ahead, bring about change from the inside. You’d be fed in as a pork chop, minced up with the party’s offal, and funnelled out an unpleasant sausage.
And today’s young people have been through the global financial crisis. Though this event was billed by many leftists as a catastrophic failure of neo-liberalism, prophesied by Karl Marx, which would drive young people towards the left-wing, it seems to have done the opposite.
Years of austerity and public spending cuts have changed Generation Y, but not in the way some expected. Rather than fuelling anger among young people that the state is being chipped away, many are absorbing the message of individualism, of DIY solutions to personal, community and societal problems.
They simply don’t need the state anymore. You’re more likely to find them working in social enterprises and charities than in the hallowed Westminster halls of Whitehall.
“The combination of these attitudes – often described as socially liberal and fiscally conservative – cannot be found within established political parties,” says Feldner of Cambridge Libertarians.
“Libertarianism thus provides an intuitively appealing set of beliefs for those who do not feel represented by the political mainstream. Unless and until libertarian ideas are adopted by the establishment, this trend is likely to continue.”
Changing the image
There’s a crude perception of libertarianism thanks to what we might call “tabloid libertarians”, the well-known loudmouths who like to argue for the sake of arguing, take the concept of freedom to logical extremes and idolise the wealthiest of the wealthy, prioritising the protection of the 1%’s capital above all else in society.
And the image of libertarianism isn’t helped by movements such as the Tea Party in the US, a mob of gun-toting southern state conservatives who hate taxes and sit on their porches clutching a 12-bore to protect their property from the federal government.
Many libertarians don’t class the Tea Party as libertarian at all, because they’re not holistically liberal. Though the Tea Party may be economically libertarian, they’re prim social conservatives too, and aligned to the likes of Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin.
But still, brand libertarianism is tarnished by these placard-waving yokels and maniacal patriots.
At just 26, Sam Bowman is already research director at the Adam Smith Institute (ASI), a free market libertarian think tank in London. He uses the dating app Tinder and says his job piques some interest because it’s a little different. While it’s won him dates, some women ask: “Is that like Sarah Palin?”
“So if I’m facing that when I’m trying to get a date on Tinder, imagine how big that is when we’re trying to argue on Sky News that this particular tax cut is good because it’s going to help the poor,” he says.
“If people in the backs of their minds are thinking this guy’s basically Sarah Palin, or Glenn Beck, then we’re in big trouble.”
Bowman has made it his own personal mission, as well as that of the ASI, to remould how people react to libertarianism. To make their ideas appeal not just to the right, but also the left.
“We’ve made a concerted effort. It’s been conscious. We want to make our arguments on the basis of how they would affect the poor because rich people can basically look after themselves,” he says.
Negative income tax
One the ways Bowman has sought to subvert people’s preconceptions of libertarianism is to advocate the negative income tax, an idea closely associated with the free market economist Milton Friedman and a means of redistributing wealth from the top to the bottom.
Put simply, it works by establishing a minimum income that people need to meet a basic standard of living. Those earning under the threshold are given a tax credit to top them up. Those earning above begin to pay income tax, the rate of which increases depending on your earnings.
Bowman says this would be a “radical simplification” of the welfare system to make it cheaper to administrate and less bureaucratic for those needing to use it, while making sure the poorest have enough money to live on. And, of course, that the richest pay their fair share.
Another part of Bowman’s strategy is to focus on important individual issues instead of taking a broad-brush libertarian approach.
“What we want is to give a version of libertarian ideas in a way that is appealing and accessible to non-libertarians,” he says.
“We’re not trying to convert people to libertarianism. We’re trying to get non-libertarians to adopt a few of our ideas.”
One example is a paper by Bowman on free banking in an independent Scotland. His solution to the currency question proposed allowing banks to issue their own promissory notes tied to whatever reserves were desired, be that sterling or otherwise, to create a more efficient and flexible money supply.
“We got a lot of coverage of that. Where we succeeded with that was to make it relevant to a very interesting debate at the time,” he says.
“Even though free banking’s not going to happen in Scotland – that’s fantasy – what we did was to get people to start thinking seriously about the idea. And not as part of a big lump of ‘this is libertarianism and you have to adopt this’ but as an individual idea. Let’s consider this on its merits.”
Bleeding heart libertarians
The cause of changing people’s opinions about libertarianism is shared by many of its young advocates because they want to show the public that they aren’t a bunch of selfish Objectivists who go doe-eyed for Ayn Rand and Donald Trump. The young want libertarianism to grow up.
Salisbury-Jones of Liberty League doesn’t know any young British libertarians who have come to the movement via Rand, whose most famous novel is Atlas Shrugged.
Jennifer Salisbury-Jones(Liberty League)
“I think in the UK people are much more likely to identify as bleeding heart libertarians than Randians and how it can be applied to social justice rather than objectivism,” she says.
“People come to libertarianism because they feel very strongly about free speech, or whatever else, then they look it up and come to the rest of it. That the burden of taxation and regulation on the poorest should be lower.”
For Howes, the battle for open-mindedness about libertarianism is already won. To him, it’s “not even a challenge anymore”. The age of libertarians as eccentric, male, white, radical Tories is over.
At the annual Freedom Forum conference held by Liberty League, which brings people together for debates, lectures, training and socialising, Howes says he has seen the makeup of attendees change dramatically since 2011.
“This year it seems as though everyone is just… I want to say ‘normal’, but that’s not the right word,” says Howes.
“You see what I’m getting at there – non-political, non-partisan, eclectic. If I took a random sample of a group of undergrads at any university, they’d look like that. That seems to me what it actually looks like now. That’s a really big change and one that is already happening as we speak.”
Alexandra Swann, 26, once dubbed the “future face of Ukip” but who fell out with the party over its stance on immigration, says the movement needs to “widen the understanding of what libertarianism actually is”.
“A large proportion of the small percentage of the populace who have heard of libertarianism equate it with cold-hearted capitalism, a hatred of the poor and a return to 19thC values with the obligatory poor-house and no roads (because who on earth could build a road if not the state?),” says Swann, who is a columnist for Breitbart London.
“We must find a way to condense our message and decide our goals. I’m finally accepting that my libertarian utopia will not be achieved in this lifetime, governments have far too successfully entrenched their existence and bred a population that needs and relies on them both physically and for guidance of sorts.
“Government, especially the NHS, is the new religion; to criticise it is blasphemy. Modern libertarians must show alternatives to big government solutions.”
For Liberty League and the ASI at least, the challenge for sustaining the momentum of libertarianism’s rise in popularity is also about getting people from the movement into positions of influence within society.
Be that in academia, the media, the civil service, Westminster politics, or even literature. Creating tomorrow’s libertarian journalists, novelists, politicians and wonks who can propagate the ideas, particularly by trying to drum up support in universities. Which sounds a bit like entryism.
Anton Howes(Liberty League)
“In a sense yes, except that we’re not focused on any particular institution to be entryist to. It’s more a sort of scatter-gun approach. We’ll just support them in whatever field they want to go into,” says Howes.
“I’d love to have more English students wanting to become novelists, or more film students wanting to make documentaries. That’s a bit rarer because people tend to be more interested in economics, philosophy and politics and you don’t really get many people with those skill sets. But whatever it is that they want to do I’d want them at some stage to be very effective.
“Hayek calls them second-hand dealers in ideas. So you have these ideas running around, mostly coming from academics and being produced by intellectuals, then people who are able to disseminate them make them much more approachable, help them make sense to a much broader section of the population.”
Not every young person agrees in rejecting party politics. Jack Duffin is a chef-turned-politico. At just 22 he’s readying up to fight for a seat in parliament at the 2015 general election in the in Uxbridge and South Ruislip constituency, where his biggest rival for the seat is none other than London’s incumbent mayor, Boris Johnson.
Duffin’s party is Ukip, where he chairs the youth wing Young Independence.
“A big state’s a bad thing because you have to be taxed more, there’s less of a safety net for people when they come into economically hard times, because everyone who is employed by the state doesn’t generate money,” says Duffin, who is attracted by libertarianism, but doesn’t want to give himself a particular label.
Jack Duffin(Young Independence)
“Obviously there are key people you need, like doctors and everything, but the more people you employ on the state, the more damage it does to private industry. If we had a small state that was manageable, then there’s less taxes, people can spend their money the way they want to spend their money.
“And it’s a choice, at the end of the day. We shouldn’t be telling everyone how they’re going to spend their money, ramping up taxes just to keep providing for this bloated state.”
There was a time when Ukip was seen as the British libertarian party. Its commitment to a flat rate of income tax, its desire to reduce state spending and wreak privatisation through what’s left of the public sector.
This image has worn off somewhat as the party hoovers up old Labour and Tory voters, who are British traditionalists yearning for a lost mythical post-war England, before the rot of multiculturalism supposedly set in.
It’s revealed itself to be socially conservative by opposing gay marriage. Its views on immigration – Ukip thinks there should be much less of it – are also anathema to many libertarians.
Duffin defends the party’s position on gay marriage. It’s not about limiting gay rights, but protecting those of the religious. He says he supports legalising gay marriage in principle, but not in practice because the Supreme Court is not the highest court in the land.
He fears that religious organisations will be forced under European human rights law to conduct gay ceremonies against their wishes. Therefore until the UK leaves the European Convention on Human Rights, religious rights are under threat because of the legalisation of gay marriage.
But young libertarians are still signing up to Ukip. Duffin says since he took over as chairman in February 2014, the number of members has increased from 1,700 to 2,600.
“Young people are realising there’s a change out there. So rather than just not getting involved in politics at all, which a lot would do if Ukip wasn’t around, they’re actually turning to Ukip as a way to change everything,” he says.
He also says young people are realising that the size of the state is out of control in the UK and that they like the seemingly blunt authenticity of Nigel Farage, Ukip’s leader, who thinks he is the antithesis of the Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) at Oxford-then-parliament merry-go-round of Westminster.
“Obviously there is a role for the state, but it needs to be manageable. So many pen-pushers. Just look at the NHS. The whole middle layer of the NHS is bureaucracy. It’s a waste. That money would be much better spent on the front line,” he says.
“Young people are looking at this. They’re seeing it in schools as the classroom size increases the amount of different teaching staff, and quango-style stuff – people have had enough of it.”
Defector Carswell of Ukip(Getty)
What does libertarianism’s future look like in Britain? Today’s young libertarians are working hard to create a solid platform on which to build.
They’re softening up the public to libertarian ideas and showing people they don’t have the lowest motivations, but share the same concerns as everyone else for improving the conditions of society’s worst off.
As digital natives, they may get a leg up from new technology that empowers consumers and businesses by slipping through the tentacled grip of burdensome state regulation.
Apps such as taxi ordering service Uber, which has drastically reduced the costs to consumers of a cab journey in the cities where it’s used by increasing competition and evading bureaucratic licensing terms.
Or cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin, which operate outside of the realm of financial regulation and monetary policy frameworks, powered organically by a sprawling network of dedicated developers and enthusiasts.
In Howes’ words, technology will “undercut a lot of the existing hierarchy”.
There’s one snag: the state will always try to catch up. The loophole advantage of legal grey areas exploited by new technologies is often closed. Uber has faced court challenges and financial regulators across the world are working out if and how to police cryptocurrencies.
“When the state cracks down on Uber, people see the state cracking down on a technology they like,” Salisbury-Jones says.
“They disapprove of this. They think this is the old establishment cracking down on something that I like and is successful. They don’t necessarily consider themselves libertarian, but they fundamentally dislike the state interfering in things they think are fine.”
She’s optimistic about the future. That in 20 years’ time, the government won’t see a problem and ask what it and it alone can do to solve it. Instead, it will look at what it’s doing to make things worse and get out of the way.
Even if the attitude of government doesn’t change, Salisbury-Jones and other young libertarians can look with optimism at those even younger than them. Ipsos MORI’s Generation Next survey of 11 to 16-year-olds seems to confirm that the ideas of personal responsibility and individualism are growing in appeal among tomorrow’s adults.
Just 4% of more than 2,700 secondary school pupils surveyed said the welfare state made them most proud to be British. The winner was Team GB, the Olympians, at 28%. And only 2% said benefits were the most important focus for government spending, though 11% did prioritise looking after the poor.
Moreover, 51% said it doesn’t matter whether you come from a poor or rich family when it comes to getting a well-paid job. This suggests a majority believe career success these days can be powered by the efforts of the individual to overcome the barriers put in place by growing up in a low income household.
“The underlying theory of social change is one that relies on ideas winning out,” Howes says.
“It relies on the people who are talking about those ideas being as well placed as possible in the future to be able to get those ideas to a much broader audience.”
If today’s growing mass of young libertarians cling on to their beliefs as they get older and more world-weary; if they find their way into positions of influence and power across Britain; libertarianism will have won out. It looks like change is coming.
“The thing with libertarianism is we are a rather nice bunch who do not want to inflict our views on other people,” says Swann.
“We are the carrot without the stick, so to speak. All we can do is hope the current climate of disillusionment toward Westminster politics coupled with the state’s virtual bankruptcy, both moral and fiscal, provide the perfect storm to propel the wings of political change.
“Libertarianism is increasingly popular with young people. There is hope yet.”