To those of us whose political instincts were formed in the 70s and 80s, today's Tories present a strange spectacle.
What I mean is that Thatcherites presented themselves as being on the side of liberty: after she died, The Economist called Lady Thatcher freedom fighter and the Telegraph a "champion of liberty." However, the same cannot be said for today's Tories, for at least three reasons:
- Osborne's call for a crackdown on those who “spread hate but do not break laws”and Cameron's rejection of the idea that the state should leave us alone as long as we obey the law are both antithetical to the Thatcherite principle of liberty under the rule of law.
- Some Tories want to restrict freedom of movement within the EU. Whereas Tebbit wanted workers to get on the bikes, his successors want to stop them doing so.
In these senses, the government is continuing the trend of the coailition and New Labour - to create ever-more new criminal offences. Today's Tories are the enemies of liberty, not its champions. As Bruce says, a truly Tory government should be reversing authoritarianism, not increasing it.
This poses the question: what has changed since Thatcher's time?
The answer could be: nothing. Thatcherites' failure to vigorously oppose apartheid, section 28 and the desire to starve the IRA of the "oxygen of publicity" all suggest that they believed in freedom only for particular types of people.
But there's another possibility - that managerialism has beaten the idea of spontaneous order. The case for freedom rests, to a large extent, upon the idea that people left to themselves will sort things out more or less adequately. Although this idea is associated with economics - think of Smith's invisible hand - it goes much wider than that. The Millian case for freedom of expression is that good arguments will drive out bad - that Islamofascism in Britain can be beaten by open debate.
Today, though, spontaneous order has very few adherents.
Herein, though, lies a problem. If a government promises a perfect world in which we are protected from foreigners, dangerous talk and people having a good time it will swiftly lose legitimacy when people realize that those promises cannot be delivered.
Maybe Thatcherites' talk of freedom was hypocritical. But hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue. And there was a good reason for Thatcherites to claim to support liberty.