Brian Monteith: Libertarian view not convincing

Picture: PA

Picture: PA

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The best chance of extending personal freedoms is still at UK level, writes Brian Monteith

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the organisation Labour for Independence, and how it had lost credibility as a Labour organisation due to the involvement of senior SNP figures in giving it hands-on support.

Without the life-support of the Yes Scotland campaign its activities would surely halt. With no involvement of any senior Labour Party figures, and with evidence of SNP councillors publicly bolstering its numbers, and its treasurer being until last year a member of the SNP, it had all the hallmarks of a front being used to fool the Scottish public.

It need not have been like this. For a start, simply calling itself Labour Voters for Independence would have been a small but significant enough difference. Keeping its distance from the SNP would have provided a legitimacy that would have won respect rather than raised eyebrows.

How matters could have been so different has been emphasised this last week by the establishment of a new group campaigning for a Yes vote, one that will not try to grab the public consciousness with banners and stalls but nevertheless offers every possibility of bringing some sound rational arguments to the referendum debate – it is a blog called Scotfree2014 and is the home of Libertarians supporting independence.

By the inherent and sometimes specific criticism of the SNP/Yes Scotland, the articles that it has carried so far put a good deal of distance between the contributors and the collectivists that dominate the Yes campaign. This is to be applauded, for we are able to judge the arguments on their merits without having to question the motives or any conflicts of interest.

The opening post provides the raison d’etre of the blog and its followers by quoting the great Austrian economist and philosopher Friedrich von Hayek from his seminal work The Road to Serfdom:

“It is no accident that on the whole there was more beauty and decency to be found in the life of small peoples, and that among the large ones there was more happiness and content in proportion as they had avoided the deadly blight of centralisation. Least of all shall we preserve democracy or foster its growth if all the power and most of the important decisions rest with an organisation far too big for the common man to survey or comprehend. Nowhere has democracy ever worked well without a great measure of local self-government… It is only where responsibility can be learnt and practised in affairs with which most people are familiar, where it is the awareness of one’s neighbour rather than some theoretical knowledge of the needs of other people which guides action, that the ordinary man can take a real part in public affairs because they concern the world he knows. Where the scope of the political measures becomes so large that the necessary knowledge is almost exclusively possessed by the bureaucracy, the creative impulses of the private person must flag. I believe that here the experience of the small countries like Holland and Switzerland contains much from which even the most fortunate larger countries like Great Britain can learn.”

The Road to Serfdom was published in 1944, making it all the more astounding that Hayek had identified the problem of large states and their bureaucracies being beyond the ken of ordinary people and even the political elite that manage them – before the welfare state had been born and expanded exponentially into every facet of our lives.

It is an appeal for “small is beautiful” and it is to that ideal that Libertarians might be attracted to voting Yes in September 2014.

Although I shall be voting No, if there is one group that could convince me to vote Yes it would be this one, for it offers the vision of a Scotland where true independence of the individual is sought – independence not only from the large bureaucratic state that David Cameron is failing to address, but from the even greater threat to our freedoms from the European superstate.

My commitment to voting No extends, however, beyond mere political economy. I do not accept that I and others like me will be left alone to remain comfortable with my sense of Britishness, having witnessed the regular demonisation of so many things British and especially English. There is no contradiction in my being a Scottish patriot and an anglophile, the contradiction comes only when patriotism morphs into nationalism and inherently seeks to elevate one group at the expense of another.

Even were that not the case, the reason I remain unconvinced that an independent Scotland offers me, as a libertarian, the small-is-beautiful idyll that Hayek wrote of, is that the practical lessons from devolution are that it has delivered greater centralisation and more intrusion into the life of the individual than had we not gone down that road.

Our local police are now the state police – bringing the Glasgow policing of morality to Edinburgh and centralised priorities and budgets over local needs. The same has happened with the fire service, arts administration and in the direction and planning of health priorities. It will in time happen with education – local authorities will be denuded of power and our community councils become little more than a name.

The prevailing political consensus in Scotland is one of moving towards greater collectivisation, not less; for the SNP, independence is about having more power rather than greater freedoms for Scots. Even were the SNP to break up and there was a new political realignment – which I seriously doubt – what is being proffered by everyone is an even bigger, more centralised state.

For a libertarian the boundaries of national borders, the flags and the uniforms are essentially an illusion, they may pull on the heart but cannot be trumped by the fundamental entitlement to individual freedoms and how they are respected.

That Libertarians for Independence now exists is to be applauded, but for me the best prospects of extending personal freedoms remains at a British level and for that reason I must decline its sweet overtures.

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