I was at a debate at the Institute of Economic Affairs last week when the speaker next to me — a preening, prickly chap with a moustache and hugely self-important manner — took it upon himself to apprise the assembled throng of the most extraordinary fact: apparently, James Delingpole is nowhere near as good at delivering Ronald Reagan quotes as Ronald Reagan was.
‘As I can testify from experience,’ he added, impressively, ‘having heard Reagan speak on several occasions.’
‘Gosh!’ I thought to myself. And again ‘Gosh!’ I’m often taken aback when complete strangers decide to have a go at me personally in debates. ‘Hey, you don’t even know me,’ I want to say. ‘For all you know I might be incredibly nice.’ But the thing that shocked me this time wasn’t so much the gratuitousness of his ad hom as its almost cherishably fatuous lameness.
No doubt I would have been even more impressed if he’d accused me of not having as large breasts as Dolly Parton, or of being nowhere near as well-endowed as Seventies porn legend John ‘King Dong’ Holmes, or of being a sight uglier than babesome alleged Russian spy Anna Chapman. But as candidates for the most stunning, blinding, fantabulous statement of the obvious went, I thought his Reagan jibe (I’d just quoted the famous quip about the nine most terrifying words in the English language being ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help’) was a more than halfway decent stab. How desperate must he be?
Very, I decided. Very, very, very. And to be honest I didn’t blame him. I too, in his position, would have been grasping at whatever straws I could to distract people from who I was and what I stood for. Imagine if you were a fox and you’d been invited as guest speaker at the annual Chicken Safety and Welfare dinner; or Julian Clary, mistakenly booked for an Abu Hamza fundraiser; or… no, it’s really no good. I don’t think any of us can come even close to imagining how it must be to be Michael White, assistant editor of the Guardian, in a debate on the subject of liberty.
Well, think about it. You’ve spent the last 12 years cheerleading on behalf of perhaps the most repressive, statist, controlling regime to govern Britain since the days of Oliver Cromwell. Taxes are rising, income levels are falling, ancient freedoms have been stolen — all because of the ignorance and vandalism that you encouraged. And your mission tonight, should you choose to accept it, is to persuade an audience largely comprising red-blooded, don’t-tread-on-me, live-free-or-die libertarians that you are not a grade one ****. Rather him than any of us, eh?
The debate was titled ‘Who holds the liberal torch in 2010: libertarians, liberal democrats or the liberal elite?’ and was staged as part of the Free Society’s Voices of Freedom series. I went mainly because Paul Staines — aka Guido Fawkes — was on the panel and also another blogger I admire, Chris Mounsey of the spectacularly potty-mouthed Devil’s Kitchen blog, who now leads the Libertarian party. There was also my old mucker Brendan O’Neill from Spiked who very nearly persuaded me a few years ago that I was, like him, a revolutionary Marxist; a fellow called Julian Harris — from a libertarian wing of the Lib Dems called Liberal Vision; and another Liberal called Mark Pack who co-edits Liberal Democrat Voice.
I still couldn’t quite see the point of it. The answer was obvious before the debate even started: only libertarians believe in liberty. None of the main parties does any more — not even the Conservatives, but the Lib Dems even less so. If ever there was a concept more antithetical to the liberal weltanschauung it’s the idea that people should be left free to live their own lives unencumbered by government meddling. As, indeed, the Lib Dem Mark Pack went on most amusingly to demonstrate.
Of course government shouldn’t involve itself in everything, he said, but clearly there were areas where it might well be considered to serve a vital function. People’s physical self-esteem, for example: it was quite obviously an undesirable thing that we inhabited a culture which set its citizens unrealistic goals about how beautiful they should be, so the state might have a role to play in correcting this.
I don’t think many of us could quite believe what we were hearing. If you think it’s the job of government to stop fat, ugly people hating themselves, it must be a considerable challenge trying to think up areas where the government doesn’t have a role. Bottom-wiping? Teeth-flossing? Nose-picking? Unfortunately, Pack did not reveal.
Most left-liberals, in my experience, are quite terrified of libertarians. They can cope with the more traditional, authoritarian kind of Conservative because they can glibly dismiss them as Daily Mail-reading racists who don’t give a damn about the poor. But with libertarians they find themselves on a much stickier wicket: how exactly do you outflank someone who believes that tyranny is akin to death and that we should be free pretty much to do whatever the hell we like so long as it harms no one else.
White had a stab. He said: ‘If you really believe like Delingpole that government’s such a problem, go and live in Mogadishu, then see how you like it.’ He must have been really proud of this line because he said it twice. A classic straw-man argument, both times. It’s small government we libertarians believe in — not no government. Of course we want stuff like property rights and the rule of law: how could we possibly enjoy our liberty without them?
Am I being unduly hard on White? Well, I’ll concede it was pretty brave of him to take part in a debate where he must have known his side had no arguments in its favour whatsoever. And he dealt with this handicap very professionally by indulging in lots of what actors call ‘business’ — making exaggerated play of his advanced years and supposed decrepitude, milking whatever laughs he could muster, jabbing here and there with his sneaky ad homs, not actually saying anything of import but doing so with a great deal of authority. I wonder if he has had thespian training? In another life I could see he would have made a plausible Captain Jean-Luc Picard.
But I do think it’s about time lefties like White realised that they no longer have a free pass to sneer at those of us on the right just because we’re on the right. They have been getting away with it for years, acting as though their moral position is so superior there’s really no need for them to engage in anything so sordid as a debate where they have to advance their argument using ideas and facts. But after 12 years of the New Labour disaster, it just won’t wash.
Liberal-lefties like White need to explain to us what’s good about a philosophy which favours bureaucrats and rent-seekers over strivers and risk-takers; which steals people’s hard-earned money and squanders it on ‘social justice’ projects; which despises human nature and seeks to remould it and force it to act against its own interests through social engineering; which stifles ambition, creativity, invention; which is the enemy of freedom and therefore the enemy of life. So far, they’re not doing a very convincing job.