The myth that the prime minister and this government is ‘libertarian’

6th July 2021

The myth of the libertarianism of Boris Johnson, the prime minister of the United Kingdom, endures.

But it is a myth.

By ‘myth’ I mean that it is a thing that has narrative force, and which some people believe to be true, but it is a thing that is ultimately false.

Johnson is, of course, a political libertine, in that he believes rules – and indeed laws – are for other people.

His government attacks the independent judiciary, the impartial civil service and diplomatic corps and the public service broadcaster, as well as disregarding the speaker of the house of commons, the electoral commission, the ministerial adviser on the civil service code, the panel on appointments to the house of lords, and so on.

And so on.

If his government can get away with weakening or eliminating a check or balance, it shall do so.

It will not be told by anyone what to do.

The politics of Kevin the Teenager.

And this defiance is no doubt the basis of the decision of the government to relax the lockdown, despite various warnings.

Members of the government, and their political supporters, are fed up with being told what to do – especially as the impositions are for the benefit of others.


Is this restless defiance ‘libertarianism’?

Is there a coherent vision of limiting the power of the state vis-a-vis the individual?

This is a government which is seeking to disenfranchise people:

(And here it is nice to have a return of classic David Davis, as opposed to the Brexit variant.)

The government is seeking to ban people:

And this is from just two political Davids alone.

There is also, of course, the similar myth of the prime minister’s liberalism – that he, like Donald Trump, is really at heart just a metropolitan liberal.

Yet many in his cabinet – Priti Patel, Oliver Dowden, Robert Jenrick, Elizabeth Truss – merrily play with the fires of culture wars and the politics of social division and confrontation, rather than promoting the politics of inclusion and solidarity.

The prime minister does not mind or care.

By any serious definition of libertarianism and liberalism this government is neither libertarian nor liberal.

There is no general approach to limiting those with state power to the benefit of those who are affected by state power.

Instead we have a government with occasional twitches and jolts against state power while over time accumulating as much power as possible for the executive and dismantling or dismissing any entity capable of saying ‘no’.

The general approach of this government is authoritarian – though this authoritarianism can be set aside when the power of the state would be for the benefit of others.

There are many words for the general approach of the prime minister and his government, but ‘libertarian’ is not one of them.


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42 thoughts on “The myth that the prime minister and this government is ‘libertarian’”

  1. A perceptive and important post. Think also of his contempt for local govt and remorseless centralisation of NHS

  2. Another great post, your use of detail and your precise use of language is a refreshing change from the pervasive sloppiness in media coverage of Government authoritarianism , which of course is part of the reason the Johnsonians get away with it and real democracy is increasingly undermined.

  3. This government is run by inexperienced ideological individuals so the real danger is the behind the scenes advisers who are pulling the strings from Tufton Street. They are very very clever and very very dangerous – their “puppets” give out the jolly ‘aren’t we wonderful giving you all personal responsibility and have a lovely social time this summer” ( backed up by the adoring media) whilst quietly in the background they are passing legislation to control and suppress us. By the time this country wakes up to the fact that we are edging towards fascism it will be too late.

    1. My only disagreement would be with the phrase “edging toward fascism”. It’s rather more a headlong gallop with the finishing post just ahead.

      And there is still an unnervingly large proportion of the population seemingly in blissful ignorance of this, cheering them on, as you suggest.

  4. There is, nonetheless, a tendency amongst many ministers to take a small state /libertarian view of issues. The management of the pandemic is one such. Each time this group wins an argument in the battle between common effort and control on the one hand and individual liberty on the other the virus pops up and takes advantage of our collective weakness. They have just done it again.

  5. Johnsons’s view of Johnson seems to be whatever is most flattering to him – he sees himself as a “libertarian, one-nation” Tory, encompassing the best bits (!) of Thatcher and Churchill. The truth is that he is a naked populist and a gambler. His only lens is a personal one; you can’t be intelligent, historically aware, a fan of Churchill (and Thatcher) and oppose the concept of the EU (and frankly, he never did). He claimed that he could deliver the benefits of EU membership from outside the bloc with no downside; he claimed that he would never permit a de facto border in the Irish Sea; he claimed that release from the pandemic restrictions would be irreversible; he claimed that HMG was being “led by the science”…

    The man is all bluster and no substance – “jumbo trade deals” anyone? He continues in the apsirational mold of Cammeron and May, but whereas they delivered nothing for the “big society” or “the JAMs” and the “Northern Powerhouse” turned out to have as much oommph as a clapped-out dynamo ona Penny Farthing, it is possible to imagine that they were (somewhat) sincere in their wishes – Johnson’s “levelling up” is just another soundbite.

    I imagine that the latest move has more to do with heading off a back-bench revolt from his own ranks opposed to continuing lockdown restrictions and the craving for another (brief) hit of popular approval than any measured, nuanced decision. He is a cancer on the body of British politics and must be removed before it can even begin to heal.

    1. If you carry on in this vein, Mike, we might be forced to draw the conclusion that you really don’t like the man.

      (For what it is worth, I agree.)

      1. Eddie Mair made the point back in 2013 on the Andrew Marr show. Everything that has happened since has confirmed Eddie’s assessment.

        1. A “nasty piece of work” indeed, but we can go back three more decades, to the comments from his perceptive Eton housemaster in 1982: “Boris sometimes seems affronted when criticised for what amounts to a gross failure of responsibility … I think he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else.”

          1. Also true but most people do ridiculous things when they are young, don’t they? Johnson has built a career in self interest. Arguably his brush with death might have changed him but it seems to have the opposite effect.

          2. I’ve often wondered whether his tutors actually tried to obtain a psychiatric assessment and / or psychotherapy for what seems to me like a deeply troubled child from a dysfunctional family.

            Skilled one to one help for the child might have spared all of us (him included) many of the horrors for which the adult has been responsible.

  6. “…….a government ………over time accumulating as much power as possible for the executive and dismantling or dismissing any entity capable of saying ‘no’.”
    I gently suggest that this is a true elected dictatorship, even akin to Nazism.

    1. No need for gently at all, that’s precisely what it is and where we are.

      And the sooner we understand that and work against it, the better.

      If it walks like a duck…..

  7. It never ceases to amaze and baffle me that Johnson is so popular with the public, when he is so malign an influence on the country. He is the Marmite of politicians. I cannot think of a single positive thing he has done since he assumed power. Maybe that makes me as blinkered as the ‘Boris’ fan club, I don’t know.

    However, this situation does allow for the faintest glimmer of optimism, as there is surely no-one else in the Tory party who could get away with the same contempt of everything that stands in his path to unmitigated power, and continue to receive such public adulation.

    The Tories are utterly dependent on this one lying, cheating, sleazy, charlatan. Without him their entire edifice will fall. And that cannot come too soon.

  8. The general argument is spot-on. “The politics of Kevin the Teenager” deftly captures the spirit of many of the anti-restriction crowd, and also of the cheerleaders for a hard Brexit. However, it won’t do for Johnson (and some others in his administration), as it misses the element of class-based entitlement. “The politics of Alexander the Bullingdonian” seems more apt.

    The issue of mask-wearing also highlights the fundamental egoism of a libertarian approach, and how it differs from a liberal one. As is the case with 20 mph speed limits, the primary purpose of wearing a mask is to protect others, not oneself. Wearing a mask involves a willingness to consider others’ needs, and to forego a relatively trivial portion of one’s own liberty if necessary. I’m not an expert on liberal philosophy, but mandatory mask-wearing in certain public spaces seems compatible with Mill’s Harm Principle. Libertarianism’s a different beast, and it’s depressing to learn that the new Health Secretary is a disciple of Ayn Rand.

  9. Johnson’s greatest talent has been to find a path of least resistance that has allowed him to fall upwards. His populist instincts are remarkable, and coupled with an amour of contrived buffoonishness, have made him deadly.

    A strongly principled person will always struggle against someone of convenient morality. Principles will always, sooner or later, require hard choices and balanced arguments. On the other hand, a leader who can convince a majority that they may do exactly as they please, will always command support. As long as he can twist and turn sufficiently to constantly renew his support even as some drift away disappointed and disillusioned.

    Johnson enjoys authority when it works for him, and because it places him beyond scrutiny. But he will gleefully erode the authority of state institutions and influence if it delivers supporters. Populism runs out of steam eventually, but it is a question of when and how much damage is done first.

      1. If Johnson attacks any corrupt system, such as the UK judiciary (as per my 15 year experience), then he gets my vote, and I intend to publish the truth about all this, including my submissions to the Conservative Government. We will see if he puts his money where, others say, his mouth is!

        1. In what way is the UK judiciary corrupt?

          The only reason Johnson is attacking it is because the Courts did exactly as they were supposed to do (provide a means to challenge the legality of a Government or ministerial decision) and that was inconvenient for him. He’s not doing it on principle.

    1. This isn’t the comments page of the Daily Mail website, Geoffrey – a reasoned alternative position will be welcome here.

      So off you go – show us all the good Johnson has bestowed upon us…

  10. In an article in the New Yorker on the role Fox News played on Trumps election, Jane Mayer made the following observation which IMO fits Johnson like a glove…

    “Trump and Murdoch also share a transactional approach to politics, devoid of almost any ideology besides self-interest.”

    Johnson, I don’t think is a libertarian, eugenicist, or fascist, but he’ll attach himself to any of those causes at the drop of a hat, and without conscience, if it furthers his interest.

  11. Maybe some people confuse liberality with liberalism.

    ‘She was liberal with the sherry when making the trifle.’

    ‘The candidate was liberal in his promises of cash and preferment to his supporters.’

  12. What do you mean? I once stated the handshake could be contagious and some what of no literal meaning to it citizens,but for the press & media.It is today evident peace exists in various forms in literature including in the faith of actions inscribed in the scriptures.Inspiration is dead don’t get your dreams dead as it kills.

  13. A reminder that the first act of ‘libertarian’ Mayor Johnson was to ban alcohol on public transport.

  14. Johnson did not study PPE, he did Classics. He is no trained administrator but has studied Roman politics. His lesson will cover how to become great by ‘devide and rule’. One can grow in power when politically convenient by identifing new enenies and then exterminating them with full force to encourage your less loyal supporters to do what is in their best short term interests. There is no need for faux liberalism to ensure popularity, one can chose a life as libertine providing one shows adequate indulgence of any moral infringements by one’s closest friends and colleagues in persuit of their own careers, the more the better providing they can be kept secret from the people. There is then further security for the leader if dangerous personal criticism has to be adressed by diverting attention by being ‘surprised’ by the excesses of one’s friends or colleagues who unfortunately then have to do the right thing take the blame and fall on their sword, their alternative being far worse from the demands of the people.

  15. (Based on a RT comment on Twitter which DAG asked me to repeat here – I will leave in the form of a numbered Twitter thread)

    DAG’s thesis – which I agree with – is that the PM & govt are authoritarian.
    Or, as he notes in a comment, that it “explains almost everything”…

    …but what about ending Covid measures?
    Isn’t that liberal/libertarian?!

    DAG touches on this: re Covid the PM / Govt are “fed up with being told what to do – especially as the impositions are for the benefit of others.”

    IMO we can go a little further too to emphasise & support DAG’s authoritarian point:
    the PM/Govt’s only apparent interest & “strength” is in politics/change that reinforces their power – either by removing opposition/checks or increasing populist support, ie authoritarian!!

    Covid – and any controls – do neither politically.
    Indeed they place an onus on the govt (to be seen) to be *responsible*.
    (Such responsibility does not decrease democratic/plural opposition nor particularly increase populist support.)
    Ergo they want to shift responsibility.

    So is ending all Covid measures liberal/libertarian…
    …or is it driven by (selfish) authoritarian instincts aimed at preservation of power by simply not being responsible?
    Given all other evidence – as DAG outlined – I thoroughly agree with DAG and suggest it’s the latter.

      1. A pleasure to be able to add to your thinking.

        A couple of more (minor?) thoughts:
        1/ to re-iterate, I think it’s key to recognise the importance of the weight of evidence. If the PM/Govt. were easing Covid measures in the absence of other evidence, we might reasonably conclude they were liberal. All the accumulated evidence – as you outline – suggests they are not, and are in fact authoritarian. Ergo it is reasonable to conclude negative authoritarian motives (shirking responsibility) rather than positive liberal ones (freedom, personal responsibility).

        2/ aren’t they populist too (or authoritarian-populists)?
        I think it’s a question of balance and motive: to my mind the populism is – like the undermining of any democratic and pluralist opposition – simply a vehicle for authoritarianism. The pursuit and maintenance of power for its own sake rather than populism for a clear cause or ideology per se.

  16. Your commentary Mr Green sent me scurrying off to compare the definitions of liberalism and libertarianism
    From Wikipedia
    Liberalism is a political and moral philosophy based on liberty, consent of the governed and equality before the law.

    Libertarianism is a political philosophy and movement that upholds liberty as a core principle. Libertarians seek to maximize autonomy and political freedom, emphasizing free association, freedom of choice, individualism and voluntary association.

    Definitions are only definitions and the usage of words can get blurred and change, but I thought the emphasis on the position of law in the definition of Liberalism was both accurate and helpful.

    Yes Johnson is both libertarian (as to he and his government wishing not to be bound by any laws or rules) and authoritarian (creating laws and political structures that protect him, his government, and his cronies – anyone for a VIP channel?) to everyone else’s disadvantage. The antithesis of liberalism.

    In passing, the Economist did a podcast on Liberalism a few months ago for subscribers. I was keen to sign up – until I discovered that the speakers were the vanished Mr Gove and sunlit uplands Hannan. I sent a message stating my disgust at these faux-liberals being asked to speak on the, for me, hallowed subject, and that the talk be repeated with some real Liberals.

    Answer came there none.

  17. Very flexible word ‘libertarian’. Can mean we believe in freedom – for you and for us. Or it can mean – you’re on your own mate – free to buy your own healthcare, education, politicians, housing and all the rest and BTW we are free to tax you all. A bit like the US.

    At the moment we sit somewhere in the middle, but I suspect moving slowly toward the latter definition. There has always been a strand of toryism that is in love with the USA. For the moment we are moving toward that model. Curiously just as the Americans are seeing the limitations of their model. But that is the way things are – the UK follows the US about 20 years behind – and too late to reap any advantage.

    Things will get interesting round about 2024.

    Meanwhile, we used to be run by those who read The Times, now the Telegraph runs the country and Times readers have become those who used to run the country.

  18. A few disjointed responses.
    Compulsory masks would be a textbook example of Mill’s principle that the only justification for curtailing any individual’s freedom is to prevent harm to others.
    Liberalism is a nuanced position that often gets crushed between left collectivism, authoritarianism and neo-liberal market individualism – and now hyper-individualised identity politics too.
    Nearly 20 years ago I wrote a PhD thesis and a book on the myth of New Labour’s communitarianism; now we are talking about the myth of Johnson’s libertarianism. I doubt whether he is any more ideologically authoritarian than he is ideologically libertarian. What I concluded back then, and have seen no reason to change since, is that governments (and oppositions) feel the need to publicly espouse an ideology, so as not to be seen as purely opportunistic, but are far more driven by electoral pragmatism – all I would change now is to add individual financial venality to the mix. Populist authoritarian policies with a veneer of libertarianism are the most effective way of serving both those interests.

    1. Lots I agree with in your response and I’m more than happy to prefix their authoritarianism with populist-!

      But I think you make a category error in comparing Johnson’s potential liberalism with his authoritarianism:
      “I doubt whether he is any more ideologically authoritarian than he is ideologically libertarian”.
      We’re not talking about personal authoritarianism here (ie being conservative): we’re talking about political authoritarianism.

      And I suggest that political-authoritarianism is not an ideology in the same mould as liberalism. It is in a very loose sense an ideology but only in the sense that “ideology” is a loose catch all for any concept! It is not an ideology with a vision other than for the circular maintenance of its own power. Other ideologies are visions for others and society. Political-authoritarianism is an “ideology” simply for oneself/itself. It is a mere power-ideology rather than a true political socio-economic ideology.

      1. Political authoritarianism benefits more than those in power. It directly benefits the government’s supporters and benefactors. Authoritarianism can also have wider economic benefits at the expense of personal freedoms. So I would suggest it is an ideology after all. Fascism is an obvious example of this.

        1. >”So I would suggest it is an ideology after all.”

          Go re-read my comment.

          I didn’t say it wasn’t an ideology: I rather suggested that political-authoritarianism *was* (an ideology), but that “ideology” is such a loose term as to encompass any political concept (for which it is a synonym) as to be meaningless. And I drew a distinction between meaningful socio-economic ideologies – with the positive aim of benefiting society – and those that are mere selfish political-power ideologies.

          I also distinguished between personal-authoritarianism (which might nonetheless be manifested in and as a political ideology) and political-power-authoritarianism.

          The fact that political-power-authoritarianism can benefit others is hardly a gotcha: it must. The whole point of political-power-authoritarianism is to maintain power and there must by definition be supporters and benefactors in order to maintain that power.

          But the power is the primary goal. (Rather than say personal-authoritarianism/conservatism or other actual socio-economic ideologies.)
          Hence current populism and corruption. Benefactors. To maintain power.

          Fascism? I think it contains elements of BOTH actual personal-authoritarianism/conservativism and political-power-authoritarianism (and populism) to maintain power.

          1. You said political authoritarianism was only an ideology because that was a loose catch all term for any concept and didn’t have a vision like liberalism. I took that as it not being a true ideology in your view.

            I think you have the ideas of personal authoritarianism and political authoritarianism back to front in terms of which is an ideology and which isn’t. Personal authoritarianism is just a character trait. Any political leader might be an authoritarian by nature (or become authoritarian when given power) even though the system of government they lead is not. It isn’t an ideology at all.
            In contrast, political authoritarianism clearly is an ideology whether it is conservatism, fascism, or communism. Each has a system of values and ideals and they aren’t just about maintaining power for the sake of it. There is a nationalistic, political and economic vision to each of them.

            Returning to Johnson, he poses as a libertarian but his leadership style is authoritarian. He certainly doesn’t represent an ideology. He simply hasn’t thought things through enough to be seen in that light. He just wants to be in charge, but leaves the actual governing of things to others.

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