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Tory Libertarians?

Simon Jenkins

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What is the matter with the Conservative party? It once claimed a nodding acquaintance with the cause of liberty. Now it runs with the corporatist pack. If there is anything to be banned, regulated or computerised, it howls from the dispatch box for "something to be done". Be it prostitutes, drugs, prisons, NHS computers, data protection or civil rights, the Tories are desperate not to be seen as out of the action. Libertarians in Britain are a disenfranchised class.

The Ipswich murders will be a textbook case of modern British government, reform only in response to headlines. They have revealed the full squalor and danger of a law that "allows" prostitution but "bans" soliciting and brothels, and which is light years behind the law in most tolerant and civilised European countries.

The Home Office knows this. A former adviser, Katharine Raymond, revealed at the weekend that her report on the subject was suppressed last year by Downing Street for fear of enraging the rightwing press. All that emerged was a meek measure that women be allowed to work in pairs for their own safety and be helped with any drugs problem. Even this was never implemented.

"It took a riot" was the laconic headline on Michael Heseltine's 1981 report on social conditions in Liverpool after the Toxteth riots. Now it will have taken a serial killing to address the law on prostitution, a typical "consensual crime" in which the greatest harm is caused by the manner in which the state tries to suppress it. Change will probably take the form of tolerated red light districts and small brothels.

This will have to fight a predictable wave of British cant that anything people disapprove of must be banned "to send a signal". There will be talk of evil men and tragic women, of not giving in to vice, of "why understand when you should just condemn?". As usual, Britons will find every tiny fault in more sensible regimes in France, Germany and the Netherlands.

The root cause of the appalling risk run by prostitutes on the streets is hard drugs. The law ignores "nicer" women who rely on clubs and phone numbers. All those involved in the Ipswich tragedy cited their need for quick money to get expensive drugs. Papers and politicians telling them to "find a proper job" are as stupid as suggesting that a heroin dealer switch to burgundy or an Afghan poppy farmer "grow something else".

The Tories know that Britain's laws on drugs and prostitution make no sense. They can read multitudinous reports on how other countries are trying, unhysterically, to handle the menace of heroin and crack cocaine, and with greater success than Britain. They know that drugs prohibition has failed, while the more thoughtful ones know that the market must be legalised to reduce harm. Yet they are silent, while their spokesman, David Davis, castigates libertarians who want "prostitution and drugs reform".

One of many reasons for not subsidising national parties is that it will further encourage them to ignore the public and live in the lap of the national press. The press, especially the popular tabloids, is institutionally illiberal. But it comes round to reform in the end. The tabloids no longer scream against homosexuality and divorce, indeed they celebrate both. They no longer demand capital punishment and a ban on abortion. They occasionally show a grain of human sympathy. A feature of the Ipswich murders has been the portrayal of the victims as real people trapped in appalling predicaments. The Mirror, Express and News of the World have penetrated beyond "it's all their fault" to accept that their horror is a direct result of failed laws on drugs and prostitution.

A combination of Blair's war on terror and the mechanisation of central government has made the past decade a dreadful one for civil liberty. The one libertarian cause David Cameron has espoused, opposition to identity cards, was dismissed by Blair as led by "civil liberties lobbyists". He prefers different lobbyists for his one true liberalising measure, easier access to alcohol.

This week the health secretary, Patricia Hewitt, was forced to concede that intimate medical records will not be compulsorily entered on her £6bn national computer. She tried to claim that only a certified madman could want to keep his records private from a machine she knows will be open to every hacker (and insurer). When a computer salesman tells me, "Oh, my system is secure," I feel like betting him a million pounds against a Bangalore teenager. The French health computer is purely voluntary and cost £600m.

Where in all this are the Tories? They could have killed both the NHS and the Home Office computer projects, along with a dozen other crashing wastes of money, by declaring that they would cancel the contracts on taking office. They could have exposed the government's emasculation of National Audit Office reports on the computers.

The Tories could tell us exactly what a modern Conservative means by a free society, and list the regulations and restrictions they intend to repeal in their bonfire of controls. They could seize the moment of the Ipswich headlines by declaring their determination to end counter-productive bans on consensual crime. Merely preaching an end to government interference in the private affairs of citizens is hypocritical if, when case after case comes along, Cameron funks mentioning it for fear of the press.

The control freak always has the best tunes. Murmur a relaxation and some regulator will howl that "hundreds will die" if he loses his job. I am sure many will say of the Ipswich murders that they show how right Britain was to crack down on hard drugs and prostitution. They will cry with Oscar Wilde, "I don't like principles: I prefer prejudices," unless a prejudice affects them personally (as it did him). Margaret Thatcher voted for corporal and capital punishment but for legalising homosexuality and abortion because of "my own experience of other people's suffering". Thus whimsically are we ruled.

If the Tories spend every day dancing attendance on the tabloids, they will get absolutely nowhere with wavering voters. If oppositions, especially those professing an aversion to an overwhelming state, cannot see how specifically to curb it, who will? Changing laws on prostitution and drugs in response to the Ipswich murders might be a headline-grabbing, kneejerk response. Libertarian beggars can't always be choosers.


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