Libertarians of the world unite: you have nothing to lose but your credibility (2012), Searchlight

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Libertarians of the world unite: you have nothing to lose but your credibility
Published on Saturday, 01 December 2012 18:26 in Searchlight Magazine
Written by Mark Pitchford

There is something superficially appealing about libertarianism. Its obvious derivation from ‘liberty’ makes people comfortable being described as a libertarian. Indeed, libertarians’ advocacy of free speech, freedom of association and permissive attitudes towards sexuality resonate both with long-established rights and a more tolerant Britain in which institutionalised bigotry has little traction. Investigate a little further, however, and the libertarian position looks less comforting and more like a fig leaf for closet racists.

On 20 October, Sean Gabb addressed a conference in London held by the Traditional Britain Group. Gabb is a director of the Libertarian Alliance (although why libertarians need direction is an obvious question). He holds a PhD in Political and Intellectual History, has published numerous books and reports, and worked as a political adviser to the Slovak Prime Minister. Gabb is, therefore, far more impressive than the run-of-the-mill rightwing demagogues and would-be führers that emerge with depressing frequency in Britain. His association with the Libertarian Alliance spans four decades, during which Gabb advocated drug legalisation, and supported gay marriage and the right of gay couples to adopt. Most consistent in this time is his defence of freedom of speech. Gabb is also, therefore, no political dilettante.

What Gabb said at the conference, however, revealed the limitations of his libertarianism. In making a contrast between pre and post-1914 Britain, Gabb argued that democracy before 1914 “was not necessary, as the oligarchy of hereditary landlords who ruled England had absolutely identified itself with the nation. Every interest group had its place within the nation, and there was a place for all.” Thereafter, Gabb called for a revolution that would result in the destruction of the BBC and its staff “thrown into the street” with their pensions, presumably accrued within the terms of a freely agreed contract, removed, and the closure of “anything to do with health and safety … and child protection”. It would seem, therefore, that Gabb’s libertarianism does not extend retrospectively to those whose liberty was circumscribed by “the oligarchy”, or to those who have chosen to serve their fellow citizens by working in the public sector. In contrast, this libertarianism appears to extend to current and future employers whose cavalier attitude could limit severely their employees’ lives and, astonishingly, those who harm children. Clearly, Gabb’s libertarian principles favour the abuser over the abused. If anyone think this an exaggeration, they should consider Gabb’s call, in the wake of Gary Glitter’s child abuse case, for a limitation on the time that an abused child can take legal action against their abuser. I wonder what Dr Gabb thinks now that Jimmy Savile’s offences are public knowledge. As I write this, serendipity lends a hand: the BBC’s Ten O’Clock News announces that the police have charged Stuart Hall of It’s a Knockout fame with historic child-abuse offences.

For Gabb, England’s ills are the intended consequence of the actions of a ruling class that emerged after 1914. He describes this class as “the enemy”, of whom “we must smash it”. His remedy is a revolution of conservatives that would “create new structures of power”. Note that this is not quite the creation of avenues of discourse to foster freedom of speech. Admittedly, Gabb remembered he is a libertarian and added that alongside these new structures of power would be “safeguards against abuse of that power”. This, however, is window dressing. Who would operate these new structures of power? Would they include those who do not accord with Gabb’s views? Who would define and empower these safeguards, and why would a libertarian even want to construct new structures of power? Gabb did not address these issues.

Gabb’s omissions would not have been so disconcerting if this was as far as he went, but he went much further, touching on issues that have exercised the far right for decades. As a researcher of the far-right’s relationship with the Conservative Party, these comments particularly piqued my interest. First, Gabb commented on international organisations, making in the process a barely concealed implication of national betrayal. He argued that Britain’s post-1914 ruling elites have engaged on a campaign “to make power opaque and unaccountable by shifting it upwards to various multinational treaty organizations – e.g., the EU, WTO, NATO, etc.” These comments are similar to the conspiracy theories of many extreme-right individuals and groups who levelled charges of betrayal against successive post-1945 governments. These individuals and groups include the founder of the National Front, A. K. Chesterton, and arguably even The Britons Society, publishers of the antisemitic forgery The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion. [1] Gabb did not mention Jews whatsoever, and I make no accusation of antisemitism, but for a man with his qualifications these were careless comments that he should clarify.

Libertarian Alliance director Sean Gabb whose libertarianism appears to be limited

No ambiguity, however, applies to the other favourite issues of the far right that Gabb pronounced upon: immigration and race. He accused successive governments of “State-sponsored mass immigration”, and criticised them for “filling the country with people of different colours”. These views are in line with those expressed by various neo-Nazi groups of the 1950s such as the White Defence League, the National Front from 1967, and today’s British National Party and English Defence League. The contemporary far right have learned to hide their racism by cloaking their comments with the claim of defending liberal values. Gabb’s comments appear no different. He ignorantly ascribed to all non-white immigrants an intolerance of gender equality and homosexuality. If Gabb’s concerns are about over-crowding and bigotry, why not focus on numbers and geographically-specific culture rather than skin colour? Again, clarification is required.

Finally, as an academic with an interest in political ideas and intellectual concepts, Gabb might want to consider what many theorists of fascism will undoubtedly view as his most interesting comments. Gabb clearly sees pre-1914 England as a golden age. He argued that this period is central to “Our historic self-perception as English [because it] is based on the relationship between rulers and ruled that existed before 1914”. His objective is “a restored England” in which the “new order of things will restore the spirit of the old”, but not ‘a simple recreation’ of it. These views and objectives are the palingenetic ultra-nationalism that Roger Griffin has identified as the core of fascism. [2]

This is not to state that Gabb is a fascist. His comments might be those of an individual carried away by the approval of his audience, or simply careless, ignorant remarks. It is for Dr Gabb to clarify his position. What we can conclude, however, is that Gabb’s libertarianism is conditional on the topic under consideration, and does not apply to all humans. This conditionality questions strongly Gabb’s claim to be a libertarian.


[1] See Mark Pitchford, The Conservative Party and the extreme right 1945-75, MUP, Manchester (2011), index and passim.

[2] See, R. Griffin, ‘The Primacy of Culture: The Current Growth (or Manufacture) of Consensus within Fascist Studies, Journal of Contemporary History, 37, 1 (2002), 21-43, and R. Griffin, ‘The Concept that Came Out of the Cold: the Progressive Historicization of Generic Fascism and its New Relevance to Teaching Twentieth Century History’, History Compass, 1, 1 (2003).

Dr Mark Pitchford is a Senior Lecturer at Teesside University, and the British Fellow of the Radicalism and New Media Group at Northampton University.