The Howard Rule: A Modest Proposal

I’d like to propose a simple test for all proposed Lib Dem policy, one that should be incredibly easy to meet, but which is increasingly difficult to persuade people of:

If the proposed policy is less liberal than the one in place when Michael Howard was in the Home Office, the policy gets thrown out.

For those who don’t remember, Michael Howard was the Home Secretary when John Major was Prime Minister in the late 1990s. He was, at the time, almost certainly the most horrifically authoritarian person ever to have that job, and he famously introduced things like restrictions on the right to freedom of assembly, the end to the unqualified right to silence when arrested, and attempted to ban raves (leading to definitions banning the public playing of music with “repetitive beats”). He was also Conservative leader in the 2005 General Election, when the Tories had a poster campaign which was widely condemned by all sides as being racist dogwhistling. He was, in every way, the antithesis of liberalism.

Unfortunately, that “antithesis of liberalism” definition also applies to almost everyone who has held the post of Home Secretary or Shadow Home Secretary since him, for both Labour and Conservative parties alike. David Blunkett, Jack Straw, and Theresa May in particular have all done their level best to push the country as close as they could to outright fascism.

And so this means that centrists — as distinct from actual liberals — have been positioning themselves between two wings of illiberalism rather than taking liberal stands. And as the Lib Dems contain both centrists and liberals, what tends to happen in the party is that the party’s policy is a compromise between centrists and liberals. As the centre gets pushed further to the right, so then does the party policy, with people still defending it because, as a compromise between liberalism and the authoritarian centre, it’s still more liberal than the current authoritarian centre.

It’s just so horrifically right-wing that anyone told about it twenty years ago would have assumed it came from the BNP rather than from a party that considered civil liberties important.

Take the proposed immigration policy that the party will debate in a couple of weeks. Now, the policy is certainly more liberal than the current situation, and more liberal than the current policies of Labour or the Tories, but is it actually liberal? Well, an actually liberal policy would be more liberal than Michael Howard’s immigration policy, wouldn’t it?

So, let’s look at the situation that the party wants to have for people who marry a foreigner. The following is the situation that would be in place if the changes in the policy paper and motion, and only those changes, were brought in,

What they want is, once the couple are married, for the British person to prove that they have the ability to support the foreigner without claiming any benefits — so, for example, a ban on love for any disabled person who falls in love with a foreigner. Then their spouse has to live here on a temporary visa, which they have to pay exorbitant costs for (currently in the multiple thousands of pounds).

They have to live on that temporary visa for five years, and during that time if they become unable to work they can’t claim benefits — and if their partner is also unable to work, well, they’ll just have to survive on one person’s benefits, not two (and this is the most generous interpretation of a policy which in fact bars the British person from claiming many benefits too). After five years they have to pay more money to take a test, which they need to pass. Having taken that test, they can then claim indefinite leave to remain, which currently costs £2389 (there is talk in the policy paper of looking in to reducing this cost, but no commitment to actually reduce it). That allows you to live here, and (finally) claim benefits, but not to have the same rights as a citizen.

Then, after another year and another fee (currently £1330, again there’s talk of maybe possibly maybe looking at possibly reducing this a little possibly, but no commitment to actually do so) you can become a citizen — though you still don’t have *all* the rights of a natural-born citizen, as the Home Secretary still has the power to remove your citizenship.

This is the current situation, and it’s also the situation if the current policy paper was brought into force. The only actual change it commits to bringing in is a change from a de jure minimum income for the British spouse to the old system of a de facto one. To show how much difference that makes in practice, the current minimum income for the British spouse is £18000. Under the system that applied in 2006 when I married my American wife, where there was no legal minimum income but, as in this policy, you still had to prove that you could support your spouse, I was advised that if I was earning less than £15000 a year I wouldn’t be considered able to support her.

So, that’s the system that this paper claims to be liberal. Now, let’s look at the system under Michael Howard — the system, in fact, under the first two years of Jack Straw as Home Secretary as well. The system that was in place up until nineteen years ago.

In that system, if you got married to a British person you were entitled to claim benefits from day one. There was no necessity for your British spouse to be able to support you. (that changed in 1999) You got indefinite leave to remain after a year, automatically. There was no fee for it, and no test, until 2003. You could apply for citizenship after another year. The fee in 1996 was £120. That was a *decrease* on the 1991 fee of £135, because “some changes are necessary in order to meet the Government’s policy of recovering no more than the cost of processing citizenship applications.”

So, in other words, the immigration policy being put in front of the party at the moment is slightly more liberal than Theresa May, and also more liberal than the current Labour party. But it’s only slightly more liberal than them, slightly *less* liberal than the system under David Blunkett (where the fees and tests existed but you only had to wait two years for ILR), much less liberal than the system under Jack Straw (who introduced the rule that you couldn’t claim benefits but didn’t bring in fees or tests), and so much less liberal than the system under Michael Howard that if, during the mid-90s Tory government, you had shown anyone with any awareness of politics these proposals, they would have assumed you were an actual fascist.

So how has this happened? It’s happened because, for decades, liberals (small-l, as there are people with liberal views in many political parties) have been compromising with the far right, while the far right haven’t been budging. If you agree to meet someone half way, and they don’t move, the correct response is to go back to your original position. Instead, we’ve been moving half way again, and again, and again, and the far right haven’t been moving at all.

The biggest argument within the Lib Dems at the moment is one that’s largely going unspoken — it’s whether, given the tiny share of the vote we currently have, our main aim should be to get more Lib Dem MPs again, or whether it should be to try to get liberal legislation enacted, however many MPs we have.

Now, obviously, in an ideal world we would have both. And I happen to believe that in the medium term compromises that get a small short-term boost under the FPTP system will hollow out a party and get rid of even the few MPs we have, while sticking to our principles would bring electoral results.

But if we *do* have to choose one or the other, I’ll choose getting liberal legislation passed over getting illiberal Lib Dem MPs every time. And we know that that strategy can work. The last time we were reduced to such a small Parliamentary rump, in the 40s, 50s, and 60s, the party essentially acted as a think-tank for the larger parties. At that time, then-radical Liberal ideas like introducing the NHS, legalising homosexual acts between consenting men, and getting rid of capital punishment became mainstream, thanks to big-l Liberals working with small-l liberals in other parties. Indeed several of those small-l liberals later became big-l Lib Dems, most notably Roy Jenkins.

The Liberals back then punched significantly above their weight, because they were a party of radical new ideas.

Now, on the other hand, we’re achieving nothing in terms of national politics (though there are many good Liberals at the local level improving people’s lives on councils up and down the country). And the reason for that is that we’re scared of taking a strong position on anything. We’re the party of lazy compromise.

Meanwhile, you know who has been punching *way* above their weight? UKIP. They have, in total, had one MP get elected at a general election — an incumbent former-Tory defector who quit the party less than two years later — in their entire history. Yet their entire policy programme has been taken up by both Labour and the Tories, and more of it than most of us would like to admit by the Lib Dems.

And the reason for this is that they have always stated, very clearly and simply, that they wanted to leave the EU, that their preferred method for doing so was by a referendum, and that after doing so they would cut immigration drastically or stop it altogether. They used whatever platform they had to hammer home those simple ideas, over and over and over again, not budging but making everyone else shift position closer to theirs.

We should do the same. We should stake out a simple, radical, liberal position, one that can ideally be summed up in a few simple slogans (policies should be more than slogans, but they should be able to be summed up in a slogan if you want to persuade people). “Tax the landlords, not the workers”, “Give everyone enough money to live on”, “Let people live where they like and marry who they like”, “stop Brexit because it’s fucking stupid”. Ideas like that will not necessarily help win over an extra three swing voters in North Norfolk, but they will help shape Britain into a more liberal society.

And by hammering home those ideas, and by having policy to match them, we might even once again get to the point where a Conservative government allows any immigrant who marries a British person to live here without any restrictions at all.

But we’ll only do that if we set out in that direction. So, once again, I suggest the Howard rule. Not as a final aspiration, but as a basic filter. If the Lib Dems can’t be more liberal than David Blunkett, Jack Straw, and Michael Howard, then who will?

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