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‘It’s pretty much totally unprecedented.’ Anton Howes, a 21-year-old undergraduate student at King’s College London, is referring to the rapid rise of the pro-freedom organisation Liberty League on campuses across the UK. Howes and a group of fellow students launched Liberty League 18 months ago.
For decades, university students in Britain who wanted to change the world often had little more than a handful of left-wing groups to sign up to. And, as time has gone on, these radical groups have become more and more outdated and divorced from political reality. Left-wing student associations are now more likely to call for state intervention into people’s lives, embrace the welfare state and demand fewer cuts, rather than fundamentally challenging the state’s role.
Howes recognises this phenomenon. ‘People are sick of seeing tonnes and tonnes of Socialist Workers Party or Marxist groups hounding them on tables outside campus all the time, posting fliers and posters everywhere. They think “well, I don’t agree with this”. Students want to see an alternative group on campus that has pro-liberty ideas.’
Howes, like an entrepreneur, explains that the reason for establishing the Liberty League was a case of supply and demand: ‘There’s a growing demand for an end to interference in people’s lives. More and more people are getting annoyed with the state, but they might not necessarily pin it on the state at the start.’ This is where Liberty League comes in. ‘What you need’, Howes continues, ‘is the infrastructure of a group of people that say “well here’s your problem”’.
The demand for such a group is coming from a mix of students, says Howes, who place themselves all over the traditional political spectrum, from left-wing anarchists to young conservatives. Liberty League now has 30 active student societies on campuses across the UK and it is rising all the time.
One enthusiastic Liberty League supporter is Gabrielle Shiner, a young American studying at Queen Mary, University of London. Shiner recounts: ‘When I got to the UK I couldn’t really find any student group to join. It was really disheartening for libertarian students. And then Anton, who I’d never heard of, started tweeting asking me if I was looking to get involved in something and I was really excited about that.’
Howes and Shiner both say that they are neither left-wing nor right-wing. Instead, they prefer to call themselves ‘libertarian’. ‘Right now what unites us all [at Liberty League] is we are all working towards having small state where people can live more independent lives and where power is given back to the individual’, says Shiner. ‘That’s the fundamental principle that everyone wants to see realised.’
Both of the students recount frustrating experiences of being wrongly pigeonholed. ‘People automatically throw us next to the Tory group on campus before they’ve even interacted with us or spoken to us’, says Shiner. ‘A lot of people think we’re just the really extreme Tories, which is totally bizarre to me.’
Shiner has, however, found that right-leaning students are more open to discussions on campus than some left-wing ones are: ‘When I send invites for debates to the socialist societies, they just aren’t really willing to engage with them’, she says. ‘It’s really hard to strike up a conversation and I really want my events to be about debate. I don’t want to be in a room with the people who already agree with me. What’s the point of having a student society if you’re not engaging with - and challenging - ideas?’
Liberty League campaigners have been experimenting with different initiatives to try to open up debate around freedom issues. One such experiment was the Freedom Wall, established by Shiner and her friends at Queen Mary. They persuaded the student union to let them erect a 16ft-long wall where, over the course of a week, students could write whatever they liked.
The Free Speech Wall on the Queen Mary, University of London campus.
‘A lot of campuses in America have set up Freedom Walls, but it hadn’t been done in Europe before’, Shiner explains. But setting one up wasn’t without its problems. ‘I spoke to my student union and they were like “oh but someone might write something racist on it, you can’t do that!”’ Shiner didn’t give up and after a lot of discussion eventually got the green light.
While some of the messages posted on the wall were banal, Shiner found it served its purpose. ‘When discussing it some people made some weird connections, saying things like “If you support free speech and you support being able to question all ideas, then that means you support Islamophobia”. That’s absolutely ridiculous, but that’s the kind of attitude a lot of students had. Illogical conclusions were being drawn, but the positive thing was that it started up a conversation among people about what free speech means.’
There are now plans to set up Freedom Walls on other campuses and Liberty League has several other campaigns in the pipeline, too. Howes is excited about a forthcoming campaign to challenge the increasing obsession with putting health warnings on food, drink and tobacco.
However, Liberty League is defined mostly by a strong belief in holding lively, no-holds-barred debates. Shiner will shortly be organising a public debate in London entitled ‘Libertarians and Marxists: Friends or Foes?’. At the end of this month, they are organising a national conference, the Liberty League Freedom Forum, which is supported by spiked. There will be discussions on everything from Ancient Greek conceptions of freedom to free speech at football matches and free-market environmentalism.
In stark contrast to the Occupy movement, which eschews aims and demands, the Liberty Leaguers have a clear sense of what they want to achieve. ‘The ultimate aim is to have a Liberty League, or associated group, on every campus in the UK’, says Howes. ‘In five years’ time I want our conference to have 1,000 participants.’ Speaking more broadly about what he calls the ‘liberty movement’, Howes rules out the idea of moving into party politics: ‘In 10 years’ time, it should be a kind of constituency - big enough and powerful enough so that during student elections and local and general elections, those running for posts and office will be asking themselves “how do I keep the libertarians happy with this policy or that policy?”. That’s the dream.’
Shiner has set her sights on helping to organise the liberty movement internationally. She is a supporter of the Students For Liberty organisation in the US, which has gone from having 100 people at their founding conference four years ago, to attracting over 1,000 people at their conference in Washington this February.
After graduating, Shiner plans to dedicate her time to building European Students For Liberty, which she is on the board of, and the nascent student liberty movement in Africa. But she recognises a lot of misconceptions about libertarians need to be nipped in the bud as the movement develops. ‘As a libertarian, you’re told all the time that you’re horrible and immoral, that you want to kill poor people and don’t care about equality, women’s rights and racism. Nothing could be further from the truth.’
Shiner believes that the idea that people need the state to help them make their way in life urgently needs to be challenged. ‘People aren’t stupid. Look at what we have achieved and still achieve despite everything we’re up against. The idea that people aren’t capable of achieving anything and that they’re all just going to starve to death and die with less state support - that’s ridiculous. People are incredibly innovative and creative, especially when you have a culture that promotes and supports independence, rather than undercutting people’s ability to make something of themselves… So much of libertarianism is about respecting the potential of humanity. It’s about a love for what our potential is and about wanting to see individuals and societies flourish. So it’s the exact opposite of trying to favour a small handful of people. It’s the belief that every individual has those capabilities.’
Such words should set alarm bells ringing among the tired, left-wing student groups currently colonising political activities on campuses in the UK and beyond. With such genuinely radical arguments being made by campaigners calling for less state interference into our lives, traditional left-wing groups may well find their longstanding monopoly on student politics is coming to an end.
Patrick Hayes is a reporter for spiked. Visit his personal website here. Follow him on Twitter @p_hayes. He will be speaking at the Liberty League Freedom Forum, taking place between March 30 - April 1 2012.