Interview: Mark Littlewood

When I arrive at the offices of the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) to interview Mark Littlewood, they are a hive of activity. The IEA, a free-market think tank, was founded in 1955 after one of its founders, Anthony Fisher, became acquainted with the economist Friedrich Hayek. Fisher was eager to promote free-market ideas and came to Hayek to ask how he could do so. Hayek suggested that he should ignore politicians and instead reach out to intellectuals – and so the IEA was born.

Littlewood has been Director General of the think tank since December 2009, having worked in the past at the human rights group Liberty and as Head of Media for the Liberal Democrats. However, he began the “intellectual journey” which led him to become a libertarian when he was reading PPE at Balliol.

Talking about his Oxford experience, Littlewood is scathing of the politicised nature of the JCR at the time. “Part of it was preposterous. You know, let us write to the President of Guatemala pledging solidarity or something, which I thought was a complete waste of time– a waste of a stamp. It was frivolous, stupid, sixth form debating society stuff.” Bearing this in mind, I ask whether he saw any joke candidates while he was at Oxford. “No, in my experience of Balliol JCR elections, they were pretty damn serious. Turnout for the JCR presidential election was something like 80 per cent – it was higher than for a general election. It was an enormously politicised environment.”

Littlewood is unusual amongst political commentators for wanting a higher rate of government cuts. He argues if the public were aware of the extent of state spending, they would want to reduce it. “If you look back at the UK during our highest period of growth, the state accounted for about 10 per cent of GDP in Victorian times. The former Soviet Union, most economists agree, had a state sector which accounted for about 70 per cent of national income. In broad terms, we were touching 50 percent. Now, we’re in the mid to high forties. So we have decided we want a state sector that is slightly closer in size to the Soviet Union than the fastest growing economies in the world.”

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“If most people knew that the state accounted for about half of what we’re spending in Britain, they would be horrified and it does seem to me that the basic essentials, including a welfare safety net, can be provided for a proportion of what we’re presently spending.”

He does not suggest the state should be unexpectedly cut tomorrow. “I don’t think you can suddenly announce the abolishment of the state pension system.” He continues, “I would want to return to the core principles of the Beveridge Report: that welfare should be aimed at a subsistence level and in normal circumstances be temporary.”

This remains a minority view, but it is becoming increasingly popular. I raise with him the extent of the growth of libertarianism in the UK. “It does seem to have been growing, and we’ve been doing everything we can to marshal that support and not steer it, as such, but make sure it is resourced.” The number of ways the IEA has contributed to this growth is impressive. The IEA spends about a quarter of its income on student outreach. This ranges from giving out free copies of Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom to helping establish the Liberty League (a confederation of Hayek and freedom societies). The IEA also funds the Freedom Forum, a gathering for undergraduates who are involved in Hayek societies. “The first one, three or four years ago, was attended by about 70 or 80 people. I think last year’s was attended by about 200 people and at the one this year, we’re expecting about 350 people.” Reflecting on this success, he says, “I think I’d be much less lonely on campus, if I was at Oxford today, than I was in the early 1990s.”

Littlewood sees the role of the IEA as providing “the intellectual equipment” to facilitate the growth of this movement. “Whether they become MPs, journalists, businessmen, authors, filmmakers or whatever – my view is that we need libertarians everywhere. We’ve got to find the brightest and the best young people who are on our side and give them every source of encouragement in their careers and in their intellectual thinking.” This is quite a risky strategy for a think tank to pursue, because it does not yield easily measurable results.

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I ask him whether he sees the emergence of UKIP as part of this trend. He says that, strictly speaking, the answer is no. “Their broad instincts on the economy are in a free market direction – I don’t know whether they will stick with the flat tax idea, but their instincts are in the direction of a much smaller state. They are particularly impressive in the area of lifestyle freedoms. They have cornered the market in being pro-freedom to smoke, drink or rock ‘n’ roll. Farage himself is practically a libertarian. I think you have to distinguish the leader from the party. I know some people say they are one and the same; I don’t buy that. Farage himself is unambiguously the most libertarian mainstream politician in Britain – I mean he wants to end the war on drugs.”

Littlewood is as much a social libertarian as he is an economic libertarian. He recalls speaking at the youth conference of UKIP and saying something he suspected would get him booed. “I went and said, I think you’re wrong on immigration. Why should the state control people’s movement? You believe in the free movement of capital and don’t believe in the introduction of exchange controls. But why do you think, when it suddenly comes to the free movement of labour, that there should be a state imposed cap?” The reaction he got was the opposite to what he had expected. “I think Young Independence, the youth wing of UKIP are very libertarian leaning. There is a good chance UKIP will emerge as a fully-fledged, classical liberal party.”

It remains to be seen whether Littlewood and the IEA’s strategy to expand libertarianism in the UK will succeed. “We’re probably going to have to wait two decades, before we start shifting the climate of opinion”, he says. Regardless, Littlewood remains optimistic.

“It’s extremely unlikely that I’ll be the Director General when the rewards of these efforts are reaped. But it’s a crucial thing for think tanks to do – whether of our orientation or not.”