Matt Ridley of The Times can generally be relied to write nonsense, which is maybe not surprising as his late father Nicholas Ridley never said much that wasn’t nonsense. Ridley pere’s ideological loyalty to Margaret Thatcher did not save his political career as the gaffes mounted up and she decided he had to go. Father and son Ridley both considered themselves libertarians and in an overexcited piece last week Ridley fils was enthusing about the battle of ideas gripping the Conservative Party now that the new cabinet was full of libertarians of a Ridleyite bent. To be honest ideas are not the first thing that springs to mind when I think about the likes of Priti Patel and Gavin Williamson but I dare say the bar for qualifying as an intellectual has fallen somewhat in Brexit Britain, maybe not low enough for Andrea Leadsom to qualify but you get the pcture.
It is in the context of libertarianism and the Tory party that I want to talk about sex work. There is an arguable libertarian position on sex work, and I heard it put across cogently by an Institute of Economic Affairs representative in a TV debate on sex work a couple of years ago. It goes like this. The agreement between a sex worker and their client to have sex with an agreed sum of money changing hands, is a private commercial transaction between two adults. It is no business of the state and the state should not seek to interfere in what is essentially a private matter, on the basis of moral judgements about what people choose to do with their own bodies. We might, therefore, expect a libertarian dominated Conservative party to support decriminalisation.
But scratch a right-wing libertarian and you often find an authoritarian not far below the service. The Conservative Human Rights Commisson published a report two weeks ago advocating the introduction of the so-called Nordic Model in the UK. It was as if all that has been said and argued over the last few years on the subject of sex work and the law had passed them by. They did not speak to academics who specialise in the field (maybe not too surprising when most Tory MPs these days seem to think they know better than experts). Nor did they trouble to seek the views of those who actually do know better then the academics, that is the sex workers themselves. I won’t go into the report in detail you can read well informed refutations of the arguments here and here.
It wasn’t always this way in the Tory party. Some years ago, when Labour MEP Mary Honeyball was advocating for client criminalisation on the European stage, she was opposed by a group of British Conservative MEPs, one of whom followed me on Twitter for a while. But I don’t need to remind you that the days of British Conservatives doing anything constructive in Europe are gone, probably for ever.
Tory libertarianism is liberty for the rich. It means control for the rest of us, and for those at the bottom, as most sex workers are, engaging in survival sex work just to keep a roof over their heads, it means being stigmatised and placed beyond the protection of the law. The fundamental question is not addressed. How are exiting sex workers to make a living? The report mentions the alleged success of the zero tolerance approach of Ipswich as opposed to the managed tolerance zones of Leeds without mentioning the key reason for that success. which is that money has been made available to support sex workers who want to exit. I can’t see that this is likely to become a widespread strategy. Many sex workers would quit tomorrow if they could. I fear, however, that libertarian Brexit Britain is unlikely to give them the opportunity.