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Brexit was a libertarian dream. It has become a statist one

Theresa May has embraced government as the vehicle to control markets and borders. 

At the beginning of her first address to the Conservative conference, Theresa May flashed a smile at those watching above. She adores Tory activists and they adore her. After the strained relations of the Cameron years, Conservative members have got their party back. Every mention of EU withdrawal was raucously cheered, just as “socialism” was at Labour’s gathering.

Brexit was a dream born on the Conservatives’ fringes. Its proponents, such as Daniel Hannan and Douglas Carswell, were economic liberals and fiscal conservatives. The post-EU Britain they envisioned would tax less, spend less and borrow less.

But policy is not evolving in that direction. Brexit was once heralded by the right, and dreaded by the left, as an opportunity to cast off social legislation. International Development secretary Priti Patel said during the referendum: “If we could just halve the burden [of legislation]. . . we could deliver a £4.3bn boost to our economy and 60,000 new jobs.”

But far from reducing workers’ rights, May is intent on expanding them. David Cameron chose the venture capitalist Adrian Beecroft to lead a review of employment law. May has appointed the former Labour adviser Matthew Taylor. For the Prime Minister, the Leave vote was not merely a mandate to exit from the EU but to reshape domestic policy. Ideas such as worker representation on company boards, stricter controls on foreign takeovers and tougher limits on executive pay are designed to address the economic grievances which underlay the referendum result.

Philip Hammond is described as “dry as dust” by cabinet colleagues. But the Chancellor also exemplified this interventionist turn. He abandoned George Osborne’s budget surplus rule in order to borrow for investment. Though the former Chancellor frequently missed his targets he never did so for this explicit purpose. Hammond’s announcement is a greater concession to fiscal activism.The UK has not run a budget surplus since 2001-02. In this era of mediocre growth, it may never do so again.

The Conservatives’ more statist direction did not originate with May. Their 2015 manifesto opened with the Beveridgean declaration: “We have a plan for every stage of your life”. The living wage, the apprenticeship levy and the “sugar tax” all testified to Osborne’s interventionist instincts.

But a confluence of forces has accelerated this trend. May has long been more pragmatic than many of her doctrinaire colleagues. Her conservatism owes more to French Gaullists and German Christian Democrats than American Reaganites. Rather than the market, the state is revered as the vehicle for advancing national greatness.

The economic uncertainty triggered by the Leave vote has made greater interventionism unavoidable. Many fear that the process of withdrawal will progressively erode foreign investment and consumer spending. As during the financial crisis, it will fall to the state to act as a spender of last resort. Hammond’s declaration that he will take “whatever steps are necessary” to protect the economy from “turbulence” signalled as much. State aid for distressed firms and part-nationalisations could follow. The emergency interventions that followed the 2008 crash ended the taboo over activist government.

May’s signal that the UK will leave the single market, in order to control the free movement of people, has intensified the pre-existing tremors. When Britain withdraws from the EU by March 2019 it will likely do so without having secured a new trade agreement (as Whitehall has warned the Prime Minister). Under this scenario, unless it negotiates temporary membership of the single market, the UK would be forced to accept the restoration of tariffs on goods. The consequent economic shock would imperil the “just managing” families whom May has championed. If the market cannot provide for them, the government will be forced to.

Some Conservatives cite a further reason for their party’s interventionist direction: Jeremy Corbyn. Labour’s leftwards trajectory has made hitherto “radical” policies (such as workers on boards) appear increasingly moderate. “Corbyn has moved the Overton window,” a Tory MP told me in reference to the spectrum of politically acceptable ideas. Any further borrowing announced by Hammond in the Autumn Statement on 23 November will appear modest compared to Labour’s proposed £500bn fund.

But Tory free marketeers have been muted – and not only because many are absorbed by the task of Brexit. “The government is a bit more interventionist than I would be,” James Cleverly MP told me. “But we live in a democracy where we need buy-in from the British people for our policy agenda. What we’re seeing globally is people who feel that free market capitalism is not working for them and they are smashing up the shop. I don’t fancy this particular shop being smashed up.” Just as Labour MPs such as Chuka Umunna and Rachel Reeves have turned against the free movement of people, so their Tory counterparts are reassessing the free movement of capital.

In her 1988 Bruges speech, one of the hallowed texts of Tory euroscepticism, Margaret Thatcher vowed: “We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain only to see them reimposed at a European level.” The UK will now acquire the control that Thatcher craved. But Brussels’ social frontiers will be reimposed domestically.

Free marketeers can lament their failure. But they know the tide of ideas is against them. The referendum would never have been won on a platform of open markets and open borders. May’s government is intent on controlling both. Brexit was a libertarian dream. It has become a statist one.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Meet Anne Marie Waters - the Ukip politician too extreme for Nigel Farage

In January 2016, Waters launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). 

There are few people in British political life who can be attacked from the left by Nigel Farage. Yet that is where Anne Marie Waters has found herself. And by the end of September she could well be the new leader of Ukip, a party almost synonymous with its beer-swilling, chain-smoking former leader.

Waters’s political journey is a curious one. She started out on the political left, but like Oswald Mosley before her, has since veered dramatically to the right. That, however, is where the similarities end. Waters is Irish, agnostic, a lesbian and a self-proclaimed feminist.

But it is her politics – rather than who she is – that have caused a stir among Ukip’s old guard. Former leader Paul Nuttall has said that her views make him “uncomfortable” while Farage has claimed Ukip is “finished” if, under her leadership, it becomes an anti-Islam party.

In her rhetoric, Waters echoes groups such as the English Defence League (EDL) and Britain First. She has called Islam “evil” and her leadership manifesto claims that the religion has turned Britain into a “fearful and censorious society”. Waters wants the banning of the burqa, the closure of all sharia councils and a temporary freeze on all immigration.

She started life in Dublin before moving to Germany in her teens to work as an au pair. Waters also lived in the Netherlands before returning to Britain to study journalism at Nottingham Trent University, graduating in 2003. She subsequently gained a second degree in law. It was then, she says, that she first learnt about Islam, which she claims treats women “like absolute dirt”. Now 39, Waters is a full-time campaigner who lives in Essex with her two dogs and her partner who is an accountant.

Waters’s first spell of serious activism was with the campaign group One Law for All, a secularist organisation fronted by the Iranian feminist and human rights activist Maryam Namazie. Waters resigned in November 2013 after four years with the organisation. According to Namazie, Waters left due to political disagreements over whether the group should collaborate with members of far-right groups.

In April 2014, Waters founded Sharia Watch UK and, in January 2016, she launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). The group was established as a British chapter of the German-based organisation and was set up to counter what it called the “Islamisation of our countries”. By the summer of 2016, it had petered out.

Waters twice stood unsuccessfully to become a Labour parliamentary candidate. Today, she says she could not back Labour due to its “betrayal of women” and “betrayal of the country” over Islam. After joining Ukip in 2014, she first ran for political office in the Lambeth council election, where she finished in ninth place. At the 2015 general election, Waters stood as the party’s candidate in Lewisham East, finishing third with 9.1 per cent of the vote. She was chosen to stand again in the 2016 London Assembly elections but was deselected after her role in Pegida UK became public. Waters was also prevented from standing in Lewisham East at the 2017 general election after Ukip’s then-leader Nuttall publicly intervened.

The current favourite of the 11 candidates standing to succeed Nuttall is deputy leader Peter Whittle, with Waters in second. Some had hoped the party’s top brass would ban her from standing but last week its national executive approved her campaign.

Due to an expected low turnout, the leadership contest is unpredictable. Last November, Nuttall was elected with just 9,622 votes. More than 1,000 new members reportedly joined Ukip in a two-week period earlier this year, prompting fears of far-right entryism.

Mike Hookem MEP has resigned as Ukip’s deputy whip over Waters’ candidacy, saying he would not “turn a blind eye” to extremism. By contrast, chief whip, MEP Stuart Agnew, is a supporter and has likened her to Joan of Arc. Waters is also working closely on her campaign with Jack Buckby, a former BNP activist and one of the few candidates to run against Labour in the by-election for Jo Cox’s former seat of Batley and Spen. Robinson is another backer.

Peculiarly for someone running to be the leader of a party, Waters does not appear to relish public attention. “I’m not a limelight person,” she recently told the Times. “I don’t like being phoned all the time.”

The journalist Jamie Bartlett, who was invited to the initial launch of Pegida UK in Luton in 2015, said of Waters: “She failed to remember the date of the demo. Her head lolled, her words were slurred, and she appeared to almost fall asleep while Tommy [Robinson] was speaking. After 10 minutes it all ground to an uneasy halt.”

In an age when authenticity is everything, it would be a mistake to underestimate yet another unconventional politician. But perhaps British Muslims shouldn’t panic about Anne Marie Waters just yet.

James Bloodworth is editor of Left Foot Forward

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear