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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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Rarely has it mattered so little if Manchester United won; rarely has it been so special they did

Team's Europa League victory offers chance for sorely needed celebration of a city's spirit.

Carlo Ancelotti, the Bayern Munich manager, memorably once said that football is “the most important of the least important things”, but he was only partly right. While it is absolutely the case that a bunch of people chasing around a field is insignificant, a bunch of people chasing around a field is not really what football is about.

At a football match can you set aside the strictures that govern real life and freely scream, shout and cuddle strangers. Football tracks life with such unfailing omnipresence, garnishing the mundane with regular doses of drama and suspense; football is amazing, and even when it isn’t there’s always the possibility that it’s about to be.

Football bestows primal paroxysms of intense, transcendent ecstasy, shared both with people who mean everything and people who mean nothing. Football carves out time for people it's important to see and delivers people it becomes important to see. Football is a structure with folklore, mythology, language and symbols; being part of football is being part of something big, special, and eternal. Football is the best thing in the world when things go well, and still the best thing in the world when they don’t. There is nothing remotely like it. Nothing.

Football is about community and identity, friends and family; football is about expression and abandon, laughter and song; football is about love and pride. Football is about all the beauty in the world.

And the world is a beautiful place, even though it doesn’t always seem that way – now especially. But in the horror of terror we’ve seen amazing kindness, uplifting unity and awesome dignity which is the absolute point of everything.

In Stockholm last night, 50,000 or so people gathered for a football match, trying to find a way of celebrating all of these things. Around town before the game the atmosphere was not as boisterous as usual, but in the ground the old conviction gradually returned. The PA played Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds, an Ajax staple with lyrics not entirely appropriate: there is plenty about which to worry, and for some every little thing is never going to be alright.

But somehow the sentiment felt right and the Mancunian contingent joined in with gusto, following it up with “We’ll never die,” – a song of defiance born from the ashes of the Munich air disaster and generally aired at the end of games, often when defeat is imminent. Last night it was needed from the outset, though this time its final line – “we’ll keep the red flag flying high, coz Man United will never die" – was not about a football team but a city, a spirit, and a way of life. 

Over the course of the night, every burst of song and even the minute's silence chorused with that theme: “Manchester, Manchester, Manchester”; “Manchester la la la”; “Oh Manchester is wonderful”. Sparse and simple words, layered and complex meanings.

The match itself was a curious affair. Rarely has it mattered so little whether or not United won; rarely has it been so special that they did. Manchester United do not represent or appeal to everyone in Manchester but they epitomise a similar brilliance to Manchester, brilliance which they take to the world. Brilliance like youthfulness, toughness, swagger and zest; brilliance which has been to the fore these last three days, despite it all.

Last night they drew upon their most prosaic aspects, outfighting and outrunning a willing but callow opponent to win the only trophy to have eluded them. They did not make things better, but they did bring happiness and positivity at a time when happiness and positivity needed to be brought; football is not “the most important of the least important things,” it is the least important of the most important things.

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