In the wake of Brexit and the 2019 election when millions of working-class voters abandoned Labour for the Tories, there was much talk about a realignment of British politics. After years of right-wing economics and left-wing social reform, the new direction of travel would be “left on the economy” and “right on culture”. Gone were the days when both main parties offered little else than more market and greater individualism allied with a privatising, outsourcing state and less social solidarity. As prime minister, Boris Johnson declared the end of fiscal austerity and promised a generation of state-driven levelling up of “left behind” places. “F*** business” and “take back control” were the watchwords of this nascent post-liberal era.
Yet it was a false dawn, as I argued in these pages in February 2020. Johnson’s complacent boosterism undermined any efforts to build a new political consensus. Unable to define an overarching worldview, the self-styled “world king” oscillated between his instinctive socio-economic liberalism and his opportunistic embrace of big state intervention. Liz Truss’s libertarian experiment of simultaneous state subsidies and tax cuts exploded upon contact with reality. And Rishi Sunak, rather like Tony Blair, pursues a neo-Thatcherite strategy of “sound money” to unleash market forces and turn the UK into a technological superpower. We have repatriated powers from Brussels only to hand them to the wolves on Wall Street and the tech billionaires in Silicon Valley.
Most Tory Brexiteers have championed a buccaneering Britain of global free trade. Uncapping bankers’ bonuses to please the City of London could be considered the honour that vice pays to virtue, but it confirms the thesis that the Tories continue to defend the interest of capital. And just as their economics is ultra-liberal, their culture is illiberal. They wage culture wars on woke universities and against immigrants, when the economic model they favour relies on churning out countless graduates for City jobs and importing high-skill, low-wage labour. There is nothing conservative or compassionate about a Tory party whose immigration policy goes after families of Brits with foreign partners while appeasing the lobbyists for ever more international students and skilled workers from overseas. If anything unites the warring Tory tribes, it’s market nationalism when the realignment requires a tolerant patriotic politics of the common good.
But successive governments have hollowed out our sovereign parliament, sitting at the apex of an ecology of national institutions that includes the civil service, the courts, the BBC, schools and universities, all dominated by a managerial overclass. The alternative to demagogic populism therefore cannot be a soulless technocracy but rather what the American political thinker Michael Lind calls “democratic pluralism”, a “community of communities” in which state and market institutions serve the interests of persons organised in autonomous self-governing corporate bodies – from families and neighbourhoods to the workplace, free associations such as trade unions and faith communities. A new corporatism that reconciles estranged interests in a negotiated settlement, with the state brokering agreements between organised business and organised labour on wages and working conditions.
Faced with economic dislocation and cultural disruption, a pluralist democracy can provide a sense of stability and belonging, making people partners in power and giving a voice to those who “have skin in the game”. The future of a majority politics lies in binding together economic interests and cultural values around jobs that pay bills and provide meaning, decent and affordable housing, stable and neighbourly communities, besides an ambitious green transition that is aligned with the interests of working- and lower-middle class voters. As humans, we are embodied beings who are embedded in relationships and institutions and who have both material needs and a yearning for symbolic meaning. A politics that fuses economics with culture speaks to our human nature more than economic technocracy and cultural populism.
If the given identities and loyalties of a majority of people are ignored, along with their relatively – though not entirely – traditional attitudes towards the family, sex, gender and the nation, then democracy and liberalism tend to part company. This tension has upended liberal democracies in recent years in the UK, the United States, Italy and now the Netherlands, besides eastern Europe. The alternative to this dangerous state of affairs is a post-liberal politics where there is continuous negotiation to achieve the common good, focused on goals of human flourishing that we can pursue together across difference. Virtue must be given back to the economy and our cultural identities. Of course success will be limited as areas of legitimate disagreement remain, and in some areas people will pursue incompatible and even incommensurate goals. But no political society really holds together without a shared narrative and bonds of belonging. If it tries to do so, the result will be either liberal anarchy or authoritarian populism or some mix of the two.
As someone quipped at Prime Minister’s Questions last Wednesday, Sunak could be the first Tory prime minister to lose an election to another Thatcherite. Keir Starmer’s Labour needs to put clear blue water between its politics and that of the government. The Labour Party will do worse in the election or in power unless it argues consistently for social moderation and economic transformation anchored in people’s yearning for security and solidarity. Labour’s tendency to embrace identity politics and a self-imposed fiscal straitjacket risks alienating a popular majority and failing to build a new political consensus for our troubled times.