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2 November 2022

Leader: What comes after Conservatism

The fantasy of a libertarian Brexit is over; delusions of tax cuts must now give way to a programme of national renewal.

By New Statesman

What is the purpose of the Conservative Party? It once sought to embody the wisdom of the philosopher Michael Oakeshott, who declared that to be conservative “is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss”.

Such insights allowed the Conservatives to become one of the most successful political forces in the Western world – the party was in government for all but 20 years between 1918 and 1997. Even Margaret Thatcher’s administrations were more pragmatic than many later recalled.

In his essay on page 28, William Waldegrave – the former Conservative cabinet minister and author of a fine memoir, A Different Kind of Weather – reflects sadly on his party’s decline: “How on Earth have British Conservatives, inheritors of the immensely successful pragmatic intellectual tradition I have described, borrowed out-of-date, business-school speak and paraded themselves as ‘disruptors’ – a word representing everything they should oppose?”

For the former prime minister Liz Truss and her ideological allies, Brexit was a vehicle for the project often ­erroneously dubbed “Singapore-on-Thames”. But Singapore has a significantly more dirigiste state than the UK, encompassing publicly owned banks, airlines and investment agencies. The government owns 90 per cent of land, and 80 per cent of Singaporeans live in state-built apartments. Such ­policies are designed to avoid the kind of financial turmoil that Ms Truss unleashed on the UK during her doomed premiership.

But whatever shorthand one uses, the fantasy of a libertarian Brexit – a new era of tax cuts, deregulation and privatisation – is over. What will take its place?

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On page 20, Quinn Slobodian, a Canadian historian and associate professor at Wellesley College, Massachusetts, explores the meaning of Rishi Sunak’s rise as well as his world-view. The new prime minister is an emblem of the age of free-market globalisation.

According to Slobodian, 1997’s The Sovereign Individual anticipated our age of disruption and “foresaw the rise of super-rich couples such as Sunak and Akshata Murty, who are able to live beyond the constraint of individual nation states and can pick and choose laws based on preference and the bottom line”.

Though Mr Sunak is a more cautious politician than Ms Truss, the similarities between them are as important as the differences. In 2016, shortly after his election to parliament, he wrote a report for the Centre for Policy Studies, a right-leaning think tank, championing freeports – economic zones liberated from standard taxes and regulations. For Mr Sunak, who backed Leave in the 2016 EU referendum, the appeal of Brexit was to tilt the UK in an even more pro-market direction.

Owing to his fiscal conservatism but also his pragmatism, the Prime Minister will not embrace Ms Truss’s programme of unfunded tax cuts. But nor will he pursue the other political project that emerged from the Brexit vote and Boris Johnson’s election victory in 2019: a Gaullist vision of grands projets, stronger workers’ rights and higher infrastructure spending.

As the third Conservative prime minister in three years, at a time of rising public anger and austerity, Mr Sunak’s aim will likely be a more modest one: survival.

Britain needs – and deserves – better than this, however. The country retains significant strengths: world-class universities, a vibrant multiracial society, a free and open media, dynamic tech and life science sectors and significant cultural soft power. Yet these now contend with ever more visible weaknesses: high levels of income inequality and poverty, dilapidated infrastructure, dismal productivity.

The UK needs a programme of national renewal of the kind that neither main party is yet offering. Indeed, the danger is that both become cowed by caution. But as Andrew Marr warns on page 14, if Labour is unable to present an alternative vision, it risks being marginalised by new protest movements at “a time of rage and pessimism”. The delusions of the Truss era must not give way to a quietism that excels at identifying problems but never provides solutions.

[See also: In the age of anger, who will offer a vision of the good life?]

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This article appears in the 02 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Meaning of Rishi Sunak