Ideologues can become centrists without changing their views. The paradigm shifts – a Labour member who was a party loyalist in the 1970s can find themselves a Corbynite pariah in the 2020s. Take Liz Truss. In the UK, she sits on an ideological island. The public oppose her infatuation with the free market, as do much of her party. But in the US, the 49-day PM stands comfortably alongside many Republicans.
In a speech at the Heritage Foundation in Washington DC yesterday, Truss flaunted her commitment to “Anglo-American capitalism” with a series of sentences that contained the word “freedom”. She warned that the libertarian economic model was being “strangled into stagnation”, and called for the forces of freedom to push back.
The whispers in Westminster are that Truss has been instructed by free-market champions to get out and resurrect her desiccated standing. Not for her own benefit. But for the ideas whose reputation her incompetence soiled.
She may have missed the memo. Instead, she used her speech to list the things she wants.
The UK and US should provide fighter jets to Ukraine. Ukraine should join Nato (delivered without an explanation as to why that wouldn’t risk world war given Nato would have to treat Russia’s invasion as an aggression against all members). The US should not leave the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. Canada and Japan should join Aukus. Etcetera.
A former prime minister calling for a step change in foreign policy should be a big moment. But stripped of their power, that requires a certain level of standing. Truss’s demands therefore fell flat.
Beneath the geopolitical prescriptions was a call for a reduction in the size of the state. She railed against the ballooning of UK state spending from 36 per cent in 2000 to 47 per cent of GDP today. She blamed leftists in the public sector and businesses dependent on the state, as well as the bailout of the banks during the financial crisis and the Covid support schemes.
But she did not address the impact on state spending of the ageing population or the push for higher defence expenditure. Nor did she acknowledge in her 2023 Margaret Thatcher Freedom Lecture that, as George notes, real-terms spending rose in every year of Thatcher’s premiership apart from two.
With that said, it was refreshing to witness a politician speaking in terms of principles – however shallowly – instead of merely appealing to competence and sensible government. Indeed, the most resonant part of her speech was her criticism of wage stagnation, low economic growth and those who accept “steady decline” – a sound attack on the current government.