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5 January 2022

Leader: The libertarian delusion

Far from being a vote for a smaller state, Brexit was, if anything, a vote for a larger one.

By New Statesman

The Conservative Party’s relationship with Boris Johnson has long been one of convenience. He became the party’s London mayoral candidate in 2007 because it was desperately seeking a winner. In 2019 similarly ruthless electoral logic made Mr Johnson Conservative leader at a time of struggle and division in the party.

But the Tories’ superficial loyalty to Mr Johnson is being tested. After a succession of sleaze scandals and dismal opinion polls, the Prime Minister’s opponents are circling. As Tim Ross reports in this week’s cover story on page 20, “many of Johnson’s colleagues have already had enough”. Should the Conservatives perform poorly in May’s local elections, the Prime Minister could be removed through a no-confidence vote by MPs. Unlike Labour, the Tories have never been shy of ousting failing leaders.

Mr Johnson’s vulnerability has prompted a battle for the party’s ideological soul. On 18 December the Brexit minister, David Frost, resigned over his opposition to tax rises, the net zero emissions target and Covid passports. In recent speeches he had warned against importing the “European social model”. Meanwhile, Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss, the front-runners to succeed Mr Johnson, have positioned themselves as free-market alternatives to the Prime Minister.

The principal charge levelled against Mr Johnson by the right is that he is “unconservative”. But what is a conservative? Under Mr Johnson, after a decade of austerity, British public spending is due to reach its highest sustained level since the pre-Thatcherite 1970s (settling at 41.6 per cent of GDP). As a consequence, the tax burden will rise to its highest rate since the early 1950s (36.2 per cent). To the disdain of the right, the government has also reaffirmed its pledge to reduce carbon emissions by 78 per cent by 2035 and to eliminate them by 2050.

This is not the post-Brexit agenda that the libertarian right wanted. In their view, EU withdrawal was the method; the object was to change the soul of the British people. Freed from the bureaucratic shackles of Brussels, so the argument went, the UK would pursue radical deregulation, privatisation and tax cuts – “the Singapore model” as it was labelled by some. But this was always a fantasy.

Far from being a vote for a smaller state, Brexit was, if anything, a vote for a larger one. The Leave campaign thrived by promising an extra £350m a week for the ultimate monument to postwar social democracy: the National Health Service. Its injunction to “take back control” appealed to those disturbed by the effects of market-driven globalisation. Polls have long shown that there is no electoral appetite for libertarian economics.

As for Singapore, it 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.

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The reality is that conservatism, at different times, has been compatible with big, interventionist government. Tory prime ministers from Harold Macmillan to Ted Heath promoted a central role for the state in the economy. In Europe, Gaullists and Christian Democrats have embraced interventionism.

Mr Johnson is not a true statist or One Nation Tory. Rather, he is a political opportunist and shape-shifter who embraces or discards policies based on his own advancement. Having heralded market rule in his 2013 Margaret Thatcher memorial lecture, and called for radical tax cuts for the affluent, he has now embraced higher public spending and greater state intervention.

This is classic conservative pragmatism: he is prepared to change in order to conserve and hold on to power. Mr Johnson, it seems, has a better understanding than some of his opponents of where the true centre of public opinion lies. Ageing populations, heightened voter expectations and green investment all demand a leading role for the state. It is not Mr Johnson who is unconservative but his libertarian opponents, who have forgotten Michael Oakeshott’s dictum that conservatism is a disposition rather than a dogma. The UK, a land that reveres free healthcare and has a strong instinct for social justice, is not the place for a radical free-market experiment. In forgetting this, the libertarian right is seeking to govern a country that does not exist.

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This article appears in the 05 Jan 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Johnson's Last Chance