Leader: The tyranny of the free-market right

A ruthless cabinet reshuffle confirms the ascent of the libertarian right in the Conservative Party - and the UK's journey towards becoming a fully Americanised society

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Conservatism was never historically inextricable from free-market economics. In 1947, the philosopher Michael Oakeshott dismissed Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom as part of the “tyranny of rationalism”. Its main significance, he wrote, was “not the cogency of his doctrine, but the fact that it is a doctrine”. Even Margaret Thatcher’s governments were more pragmatic than many later recalled. Public spending increased by an average of 1.1 per cent a year during her premiership, while, faced with the proposed sale of Royal Mail, the prime minister remarked that she was “not prepared to have the Queen’s head privatised”.

But in the decades since, “Thatcherism” has ossified into a dogma among MPs whose thought owes more to libertarianism than conservatism. Boris Johnson’s ruthlessly efficient cabinet reshuffle was marked by the ascension of the libertarians in the modern Conservative Party.

In 2012, a group of five recently elected Tory MPs published Britannia Unchained, a hymn to deregulation, tax cuts and privatisation. Two of its co-authors, Priti Patel and Dominic Raab, now hold two of the great offices of state (the Home Office and the Foreign Office). A further two, International Trade Secretary Liz Truss and business minister Kwasi Kwarteng, are also cabinet members.

As prime minister, Theresa May wanted to rehabilitate the state as an economic actor and denounced the “libertarian right” as well as the “socialist left”. But for Britannia Unchained’s authors, Brexit is a means further to roll back the frontiers of government. In May 2016, Ms Patel, the then employment minister, declared: “If we could just halve the burdens of the EU social and employment legislation we could deliver a £4.3bn boost to our economy and 60,000 new jobs.”

The appeal of leaving the EU without an agreement, as Mr Johnson has threatened, is precisely that it could create the conditions to impose policies unachievable in normal times. Libertarians are fond of recalling the words of Milton Friedman, who wrote in Capitalism and Freedom (1962), “Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.”

But Mr Johnson’s government is more ideologically heterogeneous than it may first appear. The Prime Minister is a political magpie who embraces or discards policies based on his own advancement. For this reason, he is also a tougher, and more ruthless, opponent than many of his antagonists assume. He will not speak the language of austerity, as George Osborne, and even Ed Miliband and Ed Balls did, but that of fiscal activism. His embrace of infrastructure programmes and grands projets, such as a new high-speed northern rail link and full-fibre broadband, owes more to French Gaullists than American libertarians.

In common with Donald Trump, who has presided over the largest US budget deficit since 2012 (4.7 per cent of GDP), it would be unsurprising if Mr Johnson allows government borrowing to rise by cutting taxes and increasing spending – one could call it reactionary Keynesianism. Fiscal conservatism has been subordinated to projects of national prestige: Brexit and “Make America Great Again”. As Mr Johnson is pragmatic enough to recognise, public support for higher government spending (funded by increased taxes) is at a 15-year high of 60 per cent, according to the most recent British Social Attitudes survey.

Yet Mr Johnson, a career opportunist, does not represent a coherent alternative to his party’s libertarian wing. The predominance of the free-market right among his cabinet is another symptom of the closing of the conservative mind. Should the Prime Minister falter, Conservative MPs and their outriders will clamour for a “true believer”. Mr Johnson’s premiership, then, may not mark the end of the great moving right show but yet another staging post along the route that we have travelled to becoming a fully Americanised market society. 

This article appears in the 02 August 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special