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12 December 2022

Liz Truss’s attempted comeback is a warning of the new, aggressive conservatism

The right is ready for a global assault on the big state and social liberalism.

By Paul Mason

Liz Truss single-handedly hiked the average family’s annual mortgage bill by £1,200. She came within hours of crashing several major pension funds. Her plan to borrow money to give it away to rich people has left the UK’s fiscal credibility in doubt long after her departure.

Any ordinary mortal who had managed to throw away their political career in 49 days of financial chaos might want to spend some time reflecting, learning or even just taking a rest from the charade of statesmanship. But not Liz Truss. She’s been in Washington DC this month at the International Democrat Union Forum, a global get-together for right-wing conservatives. She rubbed shoulders with Sebastian Kurz, the disgraced former Austrian chancellor who formed a government with the far right; Ted Cruz, the US senator who has refused to recognise Joe Biden as the legitimate president; and Janez Janša, the former Slovenian prime minister who was the only world leader to recognise Donald Trump‘s spurious claim to victory in the 2020 presidential election.

The word is that, like these other discarded luminaries of the conservative right, Truss is unrepentant. She wants to start a think tank, according to the Sunday Times, “to promote free-market economics and trade”. Clearly the combined efforts of the Adam Smith Institute, the Centre for Policy Studies and the Institute for Economic Affairs are not enough for Truss. The lab experiment of shrinking the state to the point of collapse must go on.

We shouldn’t begrudge Truss her ambition. At the age of 47 she’s young enough to make a comeback someday, provided a collective amnesia grips British conservatism. Plus, she has eight years of ministerial experience that she could sell on the American after-dinner speaking circuit in the meantime.

But the question remains: to what ultimate goal are Truss and her fellow free-marketeers trying to take us? I can understand them making anti-wokeness a unique selling point for tactical reasons: defending the statues of famous racists, promoting “free speech” for eugenicists and deporting refugees are all great ways to distract from the fact that your central doctrine – the efficiency of markets – blew up in your face. But what do right-wing Tories actually want, at a socio-economic level?

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The first part of the answer will become clear this week as tens of thousands of nurses, postal workers, railway workers and border guards go on strike: confrontation. Free-market conservatism was born in an era of class struggle and still sees itself as the declared adversary of organised labour.

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The second part of the answer can be glimpsed in a letter this week signed by 40 Tory MPs, demanding Rishi Sunak cut the tax burden by slashing the money spent on “equality, diversity and inclusivity” in the public sector. This, according to the Conservative Way Forward group, could save the taxpayer £7bn a year – ridding police forces, councils and universities of managers and training courses designed to meeting the provisions of the Equality Act 2010.

In this new, vindictive form of Thatcherism the “big state” is not stigmatised merely because it costs money, or crowds out market forces: it is identified as the promoter of wokeness and political correctness in civil society.

What Conservatism needs, wherever it wants to impose the costs of economic crisis on working people, is an “other” to stigmatise. The scapegoat can never be simply an alien entity, like the asylum-seekers destined for Rwanda, or the French president, on whose friend or foe status Truss famously said “the jury’s out”. The enemy also has to be “within” – just as the miners were for Margaret Thatcher.

So don’t laugh at Truss, for her hubris in travelling to Washington to hob-nob with the has-beens. The lab experiment of September was just a practice run for what right-wing conservatism wants to do: a global assault on the public realm, on human rights and on social liberalism.

Amid the climate crisis, stagflation and the biggest global security scare since the Cuban Missile Crisis, the conservative right has only one song to sing: of the small state, the vilified external threat and the defeat of its treacherous allies in British society. As everyone who remembers Thatcher knows, it’s an alluring melody.

[See also: Why is Wes Streeting challenging the BMA?]

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