Truss is frantically blowing on the embers of neoliberalism. But it is a funeral pyre | Andy Beckett

Posted on October 14, 2022Comments Off on Truss is frantically blowing on the embers of neoliberalism. But it is a funeral pyre | Andy Beckett

Purity can be a dangerous thing in politics. The world is full of impurities. Compromises are often needed to make policies work. Voters also rarely reward politicians for having a consistent ideology. Sometimes they see such people as fanatics.

Yet without a set of stubborn beliefs, governments and political parties can become directionless. They can lack a sense of purpose and a compelling story. The common centrist argument that grownup government is pragmatic ignores the fact that the most influential British governments since the second world war, Clement Attlee’s and Margaret Thatcher’s, changed society to fit their worldviews more than vice versa.

Liz Truss, one of the keenest remaining Thatcher fans in Britain, wants her government to be similarly transformative, or “disruptive”. “The status quo is not an option,” she told last week’s Tory conference. “We are the only party with a clear plan to … build a new Britain.”

That plan is currently in deep trouble, thanks to its widely perceived sketchiness and extremism, Truss and her cabinet’s shortage of political nous and communications skills, and her lack of a mandate from either the electorate or her members of parliament. But there is another, less examined reason why she is struggling. Her government has taken office when the philosophy that has re-energised and reshaped conservatism worldwide since the early 70s – a philosophy to which the Truss government seems as devoted as any in British history – finally appears to be declining.

Neoliberalism, the belief that free markets, low taxes and a state with little or no interest in equality will produce the best economic and social outcomes, has fallen out of fashion even among the business elite and their chroniclers. In the Financial Times this week, the columnist Rana Foroohar argued that the west was entering a “post-neoliberal era”: there would be more state intervention in economies, more regulation of markets and more power for workers.

Yet Truss says she wants a country with the opposite characteristics: a “lean state”, less “red tape”, less redistribution of wealth and stricter anti-union laws. This confrontation between Downing Street’s neoliberal purists, still pushing for a few last victories, and the political, economic and even financial market forces massing against them, is making Tory politics a compelling and globally significant spectacle, at least as much as the party’s divisions. In Britain, arguably the first democracy where neoliberalism was tried, it is simultaneously ploughing onward and dying.

Jacob Rees-Mogg and Mark Littlewood, Director General of the IEA
‘At a conference fringe event, Jacob Rees-Mogg warned, ‘You can’t go for a year zero approach. People will think we’re just lunatics.’’ Photograph: Ian Forsyth/Getty Images

This was vividly clear at the Tory conference. In a tent on the supposed fringe of the event, hosted by the anti-state Taxpayers’ Alliance and the free-market Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), packed discussions about the radical things the government should do next featured ministers such as Kwasi Kwarteng and Jacob Rees-Mogg. These were much more animated than the speeches in the main hall. The IEA’s director, Mark Littlewood, presided over the discussions with an air of barely contained delight. At one point, he said he was “very excited” about the Truss premiership. Rarely have ideologues exerted so much influence over a British government.

Yet it is influence on a government under siege. The speakers in the tent were often almost drowned out by anti-Brexit protesters, just feet away outside the conference perimeter, blasting out the mocking theme music from Benny Hill. And sometimes even the most confident rightwing contributors sounded spooked by the government’s unpopularity. On deregulating business, Rees-Mogg warned: “You can’t go for a year-zero approach. People will think we’re just lunatics.” An adviser to Littlewood, Sam Collins, went further. “Attempting to introduce free-market reforms and doing it badly,” he said, “can poison the well for a generation.” The Truss government may be doing just that.

In the early, expansive years of neoliberalism, unpopularity and policy failures were less of a problem. The first country where the philosophy was applied was not a democracy. Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile, which began with a military coup in 1973, turned what had been a relatively open and egalitarian society into a laboratory for polarising free-market policies such as privatisation and austerity. “There was much bloodshed and numerous political prisoners were taken,” Alan Walters, a rightwing British economist who worked with the Pinochet regime, wrote in the Times in 1990. “But [there was also] vigorous economic recovery, the wonder of the rest of Latin America.”

Walters went on to be Thatcher’s chief economic adviser during some of the most divisive periods of her premiership. While obviously less authoritarian than Pinochet, her government similarly used coercion, such as aggressive policing and anti-union laws, to suppress opposition to neoliberal policies. In both her Britain and his Chile, as in the nation Truss envisages, some economic freedoms – to get rich, to avoid regulation – were considered more important than others, such as freedom from overwork or poverty. Enough powerful interests, and enough of the public, supported this rightwing approach, even though it only intermittently produced strong economic growth, for neoliberalism to spread all over the world for half a century.

But nowadays the philosophy is in retreat even in its original heartlands. In Chile, the current president is Gabriel Boric, probably the most leftwing since Salvador Allende, the socialist whom Pinochet overthrew. In Britain, the latest annual social attitudes survey shows that even among Conservative supporters, only 7% want a smaller state and lower taxes. Neoliberalism has become a minority faith, far less popular than the socialism and social democracy it supposedly defeated for good back in the 70s and 80s.

Yet the Truss government is trying to press on regardless. Over the coming weeks, assuming her administration survives that long, announcements are promised about deregulatory reforms to everything from childcare to the planning system. One explanation for her persistence with this largely unwanted revolution may be that the Tories have tried everything else they can think of. Since returning to power in 2010, they have hastily produced and discarded a succession of solutions to Britain’s problems, from David Cameron’s “big society” to Theresa May’s focus on the “just about managing” to Boris Johnson’s populist nationalism.

Perhaps neoliberal purism is the only option some Tories feel they have left – the only way to give their ageing, messy government some clarity and momentum. But between now and the next election, unless there are a lot more government U-turns, the price of that purism, for the party and for the country, may become frighteningly clear.

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Comments Off on Truss is frantically blowing on the embers of neoliberalism. But it is a funeral pyre | Andy Beckett