Liz Truss, conservative Ideology, and the future of British Government
During an ever-changing political climate, Charlie Gershinson evaluates the evolution of the UK Conservative Party, and what the future may hold.
The quote “the British are among the worst idlers in the world. We work among the lowest hours, we retire early and our productivity is poor”, may sound like typical remarks from the Daily Mail opinion pages, or your politically questionable uncle longing for the ‘old days’ after a few too many drinks (or even without). However suppose you have been filling your hours over the summer watching the Conservative leadership contest, you may correctly attribute the quote instead to Britannia Unchained: a book written collectively by, among others, the current Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer.
The word ‘Brexit’ would sound like gibberish, and David Cameron was on track to become known as a modern, media-savvy version of Margaret Thatcher
While this quote alone appears uncontroversial or even agreeable to some, many others on the liberal end of the political spectrum may roll their eyes at yet another confrontational, anti-worker rant by representatives of a twelve-year-long Conservative administration. Yet instead I see Britannia Unchained, its authors, and what they represent as indicative of the Conservative Party’s ideological trajectory and its inevitable limitations.
To understand Britannia Unchained and its author’s intentions, we must consider the political context of 2014. This was a time of relative political peace where a centrist and beige Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition ruled. Another such coalition was potentially on the horizon, the word ‘Brexit’ would sound like gibberish, and David Cameron was on track to become known as a modern, media-savvy version of Margaret Thatcher. Yet in the background, a group of libertarian conservatives whiled away their days on the backbenches waiting for the chance to make their mark on government without the impediment of the Cameron-Clegg status quo of wishy-washy liberalism.
This group of authors, now including household names like Liz Truss, Kwasi Kwarteng, Priti Patel, and Dominic Raab, advocated for a government firmly built on Thatcherism and market-driven forces. They called for the less fortunate in society to pull themselves up by their bootstraps through ‘hard work’ rather than ‘bailouts’ which risk ‘rewarding laziness’. Alongside this was the hope to rebuild society in the shape of East Asian countries such as South Korea and China which see students go “straight from long days at school to studying during the nights and weekends”. As The Guardian’s Patrick Wintour summarised: “The Joy of Living this is not”.
At present in 2022, now that this quad has each held great offices of state and been able to shape government policy from the top-down, I’m sure we have noticed the great cultural revolution quaking under our feet; the seismic reduction of the state and the transformation of our urban areas into deregulated Singapores-on-Thames, on-Severn or on-Exe. Sadly for these ministers and their ideological soulmates, this ‘revolution’ remains solely in their late-night fantasies.
This disappointing turn of events for our enigmatic authors is two-fold: the necessary state intervention during the Coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing changes in public perception over the broad topics of the economy and public spending. COVID saw arguably the biggest expansion of the state since the Attlee government, including the £70 billion cost of furlough representing the subsidisation of millions of British workers, and thus rewarding the ‘laziness’ that Truss and others reviled.
Lingering instead like a foul-smelling spectre, unwelcome anywhere on economic policy but with nowhere else to go
The second branch of this transformation represents the consequences of what this recent expansion of the state represents: the appetite for public spending to be the solution rather than the problem when dealing with the economy. Nowadays, the model of austerity under the Cameron government in which public spending is cut to ensure the economy remains afloat has been undermined, and is now viewed as exceedingly unpopular, perhaps shown by Kwarteng’s admittance that economic focus should be on ‘growth’ rather than ‘fiscal discipline’.
Under this new status quo, it may be hard to see how Truss, Kwarteng and company could attempt to reinstate their aims for a smaller state. This will be harder considering the inexorable increase in energy bills for everyone in the country along with inflation reaching 10 per cent, affecting almost all household goods across the high street. Although Truss attempted to alleviate concern, at least among the Conservative selectorate with promises of tax cuts and an end to borrowing, this has run headstrong into the iron wall of economic realism. To ensure that households across the nation will not be crippled by the rise in energy bills, the Prime Minister announced a cap on the average energy bills to £2500 per year. Instead of paying for this through a reduction in National Insurance or other tax cuts, the government will instead extend the precedent set by the Johnson administration’s furlough policy and pay through borrowing, costing an estimated £130 billion.
It would be unwise to divine Mrs. Truss’ economic intentions. However, it could be surmised that the principles espoused in the book that she co-wrote, advising a massive reduction in the welfare state for the greater good, have been abandoned once again for the sake of economic realism. With these changes in both economic fortune and public appetite, the question must be raised: do the Conservative Party’s supposed intentions have a place within the society of 2022? And if not, should they remain in office? These are questions I couldn’t begin to answer before boring readers.
But once the national event of the late Queen’s funeral precludes and conversation once again reverts to the cost-of-living crisis, this must be a question the public asks itself. For if such a supposedly libertarian party is stuck in the world of the irrepressibly big state of large welfare spending and so forth, what is its point? Tim Shipman of The Sunday Times once ill-fatedly wrote that Boris Johnson squatted as a toad on British politics, taking up both right and left the opposition with nowhere to go. Now the Conservative Party and Mrs. Truss must ask if they are lingering instead like a foul-smelling spectre, unwelcome anywhere on economic policy but with nowhere else to go.