Theresa May's anti-libertarian turn
Theresa May’s speech at the Tory national conference has generated little enthusiasm among British conservatives of a libertarian bent. On the other hand, it cautioned some people on the left, who found Mrs May is perhaps ready to steal the very vocabulary of the labour party.
May understands Brexit not just as a vote “to change Britain’s relationship with the European Union,” but also as a call for “a change in the way our country works – and the people for whom it works – forever.” Her speech (read the full text here) is apparently proving right those who considered Brexit as an expression of rage against international trade and globalisation. Not unlike Trump in the United States, May aims to speak to those who find themselves “out of work or on lower wages because of low-skilled immigration” and provide them with the comfort of nationalism and protection. This is, to be clear, nothing new in the history of the Tory Party.
Allister Heath has written the best comment on the speech. It is a significant speech because, as she points out, it shows how free market policies are perceived to be a liability from the leader of Margaret Thatcher’s party – who spends time and effort to dissociate herself from them. May wants to dismantle both “the ideological templates provided by the socialist left and the libertarian right and to embrace a new centre ground in which government steps up – and not back – to act on behalf of us all.”
Many of her arguments were implicit attacks on Hayek (author of the Constitution of Liberty, a key reference for Lady Thatcher); May didn’t name check them but her inspirations seem to be Joseph Chamberlain and Theodore Roosevelt. She implicitly rejects the Hayekian idea that the market is a process of discovery, and that the economy should be allowed to develop as a spontaneous order: to her, that’s tantamount to “just sitting back and seeing what happens.” But stating that the Government knows best what our strategic industries should be, and where they are to be based, is itself a case of the elitism that she rejects; Hayek himself wrote a whole book, The Fatal Conceit, on this approach.
Heath is referring to some staggering sentences by May, such as, “we must set the market right.” If we don’t like what the price system is signalling, we’ll set it right!
There are other strong signals that Mrs. May is very happy to turn her back on privatisations and liberalisations, such as her comments on the NHS (“the party that expanded the use of the private sector in the NHS the fastest was not this party, but the Labour Party”).
Yet, May has spoken of a “global Britain” and appeared committed to “always acting as the strongest and most passionate advocate for free trade right across the globe.”
Also, she mentioned “bad side effects” of quantitative easing, and in particular the fact that “people with savings have found themselves poorer.” This conclusion is not corroborated, but merely stated in May’s speech. Yet you won’t find any other European leader, besides Mr. Schäuble, that doesn’t think that QE was anything but an unqualified blessing.
Still, May’s diagnosis of the current crisis of politics doesn’t differ much from many populists’. She wishes to reassure low-income people that she understands their feeling of having lost control of their lives – and she will give it back to them. This means control over immigration but also an “industrial strategy,” an attempt to foster development in particular areas with some political aims in mind.
This is, again, nothing new. We’ve been there and it hasn’t worked particularly well. England has been there and needed Thatcherism to recover from having politicised business for half a century.
As an aside, I find it bizarre that so many people wonder about why people feel poorer – and nobody, even among the Tories, dares to say that perhaps taxing them a bit less would be a way–which is entirely within the power of governments, without entailing bold plans for driving the market this or that way–to make people less poor. This would seem a rather obvious policy choice, for “conservatives.” But apparently it is not.