Will anti-free market conservatism prove electorally successful?
The “free market” strain of conservatism is considered obsolete pretty much everywhere, a relic of the past, particularly among conservative politicians. These latter aim to provide voters with more energetic plans to action, a robust vision of the role of state, a stronger propensity for government investment and, of course, a softer, kinder approach to social and welfare policies. Free market conservatism of the sort that dominated in the 1980s is considered incompatible with the aspirations of a kinder and fairer society, incapable of dealing with the complexities of a globalised world, and ultimately responsible for growing inequality and financial turmoil.
Even would-be successors to Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher are buying into their caricatures: as neither Reagan or Thatcher were such “radical” libertarians as they were portrayed, nor have any of them slashed the welfare state in the supposedly heartless way they opponent said they would. The NHS survived Mrs Thatcher basically untouched, neither, in spite of his denunciation of welfare queens, did Reagan fundamentally change the US welfare policies. Still, both of them helped in breathing new life into the rhetoric of self-reliance and individual independence, and they opened up to the mere possibility that, indeed, some areas of human life can be preserved, and even flourish, without direct government intervention.
This rhetoric has long been abandoned by “conservative” leaders in the United States and in the United Kingdom, not to mention in continental Europe, and still such a rhetorical evolution is constantly deemed a novelty. Perhaps because the alternative to Reaganism and Thatcherism on the conservative side is typically a deliberate rejection of principled stances, many “compassionate” and “pragmatic” conservatives do not stick in our memory, whereas the two icons of free-market conservatism loom large.
This has happened, most recently, in the UK, where Theresa May has clearly steered the Tories away from any limited government rhetoric, embracing industrial policy (whose demise was the true triumph of Mrs Thatcher) and building arguments that perceptive observers even considered implicitly rejecting Hayek. Theodore Dalrymple, on our sister website the Library of Law and Liberty, has a splendid essay on Mrs May’s political agenda:
In the matter of taxing and spending, she is to the left of Mr. Blair, of the supposedly left-wing Labor Party. He was only for spending without taxation, while she is for spending without a promise that she will not raise taxation. I suppose that this is an advance of a kind; but even Mr. Blair, who was to economic thought what Walt Disney was to the zoological study of mice, did not believe in price controls of vital commodities as a means of assisting the poor, as she appears to do with regard to the prices of gas and electricity. Here the late Hugo Chavez is more her guru than is Mrs. Thatcher.
Read the whole thing.
Now, Mrs May’s strategy seemed, until a few days ago, electorally very wise. She was confronted with a political ghost of the Christmas past, Jeremy Corbyn, a disinterested, pure and idealistic advocate of good ol’ command and control socialism. Corbyn was so exceedingly unattractive, chances were good that many of his voters could switch to a credible Tory leader, if only she talked the right (left) talk. This was Mrs May’s strategy: growing the base of her own party by watering its wine. Mark Littlewood, the Director General of the Institute for Economic Affairs in London, put it brilliantly: “we’re being offered any political colour, as long as it’s red”. To be sure, there are plenty of reasons for a corporatist political strategy to work better with voters than some, even timid, promise to do away with special interest privileges. What is surprising, however, is the complete rejection of the ambition of freeing markets even as political propaganda.
The proof of the pudding is in the eating, in politics even more so. Is that strategy working? The latest polls are showing May’s lead over Corbyn getting embarrassingly small, for she called elections in full confidence of the result.
Now, certainly mistakes were made in May’s campaign (but Corbyn’s one wasn’t perfect either). Politics has a lot to do with candidates looking attractive and credible, beyond any ideological matter. The terrorist attacks in Manchester and London may eventually convince public opinion to stick with an otherwise unpopular leader. It well may be that May’s platform, though unconvincing, is nonetheless more electorally convincing than anything more free market types would have worked out. And yet it would be good, for once, to have some solid conservative politician attempting to give free market conservatism another try. It may well prove as electorally disastrous as most conservative politicians think. Or maybe not.