BY SAM HOOPER
Given the seismic political changes we have witnessed in British politics – the rise and fall of UKIP, the wane of Labour centrists and the Age of Jeremy Corbyn, the EU referendum and Brexit itself – it should be obvious to any outside observer that there is tremendous public dissatisfaction not confined to any one specific policy or issue, but rather at a systemic level. And looking at the state of the world – with the benefits and challenges of globalisation and automation, the ongoing massive global migration and the threat posed by radical Islam – it should be equally apparent that the standard policies of the centre-left and the centre-right are unequal to these unique challenges.
In the United States, the Republican Party’s response to these challenges has been twofold – first to panic and allow themselves to be taken over by Trumpism, and secondly to dust off the 1980s and 1990s playbook of tax cuts and indiscriminate deregulation. With Donald Trump in the White House, Republican congressional leaders seized the moment to pass the big tax cut for which they have been incessantly clamouring. Fair enough. But now that they are in government rather than opposition, the tax cut came packaged with no commensurate spending cuts, meaning that the resulting bill has blown an already sizeable budget deficit wide open. After all the moralistic preaching about fiscal responsibility during the Obama years, only one Republican senator – Rand Paul of Kentucky – expressed serious reservations about this hypocrisy (and even he ultimately voted for the bill).
This approach may reap some political dividends in the short term, as individuals enjoy a slight reduction in their tax burden and certain corporations reward their long-serving employees with an unexpected bonus. But in the medium to long term, all the Republicans are doing is frittering away any remaining claim they had to being the party of fiscal conservatism, kicking the can down the road on every serious entitlement reform which needs to be considered and further sullying their brand by association with President Trump’s new protectionism.
Likewise, rebooting Thatcherism for the 21st century with no introspection or modification is no solution to our present challenges. Thatcher’s privatisation programme and her government’s rollback of the worst excesses of the socialist post-war settlement were vital and saved this country from likely terminal national decline. There are few more ardent fans of Margaret Thatcher than myself. But to pretend to oneself that the same bag of tricks will get Britain out of an entirely different set of problems four decades later is dangerous self-deception.
One gets the strong sense that the rising profile of backbench MP and Brexit Ultra Jacob Rees-Mogg, refreshing though he can be (on matters other than Brexit) for the forthrightness of his views and his refusal to disavow deeply held values, is also a symptom of this nascent reactionary movement within contemporary British conservatism, the idea that we need only find a new leader who looks and sounds like a traditional Tory in order to repeat past Tory success.
But what the nascent Thatcherism Redux movement fails to realise is that Britain has entered an unstable period of political discontinuity, a time of serious national challenges, threats and opportunities where the tried-and-tested policies of the past no longer work effectively nor command majority political support. Be it Corbyn’s unreconstructed socialism, reanimated Thatcherism or whatever Theresa May’s inarticulable vision of government happens to be (nobody really knows), none of these options command the kind of enthusiasm or political support on which strong governments with mandates for change are built.
There is no tax cut which can address the fact that Britain’s public pension system is becoming little more than a national Ponzi scheme propped up only by high levels of immigration (itself a solution with rapidly diminishing returns). There is no privatisation scheme which can deliver meaningful healthcare reform within the incredibly narrow Overton window established by the high priests of the NHS. There is no instant productivity fix, or any lasting solution to that intractable problem which does not involve a much wider conversation about how our education system currently fails to churn out school leavers, apprentices, technical diploma holders and university graduates equipped to walk into the jobs of tomorrow – let alone reach back to help those adults struggling to adapt on their own.
These are some of the real root causes of voter dissatisfaction with the status quo. Public polling may not yet always the right questions in order to draw this broader, inchoate dissatisfaction out into the open, but the pressing nature of these challenges should be evident to anyone involved in strategic political thinking (apparently a particular weakness in the current Tory Party).
The absolute last thing that the anaemic British conservative movement needs, just as it starts to awaken to the danger in which it has placed itself, is for a new movement to come along peddling false reassurance that new challenges do not in fact require new policy solutions, and that there is no problem too big to be effectively cured by tax cuts and deregulation. Yet this message, if allowed to go unchallenged, may prove to be especially attractive to a Conservative Party in which only a handful of MPs are awake to the need for ideological renewal.
For many senior Conservatives – including Theresa May’s uniquely uninspired senior lieutenants and likely successors – the message that they can succeed by adopting the government equivalent of painting by numbers effectively absolves the government of any need to think for themselves, to acknowledge that the dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present.
And that’s what makes the siren song of Thatcherism Redux so potentially dangerous.