Duncan Bowie on the implosion of a government of right-wing libertarians
Well, that’s it. Truss has resigned. Hers was the shortest administration in British history, and its most right-wing government since that led by Lord Liverpool between 1812 and 1827. He lasted two years as prime minister before being defeated by the Whigs under Earl Grey, who brought in the Great Reform Act of 1832; Truss was gone in 45 days, with Suella Braverman, the one Cabinet minister more right-wing than Truss, resigning, attacking Truss for not being right-wing enough.
Her Cabinet came from the world of think-tanks: Truss was deputy director of Reform; other Cabinet members have links to the Institute for Economic Affairs, the Centre for Policy Studies and Policy Exchange. Simon Clarke, Truss’s Levelling Up Secretary, has written for FREER, an offshoot of the IEA. Truss herself has contributed to two think-tank books; though as they are collective works, it is difficult to attribute specific views to individuals. In 2011, Truss contributed to After the Coalition, which called for a return to “pure conservatism” freed from the constraints imposed by David Cameron’s Liberal Democrat coalition partners. The co-authors were Dominic Raab, Kwasi Kwarteng, Priti Patel and Chris Skidmore, Truss’s universities minister.
The same group published a second volume the following year, Britannia Unchained, subtitled ‘Global Lessons for Growth and Prosperity’, which is considered as the ideological foundation of the Truss government and inspired by the American libertarian thinker and novelist Ayn Rand. There is no reference to Rand in Britannia Unchanged, though Rand’s views are well regarded in both American and UK libertarian right think-tanks. Instead, Britannia Unchained focuses on the entrepreneurial economies of Brazil, India, China, Japan, Israel, Singapore and South Korea. There is a general argument that Britons are not just over-regulated and over-taxed, but that they need to work harder.
No doubt many of the leading members of the outgoing government are highly intelligent with their first-class degrees and self-confident with their Oxbridge educations. What is clear is that they actually have relatively little experience of the world outside of actually running anything. Truss served one term as an opposition councillor in Greenwich, having failed to be elected at her first two attempts. Moreover, they seem to be keener on concepts and visions than on the details of how things actually work, Nadhim Zahawi perhaps excepted. They are clearly not too good at taking advice (or even seeking it) from experienced civil servants or professionals beyond their own think-tank networks (who tend to be rather generalist ideologues like themselves). They are clearly not too good at adding up and have no respect for the established organisations and conventions on which the British state is based. Truss once wrote a pamphlet on academic rigour, but clearly does not consider that this requirement applies to herself.
What has become clear is that some of the more wacky, right-wing libertarian ideas promoted by her government don’t work very well. The Government needs a revenue income as electors do want a basic standard of public service, even if they may not like paying for it. Deregulation can cause problems. People expect the Government to intervene positively when things go badly wrong in their lives, and a libertarian approach does not really deal with major crises, whether this is a pandemic, a European war or a financial crash. Transferring money from the poor to the rich is not widely popular.
Now, the right libertarian experiment has been cut short – within five weeks, much quicker than anyone expected. The most significant components of the mini-budget have been reversed by the new chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, with only the removal of caps on bankers’ bonuses remaining, leaving room for perhaps one more u-turn. Truss and Kwarteng’s neoliberal economic policy, inspired by the likes of the IEA’s Patrick Minford, has been catastrophic for the Conservative Party and the most dramatic own goal by a Conservative government in its 200-year history.
Now, Rishi Sunak will become prime minister with the challenge of picking up the pieces, which, given the disagreements and personal rivalries within the Conservative Party, will not be easy. We do not as yet know whether other right-wing policies of her government – such as tougher policies on immigration and asylum and liberalising the planning regime – will proceed or not. But a move by the Conservatives back to the centre-right under Sunak (at least in terms of economic policy), though probably insufficient to save the Tories from election defeat, nevertheless presents new challenges for Labour.
The good news is surely that no Conservative administration could possibly try this again. The Conservative Party may now have been damaged terminally. So, whether the general election is a couple of months or a couple of years away, Labour must prepare for government, not just for one term but for several terms. Time to be confident, brave and radical.