Further Thoughs on Theresa May
by Sean Gabb
(7th October 2016)
I delivered my interim report on Theresa May at the weekend. On Wednesday, I watched her main speech to the Conservative Party Conference. It was a very accomplished speech, perhaps the most accomplished speech of its kind since James Callaghan delivered his sermon on economic reality to the Labour Party Conference in 1976. I also noted one quotation from Vergil (“Parcere subiectis et debellare superbos”), and another from Horace (Carpe diem). Mrs May is no Demosthenes or Burke, but she appears to have good taste in speechwriters. Beyond that, I had nothing to add to what I had already said.
However, I have just seen this from the Guido Fawkes blog:
May wants “government to step up, not back”. So who do you vote for now if you want a balanced budget, free markets and to get the state out of your life?
I suppose the short answer is to ask whom he voted for last time, and, if it was not the Conservative Party, how the Prime Minister’s speech has narrowed his choice. The truth is that, since the 1960s, Conservative and Labour Governments have alternated. In this time, with the partial exception of the first Thatcher term – and she did consider banning dildoes in 1983 – the burden of state interference has grown, if with occasional changes of direction. In this time, with the exception of John Major’s second term, the tax burden has stayed about the same as a percentage of gross domestic product. I cannot remember if Roy Jenkins or Gordon Brown managed to balance the budget in any particular year. But I do know that George Osborn never managed it, or tried to manage it, before he was thrown into the street. Whether the politicians promised free markets or intervention, what was delivered has been about the same.
A longer answer is to draw attention to the low quality of political debate in this country. It seems to be assumed that there is a continuum of economic policy that stretches between the low tax corporatism of the Adam Smith Institute (“the libertarian right”) and whatever Jeremy Corbyn means by socialism. So far as Mrs May has rejected the first, she must be drifting towards the second. Leave aside the distinction, already made, between what politicians say and what they do. What the Prime Minister was discussing appears to have been One Nation Conservatism, updated for the present age.
Because it has never had a Karl Marx or a Murray Rothbard, this doctrine lacks a canonic expression. However, it can be loosely summarised in three propositions:
First, our nation is a kind of family. Its members are connected by ties of common history and language, and largely by common descent. We have a claim on our young men to risk their lives in legitimate wars of defence. We have other claims on each other that go beyond the contractual.
Second, the happiness and wealth and power of our nation require a firm respect for property rights and civil rights. It is one of the functions of microeconomic analysis to show how a respect for property rights is to the common benefit. The less doctrinaire forms of libertarianism show the benefit to a nation of leaving people alone in their private lives.
Third, the boundaries between these first two are to be defined and fixed by a respect for the mass of tradition that has come down to us from the middle ages. Tradition is not a changeless thing, and, if there is to be a rebuttable presumption in favour of what is settled, every generation must handle its inheritance with some regard to present convenience.
The weakness of the One Nation Conservatives Margaret Thatcher squashed lay in their misunderstanding of economics. After the 1930s, they had trusted too much in state direction of the economy. But, rightly understood, the doctrine does seem to express what most of us want. If that is what the Prime Minister is now promising to deliver, and if that is what she does in part deliver, I have no reasonable doubt that she and her successors will be in office as far ahead as the mind can track.
The question, I suppose, is to what degree she will deliver. Here, let me explain what may be true, or what may turn out to be wishful thinking. Between about 1990 and 2010, the cultural leftists came close to hegemony. It did not begin in 1990, and certainly did not end in 2010. During this time, even so, England was not a conservative country. It was ruled by a coalition of slimy leftists and hard-faced businessmen and a mass of other special interest groups united in their disdain for the nation as traditionally conceived. All of them are now getting old. Their intellectual and political leaders of ability are now mostly dead. The quality of the remainder is dipping below the mediocre. They hold their places in society wholly through nepotism. Their promise – a promise they may once have believed – of a kinder, fairer world has been shown by events to be a fraudulent prospectus. If they had less of an iron grip on the mainstream media, they would by now be subjected to the same blast of withering satire as the old order had to face in the 1960s. As it is, they are pilloried by the alternative media – media dominated by bright young men about half my age, and who are not leftists of any kind.
In America, the shorthand term for this essentially new movement is the Alternative Right. Its acknowledged, though perhaps not entirely knowing, leader for the moment is Donald Trump. That is only for the moment. Whatever happens next month in the American election, the Alternative Right will not go away. It has no exact counterpart in England. Instead, discontent was until recently expressed through UKIP. This has now collapsed. Politicians who beat each other up are not loved in England.
If you read the speech Theresa May gave on Wednesday, you will see attacks on the “international elite,” and the claim, unprecedented from a recent British Prime Minister, that, “if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.” Her speechwriters are obviously borrowing from Nigel Farage and Donald Trump. They are also pinning her to a modern restatement of One Nation Conservatism.
I will say yet again, that there is a difference between words and actions. All things considered, though, something is changing in British politics. Theresa May is no kind of liberal. She pushed through the Psychoactive Substances Act – a law that would have shocked just about every British politician before 1980. She has been pushing for years to give the police an open warrant to read our e-mails. But that perhaps was then. Her interests as Prime Minister may lie in a slightly less authoritarian direction. Certainly, there is nothing sinister about what she said on Wednesday. We have an overextended state that has been generations in the making, and that will not go away in the foreseeable future. If she can, in any degree, move its working from the advantage of the rich and well-connected to that of ordinary people, this will be something.