After eleven years of continuous, seemingly unassailable Conservative governance in Britain, it’s easy to think about them exactly the way we did eleven years ago, particularly if you aren’t one of their supporters.
Having been in the Labour Party for some years now, I’d like to think I’m familiar with most of the usual criticisms of the Tories, one of the most common being that they’re neoliberal Thatcherites who quake in fear at the prospect of the state intervening in the economy. However, those of us who are opposed to the Conservatives need to make a point of updating our criticisms, something the modern left isn’t particularly good at.
For starters, it’s worth addressing a myth which has quite a following on today’s left – the relationship between neoliberalism and the state. It’s taken a while, but even the Financial Times now recognises that the idea that the state has been shrinking is fiction. This shouldn’t be particularly surprising – starting with the Thatcherite revolution, neoliberalism in Britain hasn’t been about the reduction in the size and power of the state, it’s about what the state actually does.
Formerly nationalised industries don’t just privatise themselves – the state needs to intervene and open these industries up to private investment by selling off shares. Trade unions in this country did plenty of damage to themselves through poor planning, but it required the force of the police and the power of restrictive legislation to indefinitely cripple the movement.
Not to mention that, despite what fringe Cato Institute types would tell you, even relatively lasses-faire economies can’t function without some level market regulation, so the very much visible hand of the state becomes necessary to mediate the anarchy of the market.
The 2010-2015 Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition is at least partially responsible for shaping the image that many have of the Conservative Party today. Convinced that state overreach and high spending was the source of the 2008 financial crisis, rather than New Labour’s blasé approach to financial regulation which allowed the forces of finance capital to inflict the delayed consequences of their glorified gambling on all of society, they embarked on a brutal campaign of deregulation and austerity measures.
As even their most staunch defenders are likely aware by now, the butchery of the public sector from 2010-2015 did more harm than good to the British economy, causing a huge increase in the number of working people in poverty, a housing crisis of diabolical proportions, and a myriad of other economic and social failures.
The mainstream of the Conservative Party and the ‘Orange Book’ Liberal Democrat trendsetters, with their fanatical insistence that public spending reductions and removal of ‘red tape’ were the solution to our economic ailments, created a situation where much of the opposition was limited to the insistence of a bit more spending and cuts in different places.
The beginnings of the Tory shift away from neoliberalism were most clear in their gradual renationalisation of the railway industry. An utterly pointless privatisation, generating scant revenues and atrocious services while the state still has to pick up the slack from private sector failure, the Conservatives began to bring rail operators back into public hands in 2018.
First was Virgin Trains East Coast, which was taken over by the Department for Transport in 2018 after sustained financial troubles. In early 2020, it was announced that operation of the Northern rail line would be stripped from Arriva, after their abysmal operating record, and handed over to the state.
The absurd system of private rail franchising was finally euthanised in 2020, abolished by the very party who hurriedly introduced it in the 1990s.
The newly resurgent Conservative taste for the power of the state received its fullest expression thanks to the pandemic. The party so often characterised as small-state fanatics undertook unprecedented state spending, massively expanding debt, and paying much of the country’s wages.
The pandemic recovery package, whilst nowhere near as ambitious as that of Joe Biden, is a far cry from anything one would expect from the Conservative party of a decade ago. The Conservatives, in reforming themselves as a party of state interventionist liberalism, or what could be called right-dirigisme, are becoming more like the Japanese Liberal Democratic Party.
The Conservatives seem keen to emulate the Japanese LDP even in their proclivity for ‘pork barrelling’ – the use of public funds to appease only a small but strategically important part of the electorate. This fusion of pork barrelling and use of the economic power of the state within the framework of a market economy, reducing the salience of criticism from the left, has served the LDP well – effectively institutionalising the rule of the centre-right in Japan.
Unless their critics adapt to the new realities of Conservative economics, or the Thatcherite remnants in the party get their way, the Tories could be building for themselves a version of the road walked by the Japanese centre-right for decades.