UK politics: Liberals are still winning – even if they don’t know it
Ideas do not need a sponsoring party to thrive, just to be better than their rivals
Maybe British prime minister Theresa May has a genius plan for a more managed economy stored away, but do not bet on it. Photograph: Danny Lawson/PA Wire
The Strange Death of Liberal England was the strange birth of a journalistic cliché. Since George Dangerfield’s 1935 book writers have bent its title to address the “strange death of Labour England”, the “strange death of Tory Scotland” and other peculiar demises until it became as much proof of authorial sloth as starting a piece with “It is a truth universally acknowledged . . .” Reader, I plead guilty.
So much fame for such a misleading title. Yes, the formally constituted enterprise called the Liberal Party waned before the first World War, for reasons itemised by Dangerfield.
Its ideas lived on. Labour and Conservative governments took turns to run a market-led mixed economy for the rest of the century. After Britain’s reckoning with the International Monetary Fund in 1976, the nation loosened into a globalised bazaar in which any Victorian merchant would have felt at home. By then, people were freer to choose who they slept with, what they read and whether to have children than they were in the notional Liberal zenith of 1906.
An idea does not need a sponsoring party to prosper. It just needs to be better than its rivals. Liberals should clutch this thought as they feel besieged by the times.
The reaction by liberals – and let us define them as people who were not averse to the way the country has been run for the past 40 years – has combined despair with something similarly misplaced. That is, desire for a formal gathering of forces and a co-ordinated fightback. Some dream of a new Whig party that unites modernist Tories, New Labour remnants and market-minded Liberal Democrats, like fantasy football enthusiasts itching to team up Mesut Ozil and Kevin de Bruyne.
The fantasy is fun – I share it – but, even if old tribalisms dissolved and the electoral system, with its bias to incumbents, gave way, there are not many self-identifying liberals. Voters have not chosen free markets and cultural laxity in recent decades; they have gone along with them in the absence of compelling alternatives. That remains liberalism’s best hope in the years ahead.
Beside the coming curb on immigration, post-liberalism is made of smoke. The policies are not there. Maybe May has a genius plan for a more managed economy stored away but do not bet on it. The British state has no enthusiasm or competence for such a burden, even after the experience of the financial crash. Fiscal policy might be tweaked at the margins to allow more infrastructure spending, but the treasury is already scotching the midsummer hype about a new Keynesian dawn of concrete and steel.
The British press leads the world in holding governments to account, except in one respect. We have a certain credulity about their grand visions. When a politician talks of reforming capitalism, our ears prick up and our fingers file reports about a comeback for industrial policy and a strategic break with the past. It is not a strategic anything. It is a person saying some stuff. Real life is not that amenable to avowed intentions.
The point is not that all will be fine. Britain will probably suffer materially from EU exit. If the government uses it to restrict foreign students, it can save time by burning big heaps of money instead.
But corporatism will not come back. Just because May has Christian Democrat instincts and her adviser once wrote a learned book about Joseph Chamberlain, the great interventionist, does not mean you will soon wake up in the Rhineland. Beyond that lighter migrant presence, it is hard to see how cultural life will be rigidified either, or why.
If liberalism carried the past 40 years, it did so despite a Tory party whose members were old and disconcerted by social change. It did so despite Labour never warming to its “New” guise. It did so despite public attitudes on many subjects. It did so despite Margaret Thatcher’s own cultural conservatism. What told was that every other idea was worse. Count on that, fellow liberals, not a new dream team of the like-minded. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2016