You’ve got to hand it to Liz Truss. It is customary for prime ministers to spend their retirement wasting into tragic figures. Tony Blair is trapped in his own VR presidency, whizzing from plutocrats’ private islands to thought leadership conferences. Theresa May continues to collapse under the weight of her contradictions – most recently coming out as “woke and proud” as she plugs a new book. Gordon Brown, having falsely prophesied the divine termination of boom and bust, now spends his time repenting as a Fabian social justice warrior.
There’s something slightly different about Truss. Perhaps because she wasn’t in office long enough to go mad, there has been no period of roving in the existential wilderness. Truss could easily have fled to front a libertarian think tank in America, convincing herself, like Blair, that her grandiose ambitions were too much for her quaint and backward country to handle. To her credit, she has stayed in Westminster.
True, it’s easy to be cynical. There is little doubt that the former PM is keen to salvage some of her economic credibility following last year’s mini-Budget debacle. Her railings against a powerful new “anti-growth coalition” and the OBR conveniently distracts from her own mistakes. What Truss’s critics miss, though, is that right now she is the only one standing up for some fundamental truths. Thank heavens there is a politician willing to challenge the new received wisdom that free market economics is to blame for Britain’s woes. For some reason, Truss’s colleagues have trouble explaining to voters that it is a Third Way Blairism – a bid to bankroll an extensive welfare state through cheap money and deregulated finance – that has imploded, not the actual capitalist system. Truss is also one of the few senior British politicians who grasps that the West is in crisis because it has lost its taste for the secret sauce that made it successful – namely freedom.
That said, Truss’s attack on the New Orthodoxy slightly misses the target. What freedom fighters are faced with today is not a new international socialist front but a global cult aimed at purging societies of risk. While Truss sounds the klaxon for the free market, Keir Starmer is trying to enlist the likes of Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron into an international centrist front against the new “axis of insecurity”. The destabilising demons that he hopes they can slay range from the cost of living crisis to climate change. Although in her Institute for Government speech Truss trotted out her familiar point that today’s orthodoxy is more interested in distributing the pie than increasing it, the fact is the Labour government-in-waiting does have a plan for growth.
The problem is that it is conventional and fundamentally wrong. The belief that the UK can escape its rut by unlocking international investment through a stretch of political stability and ever closer relations with the EU is dangerously misplaced. Britain is not poor because it left the EU and has had three different prime ministers in the last 13 months. Britain is poor because it is a city state attached to an agrarian land mass. Wisened elites since the late 19th century have relentlessly prioritised global finance and symbols of economic competence over innovation and productive growth. The notion that a country that has been sabotaged by a string of bad calls by elites should now put its faith in technocratic sensibilism is perverse. To cure Britain of its longstanding sickness, what the patient needs is not subsidies, centralised industrial plans and EU integration but highly focused R&D, massive deregulation and ideally lower taxes. But of course, as Truss pointed out yesterday, libertarian policies simply aren’t fashionable on the London dinner party circuit. Nor do they have much appeal at the lunch table in Dudley.
Liberty has stopped being logically intuitive in a country that never hears politicians make the fundamental point that greater security can only be gained through greater freedom. The logic that the NHS requires a dynamic economy will continue to fall on deaf ears as long as free marketers fail to repeat the mantra that freedom enhances security at every opportunity. As Swedish exceptionalism and the triumph of the vaccine taskforce proved during Covid, a society dedicated to innovation and personal responsibility is ultimately a safer one. When it comes to tackling climate change, resolving key innovation bottlenecks in carbon capture and wind power storage – in no small part through deregulation – is a far superior strategy to endless subsidies and Soviet social engineering. Yet Tories rarely make these basic points.
But an even bigger problem is that, in a world where a precarious middle class is being drawn to security over liberty, the Right lacks a basic emotional argument for freedom. In the 1980s, libertarians were pushing at an open door. Thatcherite thrift and self-reliance struck a spiritual chord with a generation raised by wartime parents. Hollywood was still proselytising rugged individualism through cowboy films. Politics that defied the orthodoxy was sexy. But such imaginings of freedom simply have less power today.
Millennials have been raised to value empathy above competitiveness and autonomy. On our cinema screens, the ordinary heroes of the West have been usurped by superhero saviours. Advertisers have decided that it is not liberty but messianism that sells. Nike once implored us with a rebellious glint to Just Do It. It now urges us: Find Your Greatness. Perhaps in the 21st century, only a wholesome vision of freedom – one that argues not just for free markets and free speech, but also positive self-realisation – can cut through. That would demand the Right come up with an actual vision of the future, beyond the much derided fantasy of Singapore-on-Thames.
In order to do so, Conservatives might sneakily take a leaf out of the Left’s book. The reason that the socialist green fantasy is so powerful is that it is literally visualisable. Electric cars and edible water bottles. What is the Right-wing alternative? Revolutionising education through AI tuition? Ending food poverty through 3D-printed food? For now though, in the battle of ideas, it is freedom that is losing – and badly. Liz Truss should be applauded, if only for being one of the last remaining defenders of a lonely cause.