To borrow Oscar Wilde’s quip concerning the loss of life of Little Nell, it might take a coronary heart of stone to not hear the wails of free-market Brexiters with out laughing. Current weeks have seen a flurry of laments, fury and blame-shifting by main Leavers, from Nigel Farage to Lord Frost. However maybe essentially the most hanging was an article by Daniel Hannan, a central determine within the Brexit motion, which appeared below the headline, “The liberal Brexit dream is dying” — although naturally he blamed the “Europhile institution”.
Hannan, a considerate Brexiter, exemplifies a pressure of Tory Leavers, the financial liberals who believed within the sovereignty arguments however primarily noticed exiting the EU because the car for a low tax, decrease regulation and fewer statist UK.
As an alternative, they now survey a panorama of upper taxes, with companies complaining about elevated regulation, extra state intervention and even dialogue about voluntary worth caps in supermarkets.
This, then, was a lament not merely for the misplaced Brexit dream but in addition for a misplaced Conservative social gathering. In actuality, their promised land was all the time a fantasy, however in allying with Tory nationalists and Gaullists in opposition to these looking for a softer Brexit, the Depart liberals additionally surrendered the financial argument. A extra lively state was the value of getting Brexit. They received the warfare however misplaced the peace.
This helps clarify one other puzzle of British politics. Why are Conservatives so offended after they’ve received in so some ways? For a celebration supposedly beset by obstruction, they’ve achieved lots of their goals. Via Brexit, they’ve modified British overseas and commerce coverage and brought management of immigration. They’ve redirected funding in direction of left-behind areas and pivoted the UK away from its pro-China stance. One can object to all this; a lot has not labored out as they would want. However it’s not the file of an insignificant authorities and the following election shall be fought on their terrain.
The fashion is the fury of these Thatcherite Tories. Brexit did ship for them, repatriating energy to British politicians and thru them, British voters. Their mistake was to assume it might change the priorities of the voters, miraculously reworking the median voter into Friedrich Hayek.
Key to the miscalculation was Brexit’s impression on their social gathering. Since Thatcher, there have been three legs to the Tory stool — the free-marketers, the traditionalist social conservatives and the metropolitan Tories — exemplified by the management of David Cameron and George Osborne.
Although this final group was extra culturally liberal, economically they have been nonetheless Thatcherites. They believed in free commerce, globalisation, decrease taxes to encourage funding and lowered public spending. Earlier than the referendum, the social and financial liberals have been broadly aligned.
Brexit smashed this coalition. However Depart liberals have been sluggish to recognise that Brexit was additionally a revolt in opposition to their ideology, delivered by the populist arguments of those that have been hardline on immigration, suspicious of massive enterprise, eager on tradition wars and comfy with a extra interventionist state and better-funded public companies. The well-known Brexit pledge was, in spite of everything, extra money for the NHS.
Throughout the referendum itself, the alliance made sense. However as soon as it was over, as an alternative of allying with the globalists and Remainers turned soft-Brexiters, many free-market Leavers made widespread trigger with populists who by no means shared their financial imaginative and prescient. They believed that maximising “Brexit freedoms” would safe the smaller state.
Key UK service industries — and affluent southern voters — have been sacrificed to a nasty commerce deal as they constructed a brand new Tory electoral coalition. This delivered victory however handed their social gathering to populists and weakened those that shared their financial values. The clues have been all the time there, not least within the brazenly interventionist Boris Johnson’s “fuck enterprise” outburst. The pandemic destroyed their room for manoeuvre by wrecking the general public funds however the move had already been bought.
Their determined try and regain the initiative was to desert a core perception in fiscal prudence for the chaos of the Liz Truss authorities: it shredded the Tory repute for financial competence and the free-market trigger.
However even when Truss used her solely social gathering convention speech as chief to rail in opposition to the “anti-growth coalition”, she failed to note it was sitting in entrance of her, within the rows of Nimbys, immigration hawks and urbanite-hating tradition warriors. The social gathering is locked right into a low development financial mannequin and a perception in spending cuts which struggles to be particular.
In equity, the world has additionally modified. Free commerce, globalisation and co-operation have given strategy to competing energy blocs. The pivot to Asia coincided with the retreat from its largest market whereas local weather change and power safety demand extra state intervention.
The upshot is that the social gathering’s centre of gravity and electoral calculations have shifted to satisfy a brand new goal voter who’s socially conservative and economically left-leaning. The populists have the higher hand. The neoliberal argument should be received yet again.
So, sure, the free market Tories misplaced their Brexit dream, their financial mannequin and perhaps their social gathering too. Nevertheless it was not stolen by the Europhile institution. They traded it away in simply one other dangerous Brexit deal.