Can we put our faith in Truss?

This was written on 10 October 2022. That is, 34 days into the 44 days of Liz Truss’s premiership (6 September 2022 – 20 October 2022). I originally called the piece, “Can We Trust Liz?”. I have changed only the online title of the piece which appears below. I wrote what and when I did because it seemed cowardly not to. It now seems cowardly not to post it (31/12/22). My enduring point is that there is never a perfect moment for reform, nor a perfect reformer. Her own “unforced errors” may have put the kybosh on Liz Truss’ reform mission. She may have set back our chances of reversing 70-odd years of socialism. More likely, and more hopefully, she has usefully let the cat out of the bag and broken the mould, etc etc.

Can we trust Liz?
Written 10 October 2022

A few weeks into her premiership, it is early days to comment on the government of Liz Truss. On the other hand, since she hit the ground running, and dropped bombshells willy-nilly, it would be a bit cowardly not to say one’s piece now, rather than do belated second-guessing when the dust has settled.

Liz Truss is the first Conservative leader to sound as though she might have read some Hayek, that complex, invaluable figure. She seems to have been energised by Institute of Economic Affairs radicalism (as was the sainted but not entirely consistent or infallible Mrs Thatcher). It will be ghastly if Truss’s actions (the clever and the bizarre) put this agenda on a back-burner for another generation. Fingers crossed that she proves the beginning of, not a roadblock in, progress towards a better state and society. That is, a world where voluntary activities (including capitalism) have more scope than under our present pseudo-socialist system.

I am a fan of the Truss agenda, though I have never been in the Tory selectorate. I might well have voted for Rishi Sunak had I been. I saw some merit in his view that one could not have picked a worse moment to embark on a low tax approach to achieving rapid growth. But I have been cowardly all along, like so many Tories. I didn’t vote for Brexit in 2016, and instead hoped we might stay in and work for a looser, Brit-style EU. However, I rather thrilled to the referendum result and became, belatedly, quite a keen Brexiteer. Indeed, I kick myself for my gradualism. Similarly, I trembled or grimmaced at many of Truss’s leadership campaign remarks and much of her style, not least her rummages in the Thatcher dressing-up box, and her revisionist origin story. But once she was selected, I thrilled to her chancellor’s mini-budget (or whatever it is now called).

It is entirely possible that Truss will grow into her role. In time (perhaps more time than voters will give her) she may be seen to have got a good deal right.

Truss has, however, been bold only on the “low tax” bit of the IEA’s “low tax, small state” agenda. For instance, like the rest of the electable right, she has not dared to discuss a less socialist approach to the health system and much other state activity. A thorough-going reformer would have promoted as a long-term, even multi-generational, ambition, an insurance- and savings-based approach to health, education, welfare and pensions. If she or someone doesn’t, we will be throwing away the best bit of Beveridge-style thinking. His famous 1942 report was actually called Social Insurance and Allied Services, and the “insurance” bit was soon a dangerous sham.

At a lesser level, Truss also blew the chance to redeem her “no handouts” remarks. She surely should have limited her energy subsidies to those who really needed them? Come to that, she might have said that only poor old people should have triple-locked state pensions.

These are cavils.

The main plank of my defence of Trussery is that there was no good time in which to lay into and undermine the complacent orthodoxy of the social democratic project. AKA state socialism, this belongs to the left which (as Keith Joseph saw) they have driven deep into the national psyche and practice by a sort of ratchet process. It took a Truss to start the unwinding work, and, frankly, this kind of deep reform was bound to need a counter-trend maverick who was hardly likely to look and sound like Mrs Normal.

Autumn 2022 was a tumultuous time worldwide in which to launch a pioneer UK policy, not least with only a couple of years in which to garner enough success for it to make a Conservative victory likely. That said, it was richly absurd to have campaigned for weeks on a platform whose implications the markets seemed to have priced-in, only then to have her Chancellor spray out random bomblets which set off new alarm klaxons. Perhaps it was asking too much of a  campaigning politician to warn her selectorate, or the wider electorate, that they were about to suffer widespread turmoil which would raise interest – and mortgage – rates as the world adjusts away from super-cheap money. Banging on about Putin was, in this context, something of a convenient distraction.

Having spooked the markets, and given the media such lovely headlines, it will be hard for Truss to escape the blame for any financial difficulties, even those in which her policies have a very small part. There is no narrative so stubborn as a really ahistorical one. It may even be that her premiership leads to the splintering of the Conservative Party. Her time in office may prove that the free market, small state tendency needs to free itself from medium tax, big state orthodoxy to thrive. Goodness knows how all those cards may stack up. I speak, however, as one who has no idea how many of the tens of thousands of [paid-up] Tories actually liked her Big Idea.

Still, I have lots of reasons to wish Truss well. She has broadly the right ideology. She is boldly anti-Woke. She has all the right critics, not least (as I guess) the FT and the Economist and the Davosocracy. She has gone a long way toward liberating the UK from the hegemonic socialist narrative. I have no idea what variety or blend of Austrian or Chicago or Keynesian or any other school of economics ought to be dominant in our or any other economy. My faith in the low tax, small state agenda is much more cultural and social than it is strictly economic. My beliefs are personal in two senses: I have held them for 50-some [years] without tutoring or persuasion from anyone; and besides, they flow from a feeling that socialism weakens people as persons except when they rebel against it.

Some background colour

I am in a band of one which I have labelled the Civilised Right-wing. That’s to say (amongst much else) I believe the state should not provide welfare, education, health or broadcasting. It shouldn’t do much to redistribute wealth. So, yes, I believe in low taxes and a small state. I am far more worried about poverty than inequality. I believe that every unit of the state’s do-gooding effort drains a unit of strength from wider society. What the state currently does, the voluntary sector should deliver. “Voluntary” means capitalism, including “Five Percent Philanthropy”, and charitable and co-operative activity. Indeed, as I am pretty sure Hayek thought, the state should at most provide safety net welfare services. It will almost certainly have to provide an element of compulsion to the insurance and savings systems which could fund better service provision. It will have to subsidise the unfortunate and maybe even the feckless who won’t or can’t buy insurance, or save. I imagine that the democratic state will always be tempted to work as a shock-absorber for the unfortunate in especially dire times. Canny voters ought to be aware that almost any state do-gooding leads to chronic mission creep, however well-intentioned.

One of the oddest features of socialism is that it calls itself progressive (looking forward to coming sunny uplands) and has persuaded almost everyone that Conservatism is regressive (looking backward at vanished sunny uplands). I resist both characterisations. Certainly, I am not a nostalgist. Yes, I fear my generation lacks many of the qualities of our own parents (for all that too many of them swallowed the socialist message) and our grandparents (for all that they were casually racist). It was my Boomer crowd that weakened belief in Representative Democracy and its institutions. And it was my Boomers who fell for cultural relativism.

I enjoy this country’s history (including much of its Imperial record, and its pretty early and widespread acceptance that colonialism had no future). I note that the new affluence of the 19th Century produced exactly the sorts of instruments (firms, charities, co-ops, associations) which might have blossomed into a do-gooding system we could be proud. Instead, they were weakened or snuffed out by socialism. It is also true that modern capitalists and managers have not been champions of the “pro bono + profit” approach which are probably crucial to a voluntary welfare system, and that will need fixing. (I suggest elsewhere that a revived sense of professionalism will help there.)

The main plank of small state thinking ought to be that modern affluence is so much greater than anything known to history that we can recall the old voluntary systems and build on them with renewed confidence. Socialist government was a failed 20th Century experiment which we need to shrug off. And yes, we could usefully read our Hayek, and more widely than is usual. His famous Road to Serfdom was over-egged. British socialism did not lead to Stalinism here, as he seemed to predict it would. It didn’t lead to Britons becoming serfs, though they did become grumpy, ungrateful state dependents. Time to move on.

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Publication date

31 December 2022