Having spent decades deriding the left’s impracticality, the right are now falling into the same trap as Britain prepares to leave the EUby Ido Vock / August 8, 2017 / Leave a comment
When the Channel Tunnel opened in 1994, Le Figaro’s splash lauded “the end of British insularity.” So much for that. In retrospect, the Queen’s speech for the occasion was a more accurate reading of the British national ethos, measuredly paying tribute to the project as a successful marriage between “French élan and British pragmatism.”
The British right is very good at appealing to the national perception of ourselves as a level-headed, practical people. Unlike the profligate continentals, they tell us, we are above letting ideological imperatives take precedence over economic realities.
On issue after issue where the left has the instinctive upper hand, and was winning the argument on the continent—wealth equality, say, or workers’ rights—the right batted away the solutions proposed by the left as dogmatic utopianism, leaving them nonstarters in Britain.
When, in the late sixties, Labour began floating the idea of a wealth tax to even out the distribution of accumulated capital, the monetarist economist Harry G. Johnson dismissed the proposal as “arbitrary, unfair, and counter-productive” on the basis that the tax would not only be impossible to accurately calculate, but would be easily evaded by the asset-rich. (A wealth tax made it into the February 1974 manifesto, but was never enacted during Labour’s term in office.)
Likewise, even the modest acquis of a minimum wage took until 1998 to come to the UK—far later than other western European countries. The Conservative opposition which helped delay its introduction was articulated by John Redwood during the debate on the National Minimum Wage Bill 1998, who stated that, as much as he wished to see low pay disappear, “legislation cannot create prosperity.”
In short, the right has always argued that the dogmatic pursuit of an ideological goal, even if in theory desirable, cannot be allowed to encroach on growth.
The position has served them well thus far. It’s said that Margaret Thatcher believed her greatest achievement to be Tony Blair and New Labour, because she had made them change their minds. Once the left regained power in 1997, it was forced to make its case on the right’s terms, notably by prioritising growth over any social or ideological objectives.
But now, having spent decades deriding the left’s attempts to reshape society as doctrinarism, the right are now falling into the same trap as Britain prepares to leave the EU.
The British government is handling Brexit embarrassingly. While the EU has had a consistent negotiating position since the day after the referendum—broadly, that the UK cannot be better off out than in, and a prerequisite for single market membership is accepting the free movement of people—the cabinet still cannot agree upon a common approach.
The situation is so bad that the Europeans apparently believe Whitehall’s disarray to be a ploy designed to strengthen the British hand when negotiations resume in the autumn.
Of course, the government claims they have a mandate for leaving, no matter how economically pernicious the result will be. As a recent poll showed, this approach has the backing of 60 per cent of Leave voters, who agree that “significant damage to the British economy” is a price worth paying to be out of the EU.
But the reason why the right has been so successful at setting the agenda for decades is the distrust of utopianism which lies at the heart of the liberal worldview. As Douglas Carswell, on the losing side of every argument in UKIP and a radical Whig at heart, once told me, human social and economic affairs are not best organised by grand design. Yet the course the right has committed itself to is the relentless pursuit of an end goal, against most practical considerations. It is almost the definition of utopianism.
If their grand designs—primarily regaining some parliamentary sovereignty, and seeing immigration drop—are worth sacrificing growth for, how will the right be able to convincingly claim that the left’s are not? When confronted with the accusation that such-and-such policy would hurt the economy, the left will, quite credibly, be able to brandish the Tory record on Brexit in support of its case for moulding society in its image.
After all, if losing jobs is an acceptable price to pay for repatriating some power to parliament, there is little good reason why the same cannot be said of addressing Britain’s stratospheric asset inequality, or getting a better deal for Britain’s low-paid.
Both the Queen and Le Figaro had a point in their competing interpretations of the British national mood, even if the reports of the death of British insularity made by Le Figaro’s were, in hindsight, greatly exaggerated. Professor Anne Power of the LSE once wrote of the “insular pragmatism” of the British government. The sentiment might well be extended to the people the state looks over.
Insularity and pragmatism are the defining characteristics of these islands. As support for the former swells, the Conservatives would do well to take a leaf out of their own intellectual history, and remember that it need not erase the latter.