Theresa May and the return of Tory socialism

theresa-may-conf-2016

Theresa May declared war on the “socialist left and the libertarian right” yesterday as she set out her plan to seize the centre-ground of British politics. As a fully-paid up Tory libertarian I find it hard not to take that just a little bit personally.

A country that works for everyone, not the privileged few”: Those are the words with which Mrs May seized the Tory crown back in July. Since then we’ve been waiting to find out what she meant.

The Prime Minister is reputedly a big fan of early twentieth century political titan Joseph Chamberlain. Her combination of unapologetic patriotism and big state interventionism is absolutely in the tradition of the party-hopping municipal socialist.

“While government does not have all the answers”, Mrs May allowed, “government can and should be a force for good… the state exists to provide what individual people, communities and markets cannot”. She later pledged to rein in “dysfunctional” markets and support key industries.

This will be music to the ears of disaffected Labour centrists looking for a new home. It will not go down so well with the pro-freedom Thatcherite wing of the Conservative Party.

Mrs May wants the Tories to be the party of “ordinary working-class people”. That is an admirable ambition, one best delivered through a strong economy.

Libertarians hate poverty too. But we know it is not government that creates economic growth, jobs, and prosperity. It is the actions of millions of individuals living in a free society under the rule of law. Want to eliminate poverty? Free up markets, cut taxes and enforce the damned rule of law.

We’ve been down this road before. The social-democratic consensus of the postwar years left British industry stagnant; British democracy under siege from militant trade unionism; and the British economy a high inflation, high unemployment laughing stock. It took Margaret Thatcher’s hard-fought revolution in the 1980s to restore national confidence. That revolution was left half finished.

The government already does far too much. We pay nearly half our income in taxes. Britain’s tax code is so long and complicated it rewards big business who can afford to pay shrewd accountants and lawyers. Planning restrictions and cheap money drive up the cost of housing and penalise saving. State investment in renewables drives up energy bills. Government borrowing is still out of control.

The problem with staking out the “centre ground” of politics is that you allow your opponent to control the terms of debate. There can be no compromise between good ideas and bad ones. The last female Tory Prime Minister grasped this point. I fear that Mrs May does not.

With Labour moving towards full-on Marxism under Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, the Conservatives had a golden opportunity to set out a radical vision for a free and independent Britain. Instead they bottled it to gain a temporary political advantage.

Last weekend, Mrs May vowed to deliver what many commentators call a ‘hard’ Brexit (although personally I prefer the term ‘proper Brexit’). Britain will be free to trade with the rest of the world, set its own business regulation, and control immigration on it’s own terms.

That is a massive commitment and a positive one, and the Prime Minister  should still be commended for getting Brexit right. Of course, I suspect there’s an element of calculation at work here. The “libertarian right” get the Brexit they want but they also have to swallow Mrs May’s authoritarian approach to the economy.

A few days ago, many of us were gleefully comparing Theresa May to Mrs Thatcher herself. Clearly this was a mistake. Mrs May has decided our views do not matter in her brave new statist world. Indeed, she she appears to be resurrecting the bad old days of Tory socialism.

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