With extraordinary candour Theresa May has admitted that the case for the free market is not the given she believed it to be. Had she alone thought so she could be dismissed at once as naÃ¯ve, but since the belief was widespread we cannot blame her personally. There was a general feeling, a presumption that the argument was settled. We were at the end of ideology. From now on, for centuries or millennia, there would be no further question of essential values. The aberration that was socialism had failed, and could now be consigned to the museum of curiosities where spiritualism and flat earth theories could be viewed for idle amusement.
That was not how it was once. When I left school in the Seventies I moved from a world of late-imperial nostalgia and an Anglican ascendancy into the modern world. I walked into a paradise where the bedrock political assumption was social democracy in a climate of intellectual and cultural experiment. The welfare state was the benevolent guarantor. Free education of all kinds was widely available. Free health care was an unassailable virtue. If on graduating you were to face difficulties through disability or lack of prospects the caring state would be there to help. It was not utopia but, looking back, it may seem like a lost golden age of social good. Free education, health and social care. These were freedoms long fought for that were generally thought unassailable.
Of course there remained the problems that weren’t being addressed. The presumption that class differences and regional social contrasts were fading proved to be an illusion. There was discontent beneath the surface. Much of it, as I detected even at the time, arose from a suspicion of art and intellect and their aura of metropolitan sophistication. These things were often, if erroneously, viewed in terms of privilege.
When people are emotionally wound-up they lash out wildly at the wrong target. There was a popular groundswell of resentment that turned its fury on the ‘left-wing intellectuals and so-called experts’ who advocated the welfare state on which ordinary people relied. Reactionary opportunists articulated this resentment, exploiting its fears thus:
‘It was better in the old days. We were poor but we were proud. We worked hard to better ourselves. We didn’t expect hand-outs. We accepted what life had to offer and were grateful that we lived in a country that led the world in civilised values. We survived the depression and two world wars to ensure our nation remained free. In peacetime we never had it so good. Today we see our values and our freedom rapidly fading under the crushing weight of socialist dogma that is leading us towards moral chaos and inescapable tyranny.’
If I write any more of that nonsense I’ll start to believe it. More seriously, when you tune into that way of thinking you see the desperation born of uninformed emotions. The tabloids exploit and exacerbate these emotions. The liberal media are either too complacent or inappropriately tolerant. The fear of losing popular sympathy is stronger than conviction and conscience.
This government, ‘strong and stable’, believes in a ‘high wage, low tax, low welfare’ economy. Work means prosperity. Prosperity means you can provide for yourself and your family. You can be self-reliant. You can be free.
You can be free to take on a mortgage you can’t afford. You can be free to borrow to make up the difference. You can be free to work anti-social hours for the minimum wage. You can be free to see your enterprise fail. You can be free to die neglected and alone.
The argument for pooling national resources so that all may share according to their needs is not a wicked illusion. It is not an impossible dream. Social justice does not come from the generosity of private wealth. It is common wealth, and its currency is not just money. Social justice is not an act of personal charity.
It is a requirement of an advanced civilisation.
The freedom that is to be valued is the right to articulate a case that may not be accepted universally but is morally and intellectually valid. We also have the duty to argue our case in rational terms sourced in credible reality.
It is a freedom the reactionary right does not respect because to the conformist there is no debate. It is simple. There is no need to define one’s terms.
‘Brexit means Brexit,’ says May. ‘Everyone knows what is meant by socialism,’ Thatcher replied when asked to expound her attitude. Why waste time discussing the obvious when we have the freedom to obey the dictates of the market?
The lack of broad reference is unimaginable to anyone of a serious liberal education. The lack of intellectual depth is inexcusable. I can remember in the Seventies picking up in a junk shop a dusty copy of Hayek’s The Servile State before discarding it as transparently trite and dull. The point is that I and many others were seeking challenging resolutions rather than facile prescriptions from any quarter.
We understood that the case for social revaluation is not self-evident. Precedence and continuity are not to be readily dismissed. The hope was to build upon the social democratic traditions. The tide of history was flowing to the left.
Thatcher understood that, which is why her style was combative even in power.
She was swimming against the tide.
The myth is that her legacy was to turn the tide. The reality is that geopolitical events across the world occasioned a change of general feeling. Or, rather, a highly selective interpretation of global events manipulated the change. The fall of Apartheid, for example, was reported as a triumph of Western liberalism rather than of African socialism. The remarkable advance of radical democracy throughout Latin America has been either ignored, under-reported or prejudicially dismissed.
What was not properly discussed was how the nature of internationalism had been transformed from the exhausted Soviet model to flexible and dynamic experiments that the free market could not control. Gorbachev in retirement advertised American Express on Russian TV. By contrast, Mandela declared his inspiration was revolutionary Cuba.
Capitalism seeks to embrace, absorb and commodify everything. It can absorb even some of the challenges to its monopoly of truth. What it cannot absorb it fears in its soul. The argument for the free market has not been won. ‘There was a general feeling, a presumption that the argument was settled’ I wrote in the first paragraph. Initially I wrote, by accident, not feeling but failing. My unconscious got it right.
The failing ran deeply into those areas of public space that continued to believe they were liberal. They were not offering a critical examination of the claims poseurs, wide-boys and racketeers were presenting as popular capitalism. Instead we had at the 2017 election [to look no further] a nightly vox pop on our screens. It was always the same: ageing, inarticulate and uncharitable dismissal of all social optimism. The message was clear: a triumphant free market government was going to crush, perhaps for ever, the delusions of an alternative democracy. As in the USA, so it would be here and everywhere.
Well, the right was wrong. So this weak and inept government flounders desperately seeking to win against the odds. It can change personnel, but it cannot change its indelible character of institutional thinking about problems that urgently require creative solutions.
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This post was written by Geoffrey Heptonstall