I’m old enough to remember when the libertarian right in the Federation of Conservative Students (FCS) sang Tomorrow Belongs To Me. At the time it seemed all of a piece with the Hang Nelson Mandela posters and their other leftie-baiting antics. It’s only with the benefit of hindsight that we can see just how much tomorrow really did belong to them.
By the mid-1980s, the libertarians in the FCS had vanquished the other two factions, the moderates (or ‘Wets’) and the authoritarians, the traditional Powellite Monday Club right. Their combination of free-market economic policies and a degree of social liberalism was very much in tune with the zeitgeist. Despite some traditionalist authoritarian rhetoric, the main emphasis of Conservative policies during the 1980s and 1990s was economic; deregulation, privatisation and weakening the unions. The period since has been characterised by what David Goodhart called the victory of the Two Liberalisms. George Osborne epitomises the post 1980s Tory; a fiscal conservative who cuts public spending and welfare but a social liberal who congratulates a colleague on her same-sex marriage.
The libertarians in the FCS re-defined what it meant to be a right-wing Tory. As a friend of mine put it at the time, “It’s no longer about hanging and flogging, it’s about cutting taxes, busting unions and privatising everything down to the street lights.” Their rivals on the right faded into the background. By the time the Monday Club was finally expelled from the Conservative Party in 2000 it been a busted flush for well over a decade.
Having beaten their right-wing rivals, shaped their party’s agenda and made a good start on redesigning the country in their own image you might have thought that the libertarian right would be happy. They weren’t, though. In the early 1990s I met a few of them on a warm summer evening in a pub in Westminster after some conference they’d been to. They were as frustrated as hell. Sure, John Major was continuing the privatisation policies and there was more trade union legislation in the pipeline but the revolution seemed to be running out of steam. Breaking up “the ultimate socialist bureaucracy”, the NHS, seemed as far away as ever. The British were wedded to it and nothing, it seemed, would change their minds. Furthermore, support for privatisation had been bought. Most of those who took advantage of the cheap shares still didn’t agree with it on principle. They still don’t. The root of the problem was that the British people still wouldn’t buy into the wider libertarian vision.
There was another problem too. Even as wages councils were being abolished, the railways privatised and council services put out to tender, the European Union was threatening to impose ‘socialism by the back door’ in the form of new labour regulations under the Maastricht Treaty. “It will take us right back to the 1970s,” they said. Many on the libertarian right had been opposed to the EU for some time but now their hatred reached a new level of vehemence.
Over time, the EU’s role as the regulation bogey-man seemed to grow. To an extent, the liberal-left colluded with the story. We saw these arguments played out during the EU referendum, with some on the left warning of a bonfire of workers rights in the event of a Leave vote and some on the right cheerfully predicting one. Clearly, the EU was the fount of all red-tape and leaving it would free the libertarian right up to finish the revolution which stalled in the 1990s.
But there was a flaw in this plan which seemed to get lost in the euphoria of the Brexit vote. It was the same one that was there in the early 1990s and it hasn’t gone away. British voters don’t share the free-marketers’ vision.
The important thing to understand about right-wing libertarianism is that it is a very eccentric viewpoint. It looks mainstream because it has a number of well-funded think-tanks pushing its agenda and its adherents are over-represented in politics and the media. The public, though, have never swallowed it. Countless think-tank papers, opinion pieces and editorials, telling us that shrinking the state is just common sense and that re-nationalisation is a loony left pipe-dream, have had remarkably little effect. The majority of people still want the railways and utilities taken back into public ownership and the proportion who want significant cuts to public spending has never even reached 10 percent. After three decades of haranguing by well-placed and well-funded small-staters, public opinion hasn’t budged.
Chart from British Social Attitudes 34, June 2017
Over the last few decades, public opinion has swung between spending more and spending the same, support for the latter peaking during the period when David Cameron and George Osborne persuaded lots of voters that Labour has crashed the economy by borrowing too much. Yet even at this point, there was no support for cutting the size of the state. As Chris Dillow never tires of pointing out, Cameron and Osborne never really made a coherent case for state shrinkage. The Big Society came and went and the moment passed.
The BSA survey, showing that public opinion had swung back to higher spending, was greeted with dismay on the libertarian right. “The British people have forgotten the perils of big government,” said Kate Andrews of the Institute of Economic Affairs.
“Alas, the big state is coming back into fashion,” said City A.M.’s Christian May:
Depressingly, support for “reduce taxes and spend less” has never broken above 10 per cent since the survey’s inception in 1983. This, as they say, is the ball game. A large and growing percentage of the population now favours an increase in taxation and a hike in state spending.
Coming so soon after the Labour Party’s much better-than-expected performance in the election, it had some people very worried. “All that matters now is stopping Corbyn,” cried Andrew Lilico. And what if a radical socialist government, backed by propertyless millennials, were to start seizing property? The prospect is so terrifying that he would almost rather stay in the EU to keep some legal protection from the red menace.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. The aftermath of the Brexit vote hasn’t turned out the way that those on the libertarian right, who largely organised and financed the Leave campaign, hoped.
Firstly, the right-wing populism they fuelled to win the vote has turned out to be more like that of their old Monday Club rivals; nationalist and statist. As the Economist’s Bagehot column said, after a long absence, the shadow of Enoch Powell is back. The result was the most interventionist Tory manifesto for a generation, aimed at winning and keeping those voters who care more about security and immigration than tax cuts and deregulation.
Secondly, the idea of turning out to vote in large numbers to upset the political establishment has caught on among the young. The libertarian right tried to claim the anti-establishment rebellion as its own. It would have been fine if it had been restricted to older and more conservative voters. But young and younger middle-aged voters decided to have a go too and they gave their votes to Jeremy Corbyn.
And, of course, were there to be a socialist government after the UK leaves the EU, it could tax, spend, nationalise and intervene in whatever it liked. It could even bring in a Brexit Retribution Act to seize the property of all the wealthy old men who persuaded us to leave the EU. That’s parliamentary sovereignty for you.
Lurid dystopian fantasies aside, though, the zeitgeist is definitely shifting back towards the big state. There is talk on all sides of easing up on spending cuts and the public sector pay cap. The initiatives on employment, led by Matthew Taylor and on productivity, led by Tony Danker, may be the beginnings of a greater role for the state in the workplace; a more interventionist policy than any seen since the 1980s. And that’s just the Conservatives.
So far from Brexit being the cue for the Thatcher revolution’s last phase, it may mark the end of it altogether. The period that Jeremy Gilbert dubbed the Long 90s, that were shaped so much my the libertarian right, may now be drawing to a close. It’s no wonder the small-staters are so exercised. They have now realised that tomorrow belongs to someone else.