‘This is not the time for ideology’, said Rishi Sunak, the UK’s new Chancellor of the Exchequer, at the Number Ten press conference this afternoon. He meant of course ‘free market’, or ‘laissez-faire’, ideology, of the kind that lay behind Osborne’s ‘austerity’ regime of the previous decade. That’s very welcome, of course, and undeniably necessary at this critical time. To an oldie like me, however, it’s interesting to hear neoliberalism being characterised as an ‘ideology’ at all. Conservatives in the past used to reserve the ‘i’-word for socialist beliefs, against which they stood their more sensible, ‘pragmatic’ approach to politics. Free markets were part of the ‘natural’ world, like the life-cycle of plants and the movements of the planets. State intervention in economics was unnatural, and so to be avoided.
The history of Britain over the past 200 years has seen the slow but growing dominance of the free market system, albeit unsteadily; with two or three brief interruptions, when the system has reverted to a more interventionist state. The major interruptions came after the two world wars, which clearly showed up the deficiencies of free marketism for warlike purposes, and got the people who had suffered at the hands of it in peacetime doubting the efficacy of it in their own domestic lives. After World War I (the ‘Great War’) this reaction flared up temporarily, but was then squashed by a resurgent capitalist class. After World War II, which itself came after a ‘Great Depression’, it took a stronger hold on the country, resulting in Britain’s major social revolution of modern times; which was the triumph of ‘social democracy’, and the creation of the Welfare State. That however only lasted for about thirty years, until Thatcher’s great counter-revolution reduced it to dust.
Those of us still faithful to the original revolution generally lost heart, which is the reason behind ‘Blairism’; or, if not, then hoped that the intrinsic flaws in the free market system might turn people against it eventually, provoking a reaction which might revive their social democratic dreams again. I hoped this might happen as a result of the Right-wing coup which went under the name of ‘Brexit’, which I expected to turn out so badly that it would ignite either a neo-fascist reaction, or a socialist one. I was patiently waiting for one of those, when the Coronavirus suddenly fell upon us.
Coronavirus is in many ways an equivalent of one of those earlier wars. In much the same way, it seems to have interrupted the broad imperative of history. In response to the crisis, an instinctively neoliberal Tory government is interfering with the ‘natural’ course of events to an extent undreamed of just two weeks ago, and probably in a way that a Labour government would also have done. For let’s be clear about this: the strict laissez-faire (or Malthusian) approach to the present situation would have been to let the disease take its course and cull ‘unproductive’ people – like us oldies – out, in order to allow the still vigorous parts of the population and of the economy to flourish to the benefit of all those who were left. (Johnson hinted at this early on.) That’s what happened in more ‘primitive’, ergo ‘natural’, times, when scarcely anyone was permitted to live to the kind of age I am now.
It would be good if, after all this is over, people could reflect on its implications for our polity in more normal times. I imagine that the NHS will not be allowed to be decimated again in the way it was under Cameron and Osborne, with such cruel results today. Sunak is saying some quite Keynesian things now, which might take us at least half-way to a more social and collective form of democracy. After that, who knows? To my mind Johnson makes a very unconvincing Churchill, and I hope the deplorable rogue doesn’t get through the crisis with his reputation as unscathed as was his hero’s. (Can you see him on the back of a banknote?) But history has taken stranger twists.