It’s a truth pretty universally acknowledged that the reason the Conservative government has struggled to come up with an agreed negotiating position in the wake of the country voting for Brexit is that many Tories who campaigned for leave didn’t really think they’d win the referendum. Even those who dared to dream were determined not to muddy their “take back control” messaging by getting dragged into discussing precisely how they’d go about it.
But there was another reason behind their reluctance to talk about what came next – the fact that the UK’s departure from the European Union will necessitate a change to the country’s political economy that risks proving as electorally unpopular as it will be profound. This is the love that dare not speak its name – at least until March 2019, when we are suddenly likely to start hearing a whole lot more about it.
For the party’s hyperglobalists, Brexit doesn’t just mean Brexit. It means a leaner, meaner Britain where the costs – financial and otherwise – of doing business are lowered in order to allow companies, and the country, to compete on the world stage.
This means cutting both tax and public services. State provision, after all, is deemed by its very nature to be a vested interest, inefficient and inferior to what markets can be enabled to provide. It also stymies incentives toward entrepreneurialism and creates welfare dependencies – as well as crowding out private (and charitable) sector activity.
Brexit also means cutting what these true believers like to call “red tape”. Indeed, one of the main reasons for wanting out of the EU, as well as the opportunity to do trade deals of our own, is the desire to escape the externally imposed regulation that supposedly hobbles and handicaps us in the so-called global race. No matter that the UK already has a relatively easy-hire, easy-fire culture – it needs to be even more dynamic.
So, what is this guide to how the UK can rebirth itself – primarily by learning, not so much from European countries (unless, of course, they are busy cutting welfare entitlements and making their labour markets more flexible) but from Asian dynamos such as South Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong, as well as places such as Brazil and Israel? It is – and maybe the title tells you all you need to know – Britannia Unchained. Its authors? Rising stars of the parliamentary Conservative party.
True, a couple of them have a lower profile than the others, although Kwasi Kwarteng is parliamentary private secretary to the chancellor, and Chris Skidmore has just been put in charge of a new policy commission set up by Theresa May. True, too, that one of them, leave cheerleader and disgraced former international development secretary Priti Patel, has recently crashed to earth. But the other two are definitely making their mark: uber-Thatcherite Liz Truss is now chief secretary to the Treasury, and hard Brexiteer Dominic Raab has just been appointed secretary of state for exiting the European Union.
Their recent rise to power does not represent the success of some carefully planned conspiracy to hijack the Tory party hatched in 2012, when their book was originally published. But it does provide strong clues as to the direction it may take after 2019 – presuming, of course, that the UK does actually manage to formally extract itself from the EU by that date.
We need those clues precisely because those responsible for steering the Conservatives’, and therefore the country’s, course from then on have been so coy with “the people” in whose name the referendum was fought and won.
If this is more than a little ironic, it is also understandable: after all, there is little or no evidence from opinion research that their prospectus for post-Brexit Britain would find many takers. This is true even among the famous 17.4 million who voted leave in 2016 – particularly if, along with shrinking the state, it also means an end (which if free marketeers are consistent it certainly should do) to migration targets.
Does this disjunction between what “the people” currently say they want and what they supposedly need actually bother Tory hyperglobalists, except insofar as it prevents them, at least for the moment, from revealing all?
No – the reason being that they are Leninists, in the same way that Margaret Thatcher, their inspiration and icon, was a Leninist. Just like her, in 1979, they believe they know what we want better than we do ourselves right now. And just like her, they have a crusading vision whose details, inasmuch as they’ve been fully worked out, are best kept under wraps until the time is right and we can be made to realise – they hope gratefully rather than grudgingly – that there truly is no alternative.