After Mr. Corvile’s essay of April 25, 2021:
Headline: Robert Colvile: No 10 has started a petrol fight with an arsonist. Did no one tell the PM he would get burnt?
This lengthy political meditation on the Cummings/Johnson spat. Was this the right strategy to deflect from the political downfall of David Cameron, in all is inconvenient particulars? Max Hastings had opined on the Cameron case, in the Times, on March 31, 2021:
Headline: David Cameron has gone back to Bullingdon ways
Sub-headline: The former PM is a decent man but has lost his moral compass in the pursuit of easy riches
The headline and sub-headline tell the story, but the last paragraph of Mr. Hasting’s flaccid commentary is instructive of the evolving Party Line on Cameron, of the Tory coterie?
He appears to have lost his moral compass in pursuit of soft wealth without hard labour. I do not believe that he is a naturally bad man. But his tragedy — and this is shaping up to become a personal tragedy — is that since leaving No 10 he seems to have reverted to the mores of the Bullingdon Club, rather than adopting those of such honourable though not wealthy ex-PMs as John Major, Gordon Brown, Theresa May. We are told that Arabian camels are dying from gorging on plastic bags. Cameron is on the cusp of self-destruction from gorging on plastic riches.
Like the Thatcher Ideologue, the True Believer chronicled in America by Eric Hoffer, Mr. Colvile in his May 2, 2021 attacks Biden’s ‘big spending’:
Headline: Big spending has become the new normal on the left and the right but we’ll pay the price later
It’s been a pretty spicy period in British politics, so we can be forgiven for not paying close attention to events across the Atlantic. But in Washington something big is stirring. Fresh from passing a $1.9 trillion Covid stimulus package, Joe Biden has come back to Congress to ask for a further $1.8 trillion. Yes, that’s trillion with a “t”. In the few moments that they aren’t drawing giddy comparisons with FDR’s New Deal or Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, American commentators are performing a collective conga on Ronald Reagan’s economic grave. The message is clear: the era of “big government is over” is over.
But there’s something odd here. One of the justifications for “Bidenomics” is that businesses have failed to invest enough in the economy — so the government will step into the breach and pull them along with it. Biden wants to hugely increase spending on research and infrastructure, especially green infrastructure. He wants to raise the minimum wage, get government to “buy American” and bring back key industries and supply chains from overseas.
This isn’t socialism — it still relies on the private sector to create the wealth. But as the US economic commentator Noah Smith says, it does involve “directly mucking about in the bowels of the economy”, by channelling funding and investment towards favoured areas, rather than just “technocratic knob-turning”. Oh, and it’s going to be paid for by increasing taxes on corporations and capital gains.
Note that Bloomberg opinion writer Noah Smith is quoted, from his blog, about Biden’s ‘ directly mucking about in the bowels of the economy”, as indicative of Biden’s not quite Socialism, but produces in Colvile and Smith the usual rhetorical tantrums.
The essay then targets both Bidenomics and Johnsonomics: there is a political propinquity between the two economic approaches? Or is it that it offends Mr. Colvile’s sense of what an economic strategy might be? At least for the purposes of Austerity Propaganda? Austerity is political instrument, for the immiseration of the ‘lower orders’: yes it’s about Class!
By now you too have probably spotted the strange thing here. This description of Bidenomics is a pretty good summary of “Johnsonomics”, give or take a few zeroes on the bill. So why are the most left-wing American government in a generation and a Conservative government with a majority of 80, led by a self-professed admirer of Margaret Thatcher, singing from the same hymn sheet?
For many of those commentators, the answer is obvious. We are at a sea-change moment, like the election of Thatcher and Reagan, when a new consensus takes shape. There are, admittedly, differences between the UK and US. Biden’s spending is truly eye-popping. He takes the view, like Reagan before him, that the deficit is big enough to take care of itself — whereas Rishi Sunak really is worried about borrowing costs and has pencilled in tight post-pandemic spending controls.
Do the final two paragraphs of his essay mark the panic of an ideologue? facing the reality that the Neo-Liberal Age of the Enlightenment realized by Thatcher/Reagan, is not just ending but is over? In the last sentence Mr. Colvile sheds crocodile tears for himself…
But beyond the detail the broader pattern is clear. In the UK we are set for the highest levels of tax, spending and borrowing in decades. And, like our American cousins, we are being told by a multitude of voices that all the spending is not just a necessary response to the pandemic but normal and even welcome: that the best path to growth is for the state to take the economy under its wing. I’ve lost count of the number of times in recent months that I’ve heard a variation on the phrase: “I’m as free-market as anyone, but . . .”
All of which leaves Thatcherite types like me feeling as if the world has left us behind. But we should hesitate before casting away old orthodoxies. Because the truth is that many of these new policies are driven as much by convenience as ideology.