8 August 2018

Why won’t more government ministers stick up for capitalism?


How many cabinet ministers truly believe in free enterprise? Given we have a Conservative government, it is depressing that such a question should need to be asked. The threat from Jeremy Corbyn should have restored the ideological divide between the two main British political parties.

Yet so often the Conservative response is one of appeasement. Corbyn’s caricature of capitalism goes unchallenged and the Conservatives response is to then accept that “capitalism” is failing and it should be curtailed — just not as much as Corbyn proposes. So the pass has been sold — if more state control is the answer Labour is always going to win that bidding war.

To listen to most ministers is to be engulfed in technocratic mush. Theresa May is very much in the Stanley Baldwin, “safety first” mould.

But she is not alone. I heard the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, give a speech recently – he talked about “scale up”, “uptake”, “leading hubs for tech”. So far as I could follow, what he was proposing seemed to amount to increased state intervention in the economy — picking winners — in this case “fintech”.

At least May and Hammond have a certain authenticity in their dullness. Some of their colleagues are making a conscious effort to be dull.

Michael Gove, the Environment Secretary, would find it impossible to be entirely banal. He has articulated powerfully the benefits of free-market capitalism. Yet in the same speeches he will sometimes praise those who wish to constrain rather than unleash the dynamic forces that we need.

The trouble is that Gove wishes the metropolitan elite to clasp him to its bosom. Since backing Vote Leave in the referendum he has been spurned by some of these fashionable types (not least his old pal David Cameron, who has branded his one time friend a “lunatic”). Too straightforward a defence of market economics might come across as unsympathetic and risk further alienation, so Gove is keen to put in lots of caveats and complexity — even, some might feel, contradiction.

This all makes for a depressing intellectual climate for those of us who champion free enterprise and individual liberty and who — crucially — understand the two causes to be inextricably joined. But all is not lost. Liz Truss, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, is prepared to speak up for freedom – and it has not yet led to the termination of her political career.

In January she declared that innovative disrupters such as Uber and AirbnB particularly extend opportunity for the young, for women, and for the low paid.

In March she declared: “We are a free country where we eschew suffocating central control and regimented planning. We believe individuals makes better decisions for themselves. And we believe in people being the agents, not the victims, of their economic destiny.”

Speaking to the Freer think tank she quoted approvingly from Destiny’s Child’s Independent Woman:

“The watch I’m wearin’, I’ve bought it. The house I live in, I’ve bought it. The car I’m driving, I’ve bought it. I depend on me, I depend on me. All the women, who are independent. Throw your hands up at me. All the honeys, who making money. Throw your hands up at me.”

There was certainly an echo of the 1980s in this celebration of the independence that wealth creation offers. But far from being nostalgic Truss could hardly put more emphasis on allowing modern opportunities to proceed.

This week she has backed liberalising planning restrictions to increase the housing supply. This was brave. The Daily Mail front page announced she wanted to “build on our green fields”. The reality of much so-called “green belt” land is that it is pretty brown and scuzzy. Again, though, other senior Tories might have chosen to dodge a debate of this sensitivity.

But, as Truss argues, without bold action to widen home ownership, the dreadful prospect of a Corbyn government is much increased.

Perhaps the minister’s unapologetic tone reflects her upbringing. She went to a state primary school in Paisley, followed by a comprehensive school in Leeds. Her parents were left-wing Labour supporters. Her mother was a member of CND.

“We used to go to peace camp,” Truss told the BBC’s Nick Robinson in a podcast last month. “I remember we made a nuclear bomb that we made from some old carpet rolls to a demonstration.” Liz would be taken along to demos to chant “Maggie out.”

So is her embrace of free markets the “zeal of the convert”? That narrative is slightly undermined by an interlude in Liz’s political development by joining the Lib Dems when at Oxford University. I still think there is something in it. Had she been nurtured in a Tory household I suspect that, paradoxically, she would be less outspoken.

Whatever the psychological analysis, Truss’s brash libertarian tone is welcome. While some of her more senior colleagues are proving pretty craven she is getting stuck into the battle of ideas — and showing some guts.

Harry Phibbs is a journalist and blogger.