Why does the current political right find it so hard to learn?
This isn’t a
headline from the pre-Truss era, or immediately after the ill-fated
Kwarteng budget – see the date. It’s as if they believe Truss was not brought down by the markets but instead by some
left-wing plot. That the Mail and Telegraph could
print headlines like these so soon after the Kwarteng/Truss debacle
might seem extraordinary, but I fear it’s just an extreme example
of something I
wrote about a few weeks ago, and that is the failure
of the Conservative right to learn from its own failures and events
generally. This post explores why there seems to be an inability to
learn and adapt on the political right in the UK.
Richards emphasised recently, the Conservatives after
their catastrophic defeat in 1997 did not undergo the soul searching
and upheavals that Labour had after their heavy defeat in 1983.
Perhaps more surprisingly, this didn’t happen after they lost the
following two general elections. Despite the GFC demonstrating the dangers of
deregulation, the Conservative party continued to push for less ‘red
tape’, including recently in the financial sector. Osborne was forced to match Labour’s spending plans before the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) because they were popular, but rather than accepting this he used that crisis as a device for achieving a small state (less spending, lower taxes).
This failure to
learn has not always been true of the Conservative party. After the
shocking (to them at least) defeat of Churchill in 1945, the
Conservatives under Macmillan largely accepted the innovations
introduced by the 1945 Labour government. More recently, Theresa May
at least talked as if she wanted to shift the party away from the
‘government should get out of the way’ attitude that was behind
interview between Steve Richards and Nick Timothy is
interesting in this respect.) To an extent Johnson also understood
that a low spending, low tax, low regulations platform would not
appeal to the Red Wall voters who swept him to power.
Yet neither May nor
Johnson succeeded in taking their party with them. Tacking to the
centre on the economy while staying conservative on social issues
makes good electoral sense, but many Conservative MPs, most
Conservative members and pretty well all the right wing press want
lower taxes and less regulation. Even if the Conservative party
loses heavy in 2024/5, it is hard
to see this party shifting its economic policy towards the
I think this failure
to learn and adapt is linked to another aspect of modern
Conservatism, which is notable in both the UK and US, and this is a
hostility to experts and science more generally. Again I don’t
think this was as strong in Conservatism before Thatcher. Thatcher,
and her mentor Keith Joseph, tried
to abolish funding for social science in the UK.
Austerity, although it had a few high profile academic supporters,
went against basic and state of the art macroeconomics. More
recently, Johnson began to ignore the advice on Covid that he
received from his own group of medical scientists. Although
Conservative party leaders sign up to the net zero agenda, their
actions show a distinct lack of enthusiasm. Conservatives seem deeply distrustful of universities and academics.
Science is all about
the experimental method, which in turn is all about learning.
Crudely, you have a theory, do an experiment to see if it works, and
if it doesn’t you dump the theory and think again. Of course
scientists are more attached to their theories than this Popperian
characterisation suggests, sometimes for good reason and sometimes
not, but there would be little scientific progress without learning.
Right wing anti-science in the
UK is not nearly as bad as in the US, where the front runners to be
the next Republican President are
using their opponent’s support for vaccines as a
weapon against them. But using nonsense arguments to suggest
pandemic lockdowns were always a bad idea, which is now just standard
in the right wing press, is just one step away from where the US is
right now. I have
argued that the Conservative party’s obsession with
tax cuts just isn’t possible without ending the NHS as we know it
(see also George
Eaton more recently), but the party either lies about
this or is in denial. This refusal to respect basic arithmetic and
evidence often initiates the party’s antagonism
to democratic pluralism, and may even be a factor
behind why some ministers resort to bullying civil servants.
Which brings us,
neoliberalism ideology. Why ideology
more generally rather than neoliberalism? A standard definition of
ideology is “a system of ideas and ideals, especially one which
forms the basis of economic or political theory and policy”.
Ideology, being a system of ideas, is like a theory in that it can be
right or wrong. But one characteristic of ideologies seems to be that
they are particularly resistant to evidence that they are wrong.
Neoliberalism is an
ideology that borrows a lot from economics, but as I have sometimes
said it is the economics you get from doing a Principles (Econ 101)
course and missing half the lectures. Or as Dani Rodrik explains more
it is just bad economics. As economics is a science, we can show its
wrong using evidence. That is one reason why Thatcher so early on
clashed with economists, and Keith Joseph tried to cut their funding.
Has neoliberalism adapted to the evidence about its errors and
limitations? Of course it has not.
There are also
ideologies on the left that can be just as resistant to evidence. To
take just one example, after the recent energy and food price hike there are some who deny that higher private
sector wages will lead to greater inflationary pressure. The
lessons of the 1970s have not been learned. Ideologies often connect
to specific interests, and allow these interests to be portrayed as
benefiting society rather than just specific groups. One reason an
ideology persists despite some of its elements being clearly wrong is
that these interests prevail.
However, to say that
the modern Conservative party fails to learn from and adapt to
failures, and can be anti-science, because of an attachment to an
ideology is only half the story, and today may be even less than half
the story. While neoliberalism began as an ideology that benefited
businesses and corporations as a whole, in both the UK and US it
seems to have degenerated into an excuse for some rich people, a few
of whom own parts of the mainstream media, to demand lower taxes and
interests connect with each other and networks
of journalists and politicians (some of whom may also be pretty
wealthy, while others just want to be). But the origins
of these networks in schools or universities attended
important than it might have been with the old
Establishment, because what drives them is the desire of those with
money to have power. Sometimes this may be a general desire for power
influence, but more often it may be much more specific, such as the
ability to get a government contract for example. In this case
donations to the Conservative party become little more than
investments with an expected return. For the very wealthy who pay a
lot in taxes, donations
to politicians campaigning for tax cuts can easily
repay themselves over time.
For this reason the
Truss premiership, and attempts to resurrect it, should not
be regarded as some aberration but instead as the
culmination of a transformation of the Conservative party that began
with Thatcher and neoliberalism but has ended up with corruption and
endless calls for tax cuts. Equally the scandal of the VIP lane for
PPE equipment should not be seen as some oddity caused by a pandemic
but instead as how today’s Conservative party thinks it should
spend public money. We should not
be surprised that this government seems so
unresponsive to public opinion when it is monied interests that are
calling the shots. In short, it doesn’t learn from its mistakes
because it pays not to do so.
After 1997 the
Conservative party didn’t learn from its mistakes because it was
still in thrall to an ideology and the Prime Minister that championed
it. If the party loses power at the next election, it will be the
influence of money rather than ideology that prevents it from
learning the obvious lessons, and money that stops it changing to better reflect public
opinion on economic issues.