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A new neoliberal moment
Written by Alex Massie
1 October 2020
There are many ways by which an idea may be discredited, but one of the simplest is to make it sound as though it must be a conspiracy, some kind of underhand but devilishly clever plot against the public. Alas, poor neoliberalism then. The neoliberal – that strange, elusive, creature – has become a convenient bogeyman; a representative of a ‘globalised elite’ busy feathering its own palaces at the expense of everyone else. “I’m alright, Jock,” the neoliberal says, and you should think you’re alright because I’m alright.
In truth, neoliberal is a term that has been stripped of almost all meaning. But ‘neo’ has a clear, if often unstated, meaning. It no longer connotes newness but, rather, wickedness. Old prejudices in new bottles at best; more probably a revived attempt to corner the market for narrow, sectional, interest. In this instance, that is the wealthiest one – or two or three or four or five – per cent wherever you happen to be living.
This is traducing and annoying but also, I am afraid, unavoidable. The neoliberal moment, we are sometimes told, is over. It was born amidst the revolutions of 1989 and it foundered a decade ago in the aftermath of the great financial crash of 2008. Well, perhaps it did, but if so, it may be time to rediscover its virtues, not least since this neoliberal era coincided with the greatest planet-wide increase in median prosperity any of us have witnessed. To say most of the world had never had it so good is not Panglossian; it is a statement of abundant truth amply supported by trends in global GDP, life expectancy, educational advancement, and much else besides. If this was neoliberal failure – or a failure of globalisation – we could do with more misery of this sort.
Liberalism, whether neo or not, should be understood as a sensibility, not a specific set of policy preferences or demands. As Sam Bowman – formerly of the Adam Smith Institute and one of our most interesting young thinkers – observes, liberalism, or neoliberalism, is a club not a party. To that end, it can encompass parts of Blair and Thatcher but also Emmanuel Macron, Milton Friedman and, as he puts it, “1990s-era Paul Krugman”. According to Bowman, “if Corbynites, Bernie Bros, Trumpites and Brexiteers were the Jacobins of the modern left and right, neoliberals are the liberal anti-Jacobins opposing them. Don’t think of this as centrism, but as liberalism trying to hold on to what it won in the 20th century”. I happen to agree and this, I also think, is an excellent way of ‘framing’ the argument.
As such, neoliberalism rejects the fatalism with which conservatism is sometimes saddled and the unwarranted, reality-ignoring, requirements of socialism. That was, in essence, Tony Blair’s credo and it was, in reality and despite her very different style and preoccupations, Margaret Thatcher’s belief too. Is it wholly coincidental that these have been the two most successful British prime ministers of the past half century? Blair and Thatcher disagreed on plenty, but each was a type of liberal and, as such, were often at odds with the histories of their respective parties.
It might be objected that Scottish politics fits uneasily into this schematic and with good reason. For, so long as our politics is defined by the national question, almost all other issues lack space in which to grow. Questions are not so much unanswered as unasked. That, I would contend, is a weakness. There is no clash of ideology, or even of sensibility, in Scottish politics because in reality Scottish politics is frozen. The SNP is a catch-all party in which all are welcome so long as their views on independence are sound. That helps make the nationalists a potent electoral force, but it does so at the expense of ideological clarity. Unionism likewise has strands of left and right but neither the Conservatives nor the Labour party offer anything like a coherent alternative of their own.
And because nationalists find our present constitutional arrangements intolerable, they are themselves inclined to a certain weary fatalism of their own. Our hands are tied, they suggest, so what, really, can you expect? We can only do our best, but our true potential is hamstrung by the choices we made in 2014. Doubtless independence would allow some things to be done differently. The financial realities would certainly require that, though not necessarily in ways SNP supporters might enjoy.
Regardless, the constitutional dividing line means Scotland, rather unusually, has neither any politics of the left or the right in any meaningful sense and precious little, if any, of the liberal centre I’d suggest is worth, first, defending, and then expanding. Ask a Scottish government minister for their views on the appropriate role of the state, for instance, and I wager you will not receive a coherent or even plausible answer. How many liberals are there at Holyrood? No-one knows, because no-one is ever asked to consider themselves in such terms.
Balance is not easily achieved, but it is at the heart of a genuinely liberal politics. Thus, an efficient but compassionate welfare state is not built at the expense of an innovative, effective economic system, but is instead an integral part of it. A world-class education system does not only reward those with the talent to succeed, it recognises that not everyone has those talents and provides meaningful alternatives to its own pathways.
As Blair put it, “Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”. That is not muddy ‘centrism’ but evidence instead that politics is only rarely an either/or business. Most of the time most of our problems – whether these are economic, environmental or anything else – are not either/or but rather both/and. Simple solutions that promise to solve all problems with a single policy are inherently appealing and equally suspicious.
For the true liberal – wherever you may find him or her – knows this thinking peddles an illusion at best and, more probably, a fraud. Progress is possible but it is a journey without an end point. It recognises an apparent paradox, however: some problems may only be solved collectively, but a collective effort is itself comprised of a thousand individual experiments, not all of which may be designed with that collective, or its advancement, in mind. That is to say, it is only through liberty that we may pursue opportunity and vice versa.
This is not a fashionable moment for liberalism but that should be a reminder of liberalism’s importance, not a reason to forget it or think it led nowhere useful. For as we may now be beginning to see, the alternatives to liberalism – to neoliberalism, even – are somewhat less attractive than the creed to which they are implacably, if foolishly, opposed.
About Beyond the Street and Alex Massie
We are all guilty of being too inwardly focused sometimes, especially as we navigate these changed times. It is all too easy to be caught up in the problems close to home, and for overarching trends to pass us by.
To remedy that short-sightedness, Charlotte Street Partners has enlisted the ingenuity and talent of the writer and commentator Alex Massie. As our new correspondent at large, Alex will look at the bigger picture for us each week. We have challenged him to come up with something a bit different: broad, lateral thinking, thematic insights and a more global perspective.
Alex is a freelance journalist and commentator based in Edinburgh. Not only is he Scotland editor of The Spectator, but he also writes a political column for The Times and The Sunday Times. He features regularly on the BBC as a political commentator and has written in the past for The Telegraph, Politico, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, the New Statesman, The Observer, and TIME magazine, among others. He was also the Washington correspondent for The Scotsman and assistant editor of Scotland on Sunday.
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