(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Behind the headlines about Brexit, a counter-revolution has quietly occurred in Britain in recent years. Its reverberations seemed certain to reach beyond the English Channel when last week the guillotine unexpectedly came down on Sajid Javid, the Chancellor of the British Exchequer.
Javid, a devotee of the libertarian philosopher Ayn Rand and alumnus of Deutsche Bank, was edged out of Boris Johnson’s cabinet largely because he seemed too much a foot soldier of the ideological revolution that occurred in the 1980s in, first, Britain, and then, the United States.
In that upheaval, the hyper-individualist free-marketeering of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan became dominant across the West. Thatcher aimed to “roll back the frontiers of the state.” Her ideological kin Ronald Reagan claimed that “government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.”
In this view, the primary, if not the only, legitimate economic role of the government is to guarantee price stability rather than to intervene repeatedly to stem inequality and protect the weakest members of the population.
Today, however, many citizens buffeted by global economic headwinds have come to see government yet again as a necessary player in the national economy.
Javid is actually the latest casualty of the counter-revolutionary urge to overthrow obsolete pieties. The much bigger victims have been left-leaning parties across Europe, such as the Labour Party, the creator of Britain’s welfare state.
Rebranded as New Labour under Tony Blair, it embraced Thatcherism — to the point where Thatcher identified Blair as her heir. During its 13 years in power, New Labour pushed through Thatcher-style deregulation and privatization, often disguising it through “public-private partnerships.”
Failing to check de-industrialization, or rising social inequality, New Labour started to lose the party’s traditional working-class base in the manufacturing and mining districts of North England.
Claiming to be Blair’s “true heir,” the Tory Prime Minister David Cameron, together with his Chancellor of Exchequer George Osborne, more aggressively advanced policies of “austerity” that further shrunk the remnants of the welfare state.
The eventual outcome of Thatcherism on steroids was Brexit: a furious rejection by Britain’s working class of a long ideological status quo that seemed to benefit only a rich metropolitan minority.
An early beneficiary of the anti-establishment mood was Jeremy Corbyn, who, in elections held one year after the Brexit referendum, dramatically increased his party’s vote share.
Corbyn belonged to the marginalized left wing of the Labour Party, which had always seen the European Union (EU) as an enforcer of free-market fundamentalism, drastically constraining the British state’s ability to intervene in the economy.
Accepting that Brexit had to get done, Corbyn offered in his popular election manifesto of 2017 a bonanza of spending promises. The manifesto was pathbreaking not only because it broke with the Thatcherite orthodoxy of non-intervention that for decades had prevailed inside the Labour Party.
It was extraordinary also because the Conservative party, traditionally representatives of big business and the landed aristocracy, rushed to imitate Corbyn’s rhetoric, and to disown Thatcherism, claiming in own manifesto that “we do not believe in untrammeled free markets” and that “we reject the cult of selfish individualism.”
“She has even adopted,” the Economist complained of the then-British Prime Minister Theresa May, “Labour’s ‘Marxist’ policy of energy-price caps.”
In last year’s elections, the Conservative Party under Johnson competed even more fiercely with Labour to offer spending plans (much to the despair of orthodox economists and balanced-budget diehards).
Johnson carefully distanced himself from his posh Tory pals, such pro-EU architects of austerity as Cameron and Osborne. He promised to use Brexit to re-engineer British laws in favor of British people. He even abandoned an earlier promise to cut corporation tax from 19% to 17%.
Johnson, closely identified all his life with Tory free-marketeers, was responding to an altered public mood. According to a recent British Social Attitudes survey, 60 percent support more government spending.
As it turned out, Johnson’s gamble succeeded. While the London-based leadership of the Labour party strove futilely for a second referendum on Brexit, many of its lifelong voters in the Northern England lent their support to a party that seemed more capable of extracting Britain from the EU and turning on the spending taps.
Johnson is moving fast to please his new and potentially fickle constituency, nationalizing Northern Rail and increasing public spending. Sajid Javid, with his tattered copy of The Fountainhead, clearly stood in his boss’s (and neighbor’s) way, insisting that Britain should run a balanced budget by 2023. Javid’s replacement, Rishi Sunak, a hurriedly promoted Johnson loyalist, has no such constricting goal.
As a political insider told the Financial Times about the new occupants of Downing Street: “It wasn’t a question of what they wanted to spend more money on; it was more a question of whether there was anything they didn’t want to spend more money on.”
Johnson is, of course, an opportunist; and his actual ability to spend, already limited, may shrink even more by the time Brexit gets done. Moreover, he has barely started on his impossible task: triangulating the clashing demands of rich Tory grandees and North England’s immiserated working class.
Nevertheless, the political alignments and re-alignments of the last three decades are now in plain sight.
During the ideological hegemony of Reagan and Thatcher, left-leaning parties with electoral bases among working classes moved right — or, to the “center,” in their preferred euphemism.
One unexpected outcome of this shift is that, today, they appear complicit in extensive social and economic breakdown. Worse: Their founding ideas about beneficent government, which they have steadily discarded since the 1980’s, are being stolen by carpetbaggers and the far-right.
Indeed, Boris Johnson’s success in the UK could be paralleled by Marine Le Pen in France.
Presidential elections are due in two years, and Le Pen, pitted against a weakened Emmanuel Macron (hailed early and fatefully in his tenure as the “French Blair”) is surging on the back of her promise to deepen the activist role of the state in the national economy.
France may witness in 2022 what has already occurred in Britain: a counter-revolution that sends both free-marketeers and self-proclaimed “centrists” to the guillotine.
To contact the author of this story: Pankaj Mishra at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: James Gibney at email@example.com
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Pankaj Mishra is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. His books include “Age of Anger: A History of the Present,” “From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia,” and “Temptations of the West: How to Be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet and Beyond.”
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