Monday , April 22 2019

Decadent Tories

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The Tory right’s obsession with Brexit might be a symptom of a deeper malaise – the fact that they have nothing else to offer. To see what I mean, contrast today’s Tories with Thatcher. She could credibly offer material improvement for millions of people. She offered them the chance to own their homes –by selling off council houses and by credit liberalization that made it easier to get mortgages – and to make big profits on them. She offered tax cuts for mid-to-high earners. Professions such as finance and law were opened up to people from previously-excluded backgrounds. The reduction in trade union power was a relief not only to company owners but to thousands of junior managers. And the resumption of growth after the 1981 recession delivered good income growth for those workers who

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The Tory right’s obsession with Brexit might be a symptom of a deeper malaise – the fact that they have nothing else to offer.

To see what I mean, contrast today’s Tories with Thatcher. She could credibly offer material improvement for millions of people. She offered them the chance to own their homes –by selling off council houses and by credit liberalization that made it easier to get mortgages – and to make big profits on them. She offered tax cuts for mid-to-high earners. Professions such as finance and law were opened up to people from previously-excluded backgrounds. The reduction in trade union power was a relief not only to company owners but to thousands of junior managers. And the resumption of growth after the 1981 recession delivered good income growth for those workers who had kept their jobs and for those who could afford to save. And her Conservatives could – especially after the 1981 recession – credibly claim to be the party of business, to represent a serious reality-based people.

Thatcherism, then, put money onto the table of a big constituency. Not everybody of course – as miners as industrial workers knew too well. But enough to be a serious (if in my view mistaken) economic project.

Contrast that with her epigones today. What material offer are they making?

None. All we have are a handful of trade deals of minimal effect with small countries, and Johnson’s message, “fuck business.” The Tories are silent on questions such as how to kickstart productivity and real wages. In place of Thatcher’s offer of material betterment, we have nationalist fantasies. As Phil Burton-Cartledge has been saying for months, the Tories are a decadent party.

How did this happen? The answer is of course a long and complicated one. I’ll just sketch a few reasons.

One is that Thatcherism was a time-limited offer. Insofar as her reforms did raise output, they gave only a one-off boost to the level of GDP rather than an ongoing stimulus to growth. Also, tax cuts were financed in part by high oil revenues which have long since fallen and by privatizations. If, as Thatcher said, the problem with socialism is that you eventually run out of other people’s money, the problem with Thatcherism is that you eventually run out of other people’s assets to sell. And of course the capital gains on housing were only one-off: we’ll not see them again.

Secondly, Thatcherism sowed some seeds of its own destruction, such as:

 - The financialization she began has pushed house prices out of the reach of young people: Josh Ryan-Collins’ Why You Can’t Afford a Home is good on this. Whereas young urban professionals were Thatcherites in the 80s, their children, cheesed off by high rents, are definitely not.

 - Thatcher hoped to create a society of people like her father – diligent, benevolent entrepreneurs. But instead we got one of people like her son – amoral chancers. Social norms of trustworthiness, sympathy and moderation have broken down, unleashing not beneficial entrepreneurship but exploitation, socially useless financial innovation and sky-high bosses’ pay.

 - The assertion of “management’s right to manage” has led not to sustained increases in productivity but to rent-seeking, the demotivation of professionals and hostility to productive innovation. Loadsamoney

A third reason for the demise of Thatcherism lies in some changes in world capitalism. Job polarization has worsened (pdf) the career prospects of non-graduates: there is no 2010s equivalent of Loadsamoney. And secular stagnation – whether due to a falling rate of profit, lower innovation or whatever – means we’re not getting the income growth many people had under Thatcher.

These changes mean that what is true of Blairism is also true of Thatcherism: the economic base that gave their ideas such power has disappeared and so new policies are needed. Just as centrists have failed to rise to this challenge, however, so too has the Tory right. Quite why this should be is another story: I suspect that both selection effects and incentives (some arising from our piss-poor media) militate against Tory MPs having the ability or willingness to meet the challenge.

Whatever the cause, though, the effect is the same. The Tory right’s inability to recognise changes in the economic base mean that they have become mindless obsessives living in a fantasy world.

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