Devotion towards the free market has been a cornerstone of the Conservative Party for a very long time. At moments in the 20th century it was tempered with what would in the Thatcher years be painted as “wet” concern for equality; yet the idea that markets and the individualism that makes them work has been core to the Tory belief system for generations.
Under May, we see that unravelling. Never has there been a Tory conference in which the business community felt so left in the cold as in 2016. The assumption presumably being that if they don’t like what’s happening under the new government, they can always try talking to John McDonnell and see where that gets them. We are witnessing the Thatcherites, many of whom used to say that the social conservatism of her premiership was the unfortunate downside to her making the markets reign free again in Britain, happy to swallow the social conservatism of May without the free market stuff even being present.
This is all accentuated by the Left rejecting the value of free markets at the same time. Ten years ago, we had both main parties in thrall to the power of the market; now, neither of them are. Labour have jumped on May’s rejection of Osbornomics as a sign that we really are entering an age of post-capitalism. Problem is that we aren’t; although we seem to be entering a post-liberal age in Britain, which will cause the Left so many more problems than they are currently prepared for.
The problem with liberalism is that at its core it is tricky to take one part of it while rejecting others. In other words, you are either a liberal, one who believes that the rights of the individual are more important than trying to think in terms of a collective, whether that be a class or a nation, or you are collectivist. Jeremy Corbyn wants to be a collectivist who takes the bits of liberalism he likes – multi-culturalism, for instance – and reject the bits he dislikes – anything to do with trade, basically. The problem he faces is that it is virtually impossible to argue for immigration using anything other than full throated liberalism. Basic liberalism goes: you think the individual’s right to live where they like trumps the community they live in’s values, if those values happen to be illiberal. In other words, a person has a right to live where they want even if those already there don’t like it – so long as the immigrant in question can follow the rules and economically support themselves.
You can also add that immigration makes economic sense – another liberal argument. But as soon as you try and argue favourably about immigration from a collectivist position, it all falls apart. We have more than enough information to understand that for a variety of reasons, the national collectivist position, particularly amongst the old Labour core vote, is that they would rather have less immigration. This is one of the reasons (amongst many) that Corbyn’s position on leaving the single market but retaining freedom of movement is so ridiculous: it takes one bit of liberalism and rejects the other, the one rejected being the more popular one, thus resulting in a total compromise of the collectivism ethos being breached in the process.
The Right has plenty of problems on this sort of thing as well; but most of them are long term as opposed to anything that will hurt them soon (unless the business community starts to get stroppy and withholds support for the Tories – don’t hold your breath). They have opened up an opportunity for some other political force to usurp them at some point – perhaps even a split in their own ranks caused by this very point. If the leaving half could take the large donors with them, it might be game on.
All this is years away. For now, we get to see what happens when there is no really pro-business party in the UK. Many on the left have hoped for such a thing for a long time – they may be disappointed by how it all turns out in reality for them and the things they hold dear.