Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Tuesday, 14 February 2023

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.

As Steve 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 austerity. (This 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 centre.

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, inevitably, to 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 eloquently here, 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 deregulation.

These monied 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 is less 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 or 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.

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