"The cult of selfish individualism." Those words sound out of place in an election manifesto produced by Theresa May's Conservative party. And yet an express repudiation of Thatcherite neoliberalism was a cornerstone of the Tory party in Britain's last general election.
Now a lengthy essay in The Guardian, part of the paper's "long read" series, looks at how Britain's Conservative and Labour parties are moving away from neoliberalism. In it we may find tips on how Canada's political caste should finally summon up the courage to move Canada onto the same path.
In the early years of the 21st century, the inevitability of an ever more competitive, deregulated, internationally orientated market economy, to which both government and society were subordinate – a doctrine often called neoliberalism – was accepted right across the mainstream of British politics: from the Thatcherites who still dominated the Conservative party; to the increasingly pro-business Liberal Democrats, who would soon form a coalition government with the Tories; to the Scottish National party, whose then leader Alex Salmond praised Ireland and Iceland for their low corporate taxes; to the Blair cabinet itself, where, I was told by a senior Labour figure in 2001, “You won’t find a single member with anything critical to say about capitalism.” It was assumed by the main parties that most voters felt the same way.
Margaret Thatcher’s government had overcome fierce opposition to install a free-market economy in Britain. But under Blair, seemingly more consensual and less dogmatic, the extending of markets into ever more areas of everyday life was presented as unavoidable, or simply practical: “what works”. The British housing market was thriving, with home ownership reaching an all-time high in 2003. There had not been a recession since 1991, a blissfully long time for the previously fitful British economy. Compared to the sometimes tatty, depopulating country of the 70s and 80s, much of Britain in the early 2000s looked successful – a society of regenerating city centres and steadily rising wages.
The Conservative manifesto attacked “aggressive asset-stripping” of British companies by foreign buyers; “perverse pricing” by privatised rail companies; “exploitative” markets in energy, property, insurance and telecommunications; and “the remuneration of some corporate leaders … [which] has risen far faster than some corporate performance”.
The Labour manifesto opened with almost exactly the same words: “Creating an economy that works for all”. Like the Tories, Labour attacked executive pay and promised to strengthen workers’ rights. Like the Tories, they offered an “industrial strategy” through which government – long depicted by free-marketeers as largely irrelevant or actively harmful – would help modernise the economy. And like the Tories, Labour said companies should no longer be run primarily for their shareholders, as free-market doctrine has insisted since the early 80s, but also for the benefit of their employees, customers and the public as a whole.
As mentioned, it's a lengthy article but well worth the read because it offers a glimmer of hope that Canada's political leadership could also free our country from the yoke of neoliberalism if only they could summon up the modicum of courage and vision that's been so lacking in Canadian politics for much too long.