The alternative reality of the political right

Liberal Democrats operate in a world in which we assume that those we talk to and work with are reasonable, open-minded, fair and generous, and share broadly the same assumptions about society that we do. Except, of course, that those in power don’t. To an increasing degree, Conservatives who read the Telegraph, Mail and Spectator, watch Talk TV and GB News, follow research by right-wing think tanks and see US Republicans as their closest political soulmates live in an alternative reality.

Liz Truss is a classic example of this. After her rapid exit from the Prime Ministership, she travelled to Washington, to institutes already well-familiar from previous visits, to regain her intellectual self-confidence. The lengthy essay the Telegraph has since published for her was headlined ‘I was brought down by the Left-wing economic establishment’. That’s the Treasury, the Office for Budget Responsibility, the City of London, the solid ranks of economists in leading universities in the UK and other wealthy countries, even the business journalists of the Times. They’re all part of a left-wing consensus, against which right-wing free marketeers must valiantly struggle, with only the support of hedge-fund and property billionaires to finance their fight.

Or take recent articles in the Sunday Telegraph by Eric Kaufmann and Matthew Goodwin, both fellows of Policy Exchange, professors who study and explain (and justify) populist revolt. ‘Ron DeSantis is the future of conservatism’, they argue, because ‘cultural issues are increasingly what define politics’. ‘Republican politicians in the United States understand this, one reason why they are outpolling our lacklustre Tories.’ They see deSantis’s vigorous attacks on ‘wokery’ in companies, schools and universities as the path to right-wing recovery.

Or read Daniel Hannan’s op-ed in last Sunday’s Telegraph, a defence of Dominic Raab against ‘the insolent, unproductive…Civil Service {which] thinks it rules Britain.’ Like Jacob Rees Mogg, he would slash civil service numbers, privatize many of their functions, and release the energies of the private sector to provide services instead. In his world, and that of other faithful free marketeers, the privatization of water and railways, probation and social care have all been successes. The millions spent on outside consultants to provide expensive advice to government has been value for money; listening to pen-pushing officials is fruitless.

And the answer to all of our economic problems is tax cuts. Forget about the failings of our education and apprenticeship systems, the impact of NHS under-funding on labour supply, the lack of investment in infrastructure outside England’s south-east. Tax cuts will stir the animal spirits of our entrepreneurs, and attract the wealthy overseas investors we need.

Sadly, there isn’t any coherent counter-narrative. The only figure in public life who has dared to suggest that tax increases are needed is the Archbishop of Canterbury. Keir Starmer is promising to stay within the framework of the current government’s spending plans. The Liberal Democrat voice finds it difficult to get heard, and is inhibited by reluctance to upset the middle-income voters (and Mail readers) we are hoping to win over in Tory-held seats. Only in the business pages do we read that Britain is facing an economic emergency, resulting from the combination of unresolved weaknesses in education and infrastructure, rising inequality, Brexit, the COVID pandemic, the conflict in Ukraine and the dreadful polarization of our political system.

As the Ukraine conflict enters its second year, continuing to disrupt global politics and trade and to enforce an increase in defence spending, the illusions of the right will become harder to sustain. Hostility to China, a new preoccupation for US Republicans and British Conservatives, is incompatible with an insistence that we are still in a free market world. Climate-change denial is shrinking in the face of overwhelming evidence that moves to a sustainable economy require government and business to work more closely together. Rising inequality, which is partly a result of technological change, is a threat to social and democratic stability that requires an active government response. There’s an alternative Liberal and social democratic narrative here, which some insightful thinkers are beginning to shape. But we will have to find a way to explain it to voters, in persuasive terms, against populist allegations of left-wing intellectual conspiracy and the dominant position of the right-wing media.

* William Wallace is Liberal Democrat spokesman on constitutional issues in the Lords.

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27 Comments

  • At one time I would have insisted that Focus leaflets were our alternative media and they needed to include political argument as well as campaigning soundbites. Things have moved on but the piece of paper through the letterbox still has its place alongside digital campaigning and all that goes with it. Whatever tools we use, still need to share with people the core beliefs behind this or that campaign, be it in parish or parliament.
    William is suitably sober in his description of the current media climate. I have a longing to tell the likes of Jacob Rees Mogg and Liz Truss to grow up, but I recognise that in addressing the wider public there are certain disciplines we have to adhere to!

  • I wonder whether an argument could be made that all this ideological kowtowing by the Tory Right to the Republicans in the USA is unpatriotic. Do they want to transform us into a satrapy of an America run by De Santis or someone? (Well, perhaps they do…And we currently have a very wealthy prime minister who once held a green card).

    A small but separate point: in William’s review of the right-wing press, he does not mention one key organ of the “left-wing conspiracy”. I am referring, of course, to The Financial Times. I am fortunate to have access to it, and I am struck by how social democratic its politics seem to be, not least in its excellent international coverage. Many of the readers of the Daily Mail and watchers of GB News will probably assume the FT is on their side. It is most certainly not, and I notice during election campaigns that a certain kind of older, Tory voter finds it very disconcerting if this is pointed out to them.

  • Steve Trevethan 14th Feb '23 - 11:44am

    Might it help if the B. B. C were more objective and less biased against those who believe in and promote a whole society prosocial ethic and practices?

  • I find Lord Wallaces argument to be a bit of a straw man argument. Liz Truss and the libertarian right aren’t actually in power. They also aren’t taken very seriously except to the extent that most voters think wokeness goes a bit far sometimes and that tax cuts would be a good idea if they were for the low paid not the rich. The mistake the left makes is to take on imaginary opponents not the real opponent.

  • Tristan Ward 14th Feb '23 - 1:37pm

    I think there is a counter-narrative. It runs like this:

    The West has prospered on a system based on:
    1Human rights
    2 representative democracy
    3 Sceptical analysis
    4 The rule of law
    5 Properly regulated free trade
    6 Sound money
    7 Internationalism

    Which are the Liberal way of delivering liberty, equality and community and reducing enslavement by reason of poverty, conformity and ignorance.

    The Tories have taken all these things (points 1-6) for granted and have been trashing them over the last 40/50 years, culminating in Brexit, as a result of their pursuit of power at all costs.

    We need to go back to the Liberal way.

    It might sound too conservative for some, but it is certainly Liberal (the Tories haven’t been truly conservative for years) and where are target seats are Tory marginals it may prove effective.

  • Tristan Ward 14th Feb '23 - 1:38pm

    @John McHugo

    Good point, and the Economist falls into the same bracket.

  • Peter Martin 14th Feb '23 - 5:21pm

    If you think that the various privatisation haven’t been a success, how about suggesting that at least some of them need to be reversed by renationalisalisation.

    Before anyone suggests it might be too expensive they might like to look at what the post war Labour government did when there was even less money in the so called kitty than now!

  • Happy to agree with Peter Martin. I’d start with the railways and the Water Companies.

  • William Wallace 14th Feb '23 - 6:29pm

    John McHugo: the FT is without question the most coherent and reasoned critic of free market irrationalism. Sadly, the Guardian has less and less reasoned criticism of right-wing ideology, and almost nothing on right-wing American colonization of the Conservative Party and financial support of their most influential think tanks. Steve Trevethan: the BBC has been cowed into submission by persistent attacks and repeated cuts in funding. The Times and Telegraph carry negative stories about the BBC ( and promotional ones about Talk TV and GB News) almost every day.

  • William Wallace 14th Feb '23 - 6:34pm

    Peter Martin: Yes, we ought to be challenging the principle that privatization is always the answer. But nationalization isn’t the only alternative. For public transport by bus and tram, municipal control would work better; as it would also for social care, although not-for-profits/charities could also play a constructive role. I’m struck by the denigration of all public servants (except the military) by the ideological right.

  • William Wallace 14th Feb '23 - 7:30pm

    Tristan Ward: Why don’t you expand your comment into a posting, to get a discussion of the counter-narrative we need going?

  • Peter Martin 15th Feb '23 - 2:48am

    @ William Wallace

    Municipal bus services could be re-established but hard pressed local councils would probably need the support of central government.

    This still doesn’t address the need for public transport to be better integrated. It should be possible to buy just one ticket which would enable any particular journey to be completed by a combination of bus, tram and rail.

    If we don’t want the Royal Mail, Gas, Water, the Railways,and Electricity supply to be privatised then nationalisation is the only other viable option.

  • Rif Winfield 15th Feb '23 - 9:30am

    William,
    Your comments (and those of Peter Martin) omit the one word which is relevent here: Federalism! Genuine transfer of power, not just to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but to the English regions. And NOT as devolution, which might always be revoked by a re-centralising government, but by a constitutional settlement enshrined in a written constitution. I know from many years that you share that conviction, but it just needs saying here – again.

  • Jason Connor 15th Feb '23 - 11:17am

    I agree on the re-nationalisation, railways, energy companies etc bring them back into public ownership. These are national services but they would still have some local autonomy. That is a very social liberal thing to do. There is a need for GB News for representing a balance of views even right wing ones in a democracy. We don’t have to agree with their output but some of the presenters are quite likeable, Nana Akua for example. Those of us on low incomes already benefit from the lowering of the tax threshold but higher prices offset this. I think Liz Truss’ views do not represent the majority of Conservative voters but groups like the ERG, isn’t their influence waning? She only lives round the corner from me and I still haven’t bumped into her yet.

  • Gordon Lishman 15th Feb '23 - 12:02pm

    Following up the reference to the FT, I strongly recommend the recent book “The crisis of Democratic Capitalism” by Martin Wolf, the FT’s Chief Economic writer. I haven’t yet got thoroughly into it, but Wolf has been on an interesting journey which, it seems to me, has now taken him to the simple, core message of Adam Smith: free markets, overseen by effective regulation, and underpinned by morality.

  • Katharine Pindar 15th Feb '23 - 12:27pm

    This is a splendid article and debate. I think myself our strength against the populist Right is our ability to point out that we can better represent ordinary people’s needs and wishes than can either of the two major parties. It is ordinary people who are suffering this winter because of inadequate help with the rising cost of fuel bills. It was ordinary people who detested ‘party gate’ because there was a No.10 party on the eve of the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral. Ordinary people see the blindness of the wealthy and privileged to the increasing inequality of our society, which we ourselves need to increasingly fight.

  • William Wallace 15th Feb '23 - 4:29pm

    Gordon L: I agree strongly on Martin Wolf’s new book. I’m aiming to offer LibDem Voice a review of it next week. It’s striking that policy-oriented economists are now making some of the most persuasive arguments for liberalism/social democracy. See also Minouche Shafik’s ‘What we Owe Each Other’, and Mark Carney’s ‘Values’.

  • You could argue that the biggest problems the UK faces are in fact caused by issues that the mainstream parties all agree on.
    The obvious example is the negative impact of Brexit. This is the elephant in the room yet the main parties won’t talk about it.
    Then there is the colossal economic impact of covid lockdowns and question marks over whether arming Ukraine will achieve anything other than stalemate. Yet the establishment won’t tolerate any alternative narrative.

  • Peter Martin 15th Feb '23 - 9:27pm

    @Rif Winfield

    I’m not sure what relevance Federalism has to this thread! I’d be in favour of it but I doubt it would find much approval in Scotland.

    If the UK were split up into units of the same population as Scotland it would be one of about nine ‘States’ of a Federal UK. If we were to have a smaller unit to accomodate Northern Ireland we’d have to split up Scotland too. The Federal government would still be in overall control just like Federal governments are everywhere.

    So we’ll likely know who the Presidents or Prime Ministers are of Australia, Canada, and the USA but how many of us know who the Premier of Western Australia is? That’s the status you’d be asking Scottish people to accept.

  • Rif Winfield 16th Feb '23 - 8:43am

    Re Peter’s comment.
    Federalism is absolutely appropriate here! As for Scotland, the enhanced powers (which were then called “devo plus”) were precisely supported by the majority of Scottish voters at the time of the last Referendum, as the halfway house between Unionism and Independence. Perhaps you don’t remember that LibDems also backed this cause then?
    Devolution doesn’t have to come in equal-sized parts – indeed it never does. Look at the USA, where California and Delaware have equal status So talk of needing to split up Scotland are absolutely mindless. Also, devolution doesn’t have to give equal powers and responsibilities to each federal unit. Indeed, under our existing system of devolution, the governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have different levels of powers, as do the governments of Greater London and other metropolitan areas. Most sensible people would consider that in a Federal Britain, the existing devolved units would have a greater degree of responsibilities (and freedom to act!) than whatever components England would comprise. But a federal settlement would enshrine these in a written constitution (as per LibDem policy, to protect their autonomy from vicarious centralising actions from whatever political party might tend to hold a majority in the House of Commons at any one time.

  • Nonconformistradical 16th Feb '23 - 9:07am

    @Rif Winfield
    “Look at the USA, where California and Delaware have equal status”
    Indeed – in Senate terms – 2 senators per state. California population around 39 million, delaware population around 1 million. Fair?

  • Peter Martin 16th Feb '23 - 9:22am

    @ Rik,

    You might have misunderstood what I wrote. I’d be in favour of a Federal UK. My point was that the Scottish people might not be particularly keen on the idea. Have you, or the Lib Dems, asked them?

    You are quite right that the divisions don’t have to be exactly equal. So if the population of Scotland is approx 2.9 times the population of Northern Ireland they would have 2.9 times the representation in a Federal Parliament. No need for any new divisions. England has approximately a factor of ten larger population so would also have a factor of ten more representation. No need for any new divisions. But you thought there would be?

    I would suggest this won’t satisfy the Scots. Even if England were to be split up into regions the arithmetic wouldn’t change. Of course whether any particular country needs to be split up is a matter for each one to decide. Do you have any evidence that us English want this?

    I know it is a central tenet of Lib Dem philosophy that benefits naturally arise from a greater devolution of responsibilities. So what’s the evidence so far? Is the Welsh NHS doing better than its English counterpart?

    From a economic POV the real political power will lie with the currency issuing Government. Even if we moved the BoE and Federal government out of London this wouldn’t change matters. The Federal Government would still control the purse strings just as Federal Governments do everywhere.

  • Peter Martin 16th Feb '23 - 3:38pm

    @ Geoffrey Payne,

    “The culture wars Tories represented by Lee Anderson appeal to the Red Wall”

    I’d be interested to know just what your experience of “Red Wall voters” actually was! Brexit, which is neither a left nor a right wing political position has been the main factor to induce former Labour voters to vote Tory.

    The Ashfield seat remained Labour in 2017 under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and with a very left wing manifesto.

    Over the longer term the former coal mining areas have suffered significant economic decline. It’s not particularly surprising that some traditional political allegiances have been discontinued under the circumstances and for a variety of complex reasons. There’s probably plenty of scope for PhD students to write theses on the topic. Very likely some are doing just that right now!

  • Peter Martin 20th Feb '23 - 9:45am

    @ Geoffrey,

    Do you use this line on the doorstep?

    ‘I know you normally vote Labour out of habit after being advised to do so by your parents and grandparents, but would you consider voting Lib Dem this time?’

    Not a good idea, IMO ! 🙂

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