The Republican colonization of the British Conservative Party

Liz Truss has just made her second visit to Washington since she stepped down as prime minister: this time, to deliver the ‘Margaret Thatcher Freedom Lecture’ to the Heritage Foundation.  She pleased her audience by declaring that ‘It was Anglo-American individualism that made the world prosperous…Low taxes, limited government and private enterprise were what won the Cold War’ – and warning that ‘stagnation, redistributionism and woke culture’ are weakening the West in the coming struggle with China.

There are many untruths in such a statement.  It was Rooseveltian social democracy, on both sides of the Atlantic, that secured and revived democracy to win the Cold War.  The Thatcherite revolution swept in as the Cold War was ending, low taxes aided by the ‘peace dividend’ of cutting spending on defence.  ‘Woke culture’ is an invention of the American right, with racial undertones.  ‘Redistributionism’, otherwise known as progressive taxation, is an essential element of any democratic economy and society, resisted only by radical libertarians and authoritarian free marketeers.  But she was no doubt at home with her ideological Republican audience, far more than she would have been with almost any audience in London.

The colonization of the British right by American ideas and American money is one of the most worrying developments in national politics.  We cannot tell how far the well-funded think tanks of the right depend on US funding, since none of them publish where their funds come from.  Policy Exchange has a US Foundation to ease US giving, and the Taxpayers’ Alliance and the Institute of Economic Affairs have close US links.  There are rumours that US Evangelical bodies have promoted and funded ‘family-friendly’ campaigns against abortion and trans rights, in the ‘battle against woke culture’.  And the links with the Conservative Party are evident, in the flow of MPs and advisers to Washington conferences and of American visitors to events over here.

From May 15-17 the US-led National Conservatism movement will hold its seventh conference in four years, this time in London.  Its listed keynote speakers include Kevin Roberts, the president of the Heritage Foundation, together with Suella Braverman, Michael Gove, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Douglas Murray (author of ‘The War on the West’). Other speakers offer a parade of right-wing thinkers from the UK and elsewhere. The most important intellectual figure is Yoram Hazony, an Israeli-American philosopher and Old Testament scholar, whose writings on national conservatism reject much of the enlightenment tradition as well as the tenets of liberal thought.

This represents a developing split on the Anglo-American right: between libertarians and small-staters like Liz Truss and national conservatives who see national identity, tradition and culture as the key to resisting the threatened liberal tide.  For them feeling, tradition, authority matter most – and faith matters more than evidence.  Free markets and national conservatism are natural opposites.  But unregulated free markets are as difficult to reconcile with an open and democratic society as are ‘post-liberal’ nationalist movements.  Both are explicitly illiberal; national conservatism is also irrational.  Rishi Sunak will have an uphill task regaining the centre ground if well-funded groups are pulling in the opposite direction.

Without a platform in the mainstream media, we have to broaden our defence of liberalism and liberal democracy against these arguments.  Reasoned debate, constitutional checks and balances, acceptance of diversity, cooperation with other states, equality of rights for all citizens, a public sector large enough to provide the services that hold society and economy together: none of these are valued by the intellectuals of the right.  And we should ridicule the idea that redistribution through progressive taxation is a dangerous ‘leftie’ concept: it’s one of the necessary correctives to the imbalances to which free market capitalism leads.


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

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  • Steve Trevethan 14th Apr '23 - 12:38pm

    Thank you for an important article!

    “The Capital Order: How Economists Invented Austerity and Paved the Way to Fascism” by Clara E. Mattei is so well worth reading as it exposes austerity as a power retention tool which damages the real economy, provides direct theory and historical examples of current dominant neoliberal theory and practices which, unless defeated, will result in fascism and its associated servitude.

  • Mel Borthwaite 14th Apr '23 - 12:50pm

    Though there is overlap between the idea of progressive taxation and redistributionism, they are not the same thing. Progressive Taxation is the idea that the taxation that has to be levied to fund public services and basic welfare provision should be paid on the basis that ‘those with the broadest shoulders should bear the greatest burden’. Most people see the basic fairness of this approach. Redistributionism, however, goes beyond just using progressive taxation to fund public services and basic welfare provision and wants additional taxation levied on those with higher incomes so that it can be transferred directly to those with lower incomes. This is far more controversial as people do not necessarily see this as fair – especially those who are willing to take on extra responsibilities at work, or who take second jobs or work overtime to earn more for their families, may resent paying extra taxes to be transferred to those who are perhaps not willing to take on extra responsibilities, or do overtime or take second jobs. In my view, progressive taxation is a Liberal idea and redistributionism is more in line what socialist parties would support as a means of creating more economically equal societies.

  • @ Mel B. Have a look at the statute book 1906-14.

  • Matt (Bristol) 14th Apr '23 - 1:29pm

    “This represents a developing split on the Anglo-American right: between libertarians and small-staters like Liz Truss and national conservatives who see national identity, tradition and culture as the key to resisting the threatened liberal tide”

    Absolutely fair comment. But the additional problem is that the Anglo-American right and centre-right never adequately developed the additional strand (or if it did it was built on shallow foundations) that developed in Europe of consensualist democratic communitarianism (largely expressed through the political ideology of ‘Christian Democracy’ although it also had an impact on social democratic thinking), seeking to secure collective stability and prosperity by binding all citizens, including workers, non-workers, managers and social elites together in an incremental, democratic common covenant that pramatically recognised the need to de-fang socialism by fuding workers’ concerns, and binding citizens into a common sense of mutual loyalty to one another and to shared common values.

    What aspects of that ideology lingered around Toryism have gradually eroded burnt off (or, in the case of Johnson and Cummings, were actively removed with mapalm), and in this country it never developed a democratic critique of our existing structures, being complacement with the existing constitutional ‘settlement’.

    This is a problem for the Lib Dems, as – as the effective ‘centrist’ party in England, since WW2, or at least since 1979 – it sometimes is tempted to rhetorically occupy that gap of consensual, incrementalist, democratic centrism, but this brings it into conflict with other principles it or its activists hold dear.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 14th Apr '23 - 1:39pm

    I agree with the concern expressed here by William in his excellent article.

    I do not think the culture wars are to be ignored. But I do believe our party and others in the genuine Liberal mainstream, the centre or centre left or centre right, in Europe, saying I believe it ought not to be ignored, is not saying it means on every issue we must fight a war. Some issues require moderation of hot tempers. Others require a firm stand. Other issues require both, like often, on trans rights.

    I disagree with Mel. Nobody described thus as hard working are the ones being picked for transfering their hard earned income to those poorer. It is the super rich, the dodgers at the top, with off shoreing and absconding, worth millions or more, we need to redistribute from, to those poorer by a factor of several hundreds or thousands of percentage!

  • Matt (Bristol) 14th Apr '23 - 2:43pm

    Lorenzo, what I’m coming to believe that this party has missed is that post-WW2 liberal democratic society required the active cooperation of those who were democrats but not ideologically liberal, and now no one speaks for them and in this ‘bubbled’ and segmented culture the party has either no ability to rally those people to its defence, or no credibility when it does so, as it does not regard their concerns and agendas as having legitimacy.

  • Mel Borthwaite 14th Apr '23 - 3:24pm

    @Lorenzo Cherin
    I agree that “it is the super rich, the dodgers at the top, with off shorting and absconding, worth millions or more, we need to redistribute from…” Unfortunately, it is precisely because they do off shore and take their wealth beyond the reach of UK taxation that they will not be the ones who are hit by redistributive taxation.

  • Lord Wallace concludes, correctly in my opinion, that redistribution through progressive taxation is one of the necessary correctives to the imbalances to which free market capitalism leads. Importantly, as noted, it is one but not the sole corrective.
    The economic challenge of New Liberalism has been to simultaneously grow the economic pie while ensuring that the fruits of that growth are fairly distributed throughout society.
    The reforms of 1906-14 that David Raw refers to are were an significant effort in that direction as was the post-war welfare state and yet by the 1970s these efforts began to crumble.
    This New Statesman Leader How to reverse British decline argues Britain should learn from those mid-sized economies that are both richer and more equal than it.-the Netherlands, South Korea, the Nordic countries, among others. Too often the left has fixated on reducing inequality while the right has fixated on boosting growth. The reality is that Britain needs to do both and this is precisely where the focus of Liberal Democrat policy should be. Not solely redistribution but both pre-distribution and a strategic focus on enhancing the country’s economic strengths and productivity growth.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 14th Apr '23 - 5:07pm

    As we read, from Joe and David, Mel, you are raising an issue we can address. Tax should be raised on the super rich here there or elsewhere. We do need progressive tax to encourage the wealth creators, but these are enterprising middle and higher earning citizens or residents, not the companies and individuals we read and see expoliting the country. Baroness Mone etc exemplifies this cess pool.

    Matt you talk eloquently here of matters we must contemplate fully. Lord Wallace and others need to realise the cultural shaping of society is not black and white only, but shades of colour and grey!

  • Paul Barker 14th Apr '23 - 5:28pm

    On Topic
    It seems to me that the most likely long-term result of The US Colonisation of The British Right & Far Right will be to shrink The Tories, perhaps pushing them into Third Place. A lot of Tea Party/Trumpish obsessions just don’t fly in Britain with the result that The Tory “War on Woke” just looks weird & cranky. The obsession with Drag Queens is the classic example.

  • William Wallace 14th Apr '23 - 6:05pm

    Paul Barker: It’s just possible that you may be right. Opinion poll evidence shows that hard right views are shared only by a minority, largely of older people. But the entrenched position of the Conservative Party, with the majority of the written media under its thumb, with far more money than any political alternative, and with our electoral system meaning that the next time voters want a change of government away from Labour the only choice is likely to be the Tories, they will be hard to shift. Our current political system is mistrusted by most of the public, but neither Labour nor the Tories are interested in opening it up to a more diverse democracy.

  • Martin Gray 14th Apr '23 - 9:38pm

    Someone who was first eligible to vote in the 1979 GE – has only ever known one democratically elected Labour PM . At the next election they will be pushing 64.
    Outside of metropolitan areas the electorate remains socially conservative….It’s those voters who will ultimately decide the next GE..

  • Peter Davies 15th Apr '23 - 12:30am

    As someone who was first eligible to vote in the 1979 GE, the electorate will probably always remain socially conservative but the definititon of socially conservative will keep changing. When I was born, all homosexual acts were illegal. Now you are far right if you oppose gay marriage. Mostly old people die and their attitudes die with them. After years of trying and usually failing to change peoples attitudes, it was one of the joys of the gay marriage campaign that we saw conservatives genuinely change their attitudes in real time. It happened to some extent with racism and sexism but it has been painfully slow. There is clearly a lot of money pushing in the other direction but I’m not convinced they are winning.

  • First, thanks to Willian Wallace for sparking this interesting discussion. To pick up from one of many interesting and informative comments, Martin asks an obvious question; why has the blatant funnelling of billions of pounds into the crops of Tory mates during the pandemic gone largely unremarked upon – apart from by the Good Law Project? People still talk about the duck pond and other examples of dubious expense claims by MPs, and yet all of those expense claims put together amount to a sum the dodgy ‘PPE suppliers’ wouldn’t even get out of bed for. Some things resonate with voters, others don’t. Are we to blame for not making more of this scandal? Very probably, because it exposes the rot at the heart of a party which has ruled for too long.
    I once heard Michael Gove deflect accusations about the VIP lane by saying “it was civil servants who awarded the contracts.” In the admittedly unlikely case that Suella Braverman ever legislates to require law officers to shoot on sight anyone who looks like a refugee, he’ll say on Question Time “it was the Police what done it.”
    Perhaps our problem is that negative campaigning doesn’t land well with voters, and we always need to be for something good, rather than against something bad.

  • James Fowler 15th Apr '23 - 7:45pm

    If US Republican ideas do colonize the Conservative Party it won’t avail them very much because US political tunes don’t play directly to a UK audience. This is actually a problem the UK political left suffer more from than the right. Much of their cultural critique is lifted from US dilemmas that some people believe Britain ought to have, but either doesn’t, or doesn’t in the same way. The same is true in a way on the right, but their mistake is to think Britain has US enthusiasms that again it doesn’t have, or doesn’t have in the same way.

  • Mick Taylor 20th Apr '23 - 4:09pm

    @melborthwaite. These people who offshore their income and wealth are only able to avoid paying tax because the UK government lets them. In the US, you are liable for US taxation wherever you live in the world and can only not pay it to the extent that you can prove you paid tax elsewhere. My former American boss who lived and worked in the UK had nevertheless to complete a US tax return, but he could reduce his US tax liabilities by showing proof of the UK tax that he paid.
    If people want to give up British citizenship to avoid paying UK tax, then they would lose the right to live and work here. It only takes political will and of course the Tories don’t have it.

  • Keith Jamieson 20th Apr '23 - 5:13pm

    No one has so far mentioned voter suppression, an unwelcome import from the American right which the Tory party has foisted upon us, and which I don’t think has generated anywhere near the outrage which it should have done.

    I do hope the optimists here are right that Britain will not be too susceptible to some of the American right wing ideology. But we have already seen plenty of culture wars started by today’s Tories, seemingly inspired by the Republicans.

  • Rachel Walters 22nd Apr '23 - 6:36pm

    I agree with everything said above
    All I will add is that we must , get the younger folk voting, if we are going to break the stranglehold they are getting.
    We know younger folk , tend to be more Liberal , it’s one way we can make progress.

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