Truss’ tragedy is that she’s right

Is there an expression for the exact opposite of a Pyrrhic victory? So a defeat that leads to long-term success? One contender that’s more from the annals of America than ancient is a “Goldwater loss.” Libertarian Republican Barry Goldwater’s defeat in the 1964 presidential election was total. But it also seeded what became the New Right and the Reagan reforms. A small-state belief system, wrong for the time, inspired those who would drag Leviathan down a stick or two a generation later.

Liz Truss doesn’t have Goldwater’s outlaw charisma. I’m not sure if she has Dan Quayles Lawless Charisma. But as the waters run dry on someone who was never fit to become UK Prime Minister, Liberals must hope that some of their worldview lives on. It’s one with few champions as it is.

The tragedy of what has happened to Truss lately is that she is right. In fact, she has several. The impact of a policy on the distribution of income is not that only test its worth. Economic institutions are the seats of inertia and self-interest as well as wisdom. UK growth has been subject to strengthening national identity and other priorities since the 2016 EU referendum. The payroll tax hike announced last year was in tandem with a country that milks workers to spare wealth owners. Planning laws and other structural rigidities keep Britain poorer than it should be.

Truss is called a utopian. She is said to be at odds with practical reality. And this is her. But then who are the pragmatists? She’s the one who wants to capitalize on the UK’s comparative advantage of professional services, ease of doing business and a capital where the whole world converges and wants to do business with it.

It is not acting with the false hope that post-industrial England will become a Rhine-Ruhr of technical apprenticeships and medium-sized exporters. It does not pretend that the old disparity between London and the secondary cities in terms of size and wealth will be “leveled”. Some of their predecessors did. Critics on their right and left still do. In her vision of the UK she is more humble and more in tune with the country’s tastes than less liberal types.

It is a pity that this vision is only the beginning of a prime minister’s duties. Setting priorities, drafting policies, not handing over big cabinet posts to smart fools: she has proved bad at these and other tasks. And the victim — alongside the general public — is the classic liberal cause, for which she is a long-standing and increasingly rare voice.

So I don’t think ‘tragedy’ is too strong a word. If she stood for nothing it would hardly be a problem that her Premiership crashed. (It wasn’t when Boris Johnson did it.) But she does. She stands for the individual and other heresies in an illiberal age.

What a bad name she gave to a good cause. Tax cuts for high earners are not ignoble if they are paid for. Which politician will approach them now? The Treasury and the Bank of England, while teeming with able and conscientious people, do not pretend to be infallible. After they all but bailed out the government last week, who will question their institutional biases?

Nimby’s and producer interests are part of the tensions which, together with underinvestment, are holding back UK growth. Given the Prime Minister’s poisoning, how likely is supply-side reform? Ideas cannot be judged solely through the “lens of redistribution,” she said last month. Now who would dare to repeat that statement, which should be obvious?

It is undoubtedly crude, undergraduate liberalism. But don’t assume the alternative is nuanced, mature liberalism. (Rishi Sunak, for example.) It’s more the dirigisme of the romantic right. This has been the force in the country since 2016. Unlike Trussism, it had a mandate in the last elections. The party’s poll slump under this PM is such that Tories will take the opposite of almost everything she stands for.

So expect cuts in immigration, plus the romanticization of “doing things” as opposed to finance, and the fifth or sixth attempt in my life to cheer up the less affluent regions of the country. Britain makes a murder of foreign students. On the other hand, many Tories want the central government to intervene.

Truss deserves to fall, yes. Just the pain she’s caused mortgageholders could make her do it. But the nation cannot afford to have its worldview go with it. It cannot live on tradition and order. “Reaganism without the dollar” is what I called the government’s program last week. Gaullism without the competence, I fear it will follow.

janan.ganesh@ft.com

https://www.ft.com/content/d8d09faa-19d7-48e7-907e-b788d574cf32 Truss’ tragedy is that she’s right

Adam Bradshaw

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