It was surprising to some observers when British Treasury Secretary Philip Hammond announced the end of financial austerity in the annual budget and allocated billions of pounds into the deteriorating healthcare and for reviving a number of other social services.
Some commentators have linked this announcement to Brexit and the debate surrounding it within the ruling British Conservative Party, especially since the most hardline conservatives who want Britain to leave the EU are the ones who insist the most on removing the role of the state and adhering to the Thatcherism doctrine regarding austerity and privatization.
More importantly, as recorded by British writer Martin Kettle, the debate within the Conservative Party was regarding the role of the state. It is well known that before the rise of Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, this party held on to that role, even within limits to organize the capitalist process and prevent the destruction of the idea of ‘one nation’ and ‘one people’. Here, the discussion goes back to its root, to Adam Smith himself.
The rise and prevalence of Thatcherism has overlooked this dimension in capitalism in favor of hyper privatization and austerity alone in accordance with a famous phrase said by Thatcher: “There is no such thing as society”Hazem Saghieh
This economist and great thinker whose name is associated with the principle of free market economy is also the one who emphasized the role of the state in protecting the nation, in the administration of justice as well as providing the society with public services such as infrastructure, local schools and most importantly performing its role in organizing the market.
The rise and prevalence of Thatcherism has overlooked this dimension in capitalism in favor of hyper privatization and austerity alone in accordance with a famous phrase said by Thatcher: “There is no such thing as society”. But what the conservative environment is witnessing today is almost like digging that tradition and restoring it.
In this sense, Martin Kettle points out similar positions voiced by Harold Macmillan, the conservative prime minister in the 1950s and early 1960s, when he said: “Unless we can continue this peaceful evolution from a free capitalism to planned capitalism, or, it may be, a new synthesis of capitalist and socialist theory, there will be little hope of preserving the civil, democratic and cultural freedoms.”
But why now?
It has become clear, not only in Britain, but throughout Europe and the world, that the widening of economic inequality is a major reason for the rise of populist and ultra-nationalist movements. Similarly, the vote in favor of Brexit was a clear indication of where the situation is headed due to this disparity.
Conservative populists, such as former Secretary of State Boris Johnson or the former populist leader of the UK Independence Party, Nigel Farage, rallied for Brexit and mobilized the frustrated groups of Britons in its favor. Needless to say, a very influential part of the British bourgeoisie, which finds its interests in Europe, considers the Conservative Party its political home.
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Meanwhile, the opposing Labor Party under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has managed to turn the party into the largest party in Europe in terms of membership by benefitting from the economic crises and the political crisis of democracy. With growing political despair hitting the youth, they finally restored vitality that pushed them back to partisan work as embodied by Corbyn’s party.
In this sense, the recent response to the conservatives is similar to what happened after World War II, when the “welfare state” and the adoption of the Keynesian economic principles blocked the path of the more extreme and radical forces. Will the British – who have a long history of pragmatic and experimental traditions – once again demonstrate that they are ready to be the first to review and change these dogmas, and therefore become pioneers in dealing with populism which feeds on social inequality that is no longer bearable or acceptable?
This article is also available in Arabic.
Hazem Saghieh is a Lebanese political analyst and the political editor of the London-based Arab newspaper al-Hayat.
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