We on the left use the word “Thatcherite” as an insult. Perhaps we shouldn’t, because Thatcherism was vastly more intellectually coherent than the childish gibberish that passes for Conservatism today.
I’m prompted to say this by an astonishing lead article in the Telegraph, which tries to blame “Project Fear” for the economic slowdown that triggered yesterday’s cut in Bank rate. It says:
If Britain is indeed experiencing a dent in consumer confidence then it is not down to Brexit – for that hasn’t actually happened yet.
The flaw here is so horrifically obvious that I’m embarrassed to point it out. Quite simply, the future affects the present because people act upon expectations. If they expect prices to rise, businessmen will raise prices now. If they expect good times, they’ll spend and if they don’t, they won’t. Yes Milton Friedman – one of the intellectual fathers of Thatcherism – was wrong to say the future is all that matters, but he was right to say that it matters to some extent.
Thatcherites, of course, knew this. In fact, it was the centrepiece of their economic policy. As 1980’s Medium Term Financial Strategy said (pdf):
The speed with which inflation falls will depend crucially on expectations both within the United Kingdom and overseas. It is to provide a firm basis for those expectations that the Government has announced its firm commitment to a progressive reduction in money supply growth.
Of course, inflation expectations didn’t fall as much as they hoped, which caused a bigger recession than they expected. But no Thatcherite would have been so stupid as to dismiss the role of expectations altogether.
This is not the only way in which the Telegraph has lost touch with Thatcher. She said:
An economy will work best when it is built on a framework of clear and predictable rules on which individuals and companies can depend when making their own plans…Government’s primary economic task is to frame and enforce such rules.
This, of course, is 100% opposed to the policy advocated by the Telegraph.
What we have here, then, is a massive gulf between Thatcherism and today’s Tories. You might think that, as a lifelong anti-Thatcherite, I’d welcome this. I would, if Thatcherism were replaced in the Telegraph’s mind (I use the word in its most elastic sense) with some superior alternative. But this is not the case. I think Thatcherism was wrong. But it was at least tolerably coherent. Her epigones today instead offer just a ragbag of cognitive biases such as wishful thinking, overconfidence and the confirmation bias. The intellectual standard of Conservatives has, it seems, slumped since the 80s.
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