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Theresa May on election night, 2017:  Move on from that disaster (©Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/PA Images)



The deficiencies of the Conservative campaign in the 2017 general election were painfully obvious. But these are easily curable problems. The problem is that, underneath this, there is something much more fundamental (and hence much more long-lasting) going on.

During the 1980s and 1990s, Margaret Thatcher re-established free-market liberalism as the dominant political force in Britain. Subsequent governments — New Labour, Coalition and Conservative alike — carried forward the social market liberal agenda in a remarkable four decades of broadly consistent policy making in our country.

But this happy continuity of rational social market liberalism is now under threat from many quarters. Around the developed economies of the West, we see various forces of unreason gathered or gathering. A phenomenon sometimes described as “populism” — in truth, better described as illiberal demagoguery — threatens from the right. Various varieties of “mixed economy” state socialism threaten from the left. On the one side, we have Geert Wilders and his PVV in the Netherlands, UKIP (albeit now much reduced) in Britain, AfD in Germany, M5S as well as the Northern League in Italy, Marine Le Pen’s Front National in France and Donald Trump in the US; on the other, we have Syriza in Greece, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour in the UK, Podemos in Spain, Die Linke in Germany, and Bernie Sanders in the US.

We are warned that the post-war order is fracturing; that the Western institutions which guaranteed liberalism, free trade and global capitalism (EU, WTO, Nafta, Nato) are now discredited — and that, with them, ecology and global citizenship have been knocked off their pedestals, to be replaced by more muscular rightist and leftist concerns with nationality, community, “positive rights” and the will of the people democratically expressed.

For those who buy into this thesis of massive fracture, there is a strong temptation to regard Theresa May’s premiership in the UK as itself an example of the radicalism of the age, a rupture with the past decade of liberal Conservative politics: a new form of muscular, nationalist communitarianism that has rejected laissez-faire liberalism and European free trade, seeking instead through the power of the state to tame capitalism and to ride roughshod over markets. According to this thesis, the unnecessary and ill-judged snap 2017 general election in Britain is a classic example of the global trend towards polarity of Right and Left — with the Conservatives reuniting the Right and Corbyn reuniting the Left, both on the basis of rejecting the social market liberalism espoused in different forms by Tony Blair and David Cameron.

This analysis — both in its general form as a description of what is happening in the developed Western economies, and in its specific form as a description of what is happening in domestic UK politics — is highly attractive to journalists and academics, for whom it provides that most dangerous of commodities: an interesting narrative. But it is in fact, a morass of ideological, chronological and psephological confusions based on a failure to understand both what has happened and what is happening.
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