Tory Neoliberalism: Why a vote for the Conservative Party is a vote for continuity, not change.

The following is the first post here at AUFS from Alex Andrews. In it he details the continuity of the UK’s Conservative Tory Party with neoliberalism against the increasingly popular narrative, perpetuated in part by the ideology of Red Toryism, that the Conservative party marks a break with neoliberal policies. -Ed.

Does the Conservative Party represent an alternative to the tired cross-party neoliberal consensus of the present day, the consensus that is the root cause of the current financial crisis? The Tories are seen by some as trying to reclaim the classical conservativism of the likes of Edmund Burke against their Thatcherite market mutation, and to become ‘red’  alongside Phillip Blond. Progressive aims, we are told by David Cameron himself at the launch of Blond’s Progressive Conservativism wing of the Demos think tank, require conservative means. But are the Tories really going to articulate such a vision that makes a decisive break with the hyper-pro-market past? To find the answer all you have to do is read their own statements with an eye for what neoliberal ideology means. The vital text here is Rachel Turner’s recent book Neo-Liberal Ideology: History, Concepts, and Policies. Turner’s book presents the most comprehensive account of the ideological contours of neoliberalism currently avaliable, which stresses two important theses. First, as emphased by Jamie Peck, neoliberalism is not one thing: neoliberalism is a family of concepts that has no absolute centre, that, as Michel Foucault realised, has multiple strands, from German ordoliberalism to American Randian libertarianism. Second, idealist histories of ideas are a useless tool for understanding geopolitical realities. One must analyse not the ideas in pure abstraction but rather how they are enacted in the messy world of political persuasion and in particular how complex ideas are rendered in law, where ideology becomes reality. The move must be made to studying ‘actually existing neoliberalism’. Once her ideological map is recalled it is quite clear what Cameron’s Tories are really offering. There is no change here it is neoliberalism almost all the way down, ‘conservative means’ to ‘progressive ends’ are the same as they have been for thirty years. Cameron is in seamless continuity with Thatcherism and, in fact, New Labour.

Instead of reading what they might say for public consumption, one must be more attentive to what they say to their thinktank friends, especially those who have been most consistently supportive of the Tories, in particular those who did not desert them during the fallow years. Both Cameron and George Osbourne have been doing the rounds. Osbourne gave the annual keynote address to the Centre for Policy Studies last year and Cameron gave a speech given on the 6th of July in celebration of their 35 year anniversary, a Thatcherite love-in if I ever saw one. The Centre for Policy Studies is a think tank famous for ushering pro-market policies into the Conservative Party, and Cameron’s speech is one of the most ideologically interesting speeches he has ever delivered. Osbourne also gave two very interesting speeches given to Policy Exchange and another ‘On Fairness’ at Demos. Taken together I think we may safely assume they are representative of the views of the Conservatives on these matters, and the shape of future economic policy.

While Osbourne offers progressive concern regarding the vital issues of social justice and the environment, before proposing quite plainly neoliberal solutions to them: de-regulation, reduced taxation, new markets in health care, freer flows of capital and labour, innovation, fiscal austerity for the state, increased efficiency and reduced bureaucracy, flexibility in work, simplified tax-code, withered state size. While Osbourne might say ‘unfettered free markets are also flawed’, and draws the lines between what he believes to be conservatism and libertarianism, the content of his argument betrays no difference from the policies of the last 30 years. He recommends no more state-enacted restrictions than most neoliberals have always accepted: prevention of monopolies, the laying down of the conditions for a good business environment and voluntary regulation for corporations. A reading of Osbourne attentive to the advocates of neoliberalism shows his ‘new’ directions are far from it. When Osbourne says ‘an economic strategy for the new global economy doesn’t just mean Government doing less. Laissez faire is not a serious answer to many of the challenges we face’, one might read it as a fresh emphasis. Yet again his endorsement of government intervention is nothing of the sort, Osbourne’s attitude to government is in continuity with neoliberalism: the state must not intervene in the market, but must provide optimum conditions for markets to work smoothly and flourish, the neoliberal state. ‘Improved transport infrastructure, better skills, and more active support for businesses’ says Osbourne, ‘I want the attitude of the Government to be a service to business, not a burden’. The state is re-cast in a minor role as providing the conditions of possibility for markets, ‘the framework that allows the free market to operate in a fair and creative way’ in the words of Osbourne himself.

In ‘On Fairness’, we see Osbourne as transparently neoliberal. Osbourne cites the father of neoliberalism, Hayek, and repeats the classic neoliberal argument regarding the information processing capacity of markets to distribute goods fairly, a sophisticated technological version of the invisible hand argument. The Shadow Chancellor states a paraphrased version of Hayek’s ‘problem of knowledge’ argument in favour of markets, talking of the ‘asymmetry of information between the market and the state’ which explains why state planning is prima facie flawed. Moreover, when he envisions ‘economic empowerment’ (or ‘freedom’) through improvements in welfare through better education and healthcare, he believes that these improvements will be provided by competitive markets and innovation in the private sphere, enshrining choice and power to individuals. Similarly, the environment is to be saved in part by the market-orientated carbon trading scheme, schemes which almost all environmentalists see as bunk. Where there is to be an input of ‘morality’ into markets, the morality is one that has always been admitted as entirely neccesary by neoliberals for its functioning. The morality here is the honouring of contracts, the reduction of corruption, allowing the wheels of production to move smoothly. As Osbourne says ‘ when markets work well, they aren’t just constrained by formal rules, but by institutions, social norms, self-regulation, and the character and personal responsibility of those who act within them’. I could have pulled this from any Von Mises influenced economist praising the morality of markets. The system is never the problem, leglislation is forbidden, one must rely on individuals to act well, and voluntary codes of conduct.

Cameron’s speech is even more sobering for anyone hoping for a break with the past – just watch the video. It is full of praise for Thatcher, and for the work of the Centre for Policy Studies in bringing her ideas of the ‘centre right’ into the mainstream of political life in the ‘revolution of 1979’. It is quite clear that he thinks that the budget deficit of Brown’s government is akin to that Thatcher faced in 1979, and sees the need for a virtual re-run of making her arguments again, with some supplement, seeing a future election as a ‘re-match’. Conservative means for progressive ends are neoliberal. Tackling poverty is not the result of some form of re-distribution of wealth, or of property as advocated by Philip Blond, but ‘strengthening families, schools and the voluntary sector’. Indeed calling for any form of redistribution is an argument for dinosaurs. The blame lies with individuals, not systematically, individuals who can be therapised into functioning. Climate change is to be solved by the Conservative means of ‘markets, incentives, technology’, ‘those free market principles that will drive the environmental change that we need’. Schools must be marketised, Cameron calls for ‘busting open the state monopoly’ of education, because markets are efficient. For him, Thatcher and her peers founded ‘the intellectual rebirth for the Conservative Party’ that needs to be repeated in his today. It is a rebirth that makes the argument for ‘small state, freedom, enterprise, low taxes’, because  Maurice Saatchi and Thatcher were right to make them in ’79 as he is now. They are ‘deep conservative insights’ that must be used as well as going’a lot more, with a lot less’  in a spate of  fiscal austerity. What must be added is the ‘key word’ of ‘responsibility’ and ‘responsible values’, responsibility must be allied with Thatcherite insights not replacing them, morality with markets. But, as Cameron himself likely well knows, this is precisely what Thatcher did, by allying free market ideas with a one nation patriotic moral rhetoric. It is even what John Major’s ‘Back To Basics’ campaign attempted. Indeed, is this not precisely what Blair’s New Labour sought? In 2002, Blair was calling for ‘social responsibility’ and strengthened communities while simultaneously critiquing Thatcherism as form hyper individualism, and calling for rights as well as responsibilities. It is an element of neoliberal discourse for some time. Hans-Jurgen Bieling terms it, in his insightful article ‘Neoliberalism and communitarianism Social conditions, discourses and politics,’ “communitarian neoliberalism”, neoliberalism that stresses the value of community, which he locates both in New Labour and Clinton’s New Democrats. As a rule social provision is devolved to local communities and the voluntary sector which means both the burgeoning of market led solutions to these areas manifested in pro-corporate public-private partnerships and the continuation of rampant rolling back and privatisation of public services by other means. ‘Fostering community’, ‘values’ et al are neoliberal ciphers for removing hard won provisions that are already there and creating a system where private options that leech money out of the most poor and vulnerable are the only alternative. Those wishing to better understand New Labour empowering of communities and the ‘third sector’ should look in depth into the 1998 Compact between the government and these kinds of groups.

To drive home this point briefly, let us take a moment to read what Blair said in 2002 while at the head a vastly neoliberal enterprise, while we recall the central crux of Tory progressivism, often articulated by the supporters of Cameron: the large state has failed and created a dependency on welfare among the poor, but also (perhaps) the fully anarchic market has failed, the UK is in a state of moral turmoil caused by a individualism that endorses rights, not responsibilities. It absolutely bears quoting at length.

We are putting behind us the narrow, selfish individualism of the 1980s, but also the 1945 ‘big state’ that wrongly believed it could solve every social problem. We are building an enabling state founded on the liberation of individual potential. From the 1940s to the 1970s government sought to address social and economic problems through intervention and state planning. Social democrats in Britain and the US who held a liberal view of the ‘permissive society’ divorced fairness from personal responsibility. They believed that the state had an unconditional obligation to provide welfare and security. The logic was that the individual owed nothing in return.

By the early 1970s this language of rights was corroding civic duty and undermining the fight-back against crime and social decay. It led Robert Kennedy to lament of America, ‘the destruction of the sense, and often the fact, of community, of human dialogue, the thousand invisible strands of common experience and purpose, affection and respect, which tie men to their fellows’.  From the 1970s to the 1990s governments tried to prevent the decline of civic society by strengthening individualism. But while the individualism of the New Right in the 1980s and 1990s in part restored personal responsibility, it too often simply abandoned individuals and communities to help themselves. The obligation of society to advance the individual was denied.

This had devastating consequences still with us today. By the mid-1990s crime was rising, there was escalating family breakdown and drug abuse, and social inequalities had widened. Many neighbourhoods became marked by vandalism, violent crime, and the loss of civility. The basic recognition of the mutuality of duty and reciprocity of respect on which civil society depends appeared lost. It evoked the sense that the moral fabric of community was unravelling.


There is a dreadful irony that at the height of Thatcherism, when the central idea of the neo-liberal Right was to place individual choice above all other values, the old Left became a mirror image of the Right. It stressed social rights to the exclusion of individual responsibilities, just as Thatcherism stressed individual economic rights to the exclusion of social responsibility.  Rights and responsibilities have always been at the heart of my politics. It was the inability of either mainstream party to offer a coherent response to crime and anti-social behaviour that made me so determined to transform radically Labour’s position when I became Shadow Home Secretary in 1992. I had seen from my own Sedgefield constituency the destructive impact of lawlessness on local communities. As the 1980s had progressed I sensed increasingly that the task for the centre-Left was not to replace crude individualism with an overbearing paternalistic state. It was to rebuild a strong civic society where rights and duties go hand in hand.


The informal networks between people and families are what best protect communities and build a strong society. William Morris put it well: ‘Fellowship is life, and lack of fellowship is death.’

In his speech, David Cameron is clear that for free markets, and indeed, for neoliberalism, ‘you have to fight that battle all of the time’ and occasionally ‘win that argument all over again’. This is something neoliberals have always understood and Thatcher understood when she said ‘You might have to fight a battle more than once to win it’. At the first meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society, the ur-think tank of neoliberal ideas, Hayek made the point that neoliberals should and must be prepared to make their argument again and again in different contexts, and offer ‘a new liberal program that appeals to the imagination’, wait for the moment, and make the argument in a different tenor, particularly at times of crisis. Even if they don’t know it, and considering the company they keep, perhaps they do, David Cameron’s Conservatives are utterly true to this insight. Sometimes the argument for the free market and its dubious freedoms must be made with what seems to be a critique of it, much as New Labour before him had performed. This is ideology at its most seductive.

Let me make this absolutely plain. Casting a vote for the Conservative Party is casting a vote for continuity, not change. The more often this message is stated the better.

7 thoughts on “Tory Neoliberalism: Why a vote for the Conservative Party is a vote for continuity, not change.

  1. Good article Alex, really draws a line under the paucity of our options at the next election.

    I don’t know what to be more scared of. Labour making themselves un-electable by any more time spent in power, in the way the Tories were from 1997-2007.

    Or the Tories coming in next year with an apparent mandate and dissolving yet more infrastructure in the free market.

    It seems pretty clear that the conservatives will win the next election, and I dread to imagine what their take on the NHS and school system will be.

  2. It chills my blood to think about it. I’m gonna try running a piece on precisely what they have in store for education. Surprise, surprise, it involves making primary and secondary education a free market.

  3. Red Tories, Blue Labour! There’ll be no change at the next election because fundamentally most people in this country don’t want change. They just want to go back to the glory days of 1997.

  4. I found this article invigorating, fresh and extremely well researched and prepared. I don’t intentionally go around reading in order to confirm my views but I must say I thoroughly enjoyed reading this.

    I have recently begun blogging my opinions myself, indeed my first post/essay deals with the very topic of arrested political change, the notion of democracy and our use of the vote and Tory electioneering:

    I would be flattered if you took the time to read and offer me your opinion. I believe we could have a lot of useful ideas to share :)

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