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How much influence has neo-liberalism had on British politics?

This was the question asked at ‘A Permanent Revolution?’, an event organised by the Centre for British Politics and the Centre for Political Ideologies.

Most of those who have written on this subject have described the ‘capitulation’ of Britain’s political parties, portraying neo-liberalism as the ideological equivalent of a tidal wave which has swept away all of the (intellectual) obstacles in its path. They have paid particular attention to the way in which politicians of all parties have, since the beginning of the 1980s, embraced the market and competition as a means of stimulating economic growth and maximising efficiency in both the public and private sectors.

But the picture is not so clear-cut. More recent studies, including those from Philip Mirowski and Dieter Plehwe and Rachel Turner, argue that neo-liberalism is a far more complicated intellectual beast than previous analysts have acknowledged. Neo-liberal ideology has an extensive conceptual structure that stretches beyond economics into constitutional law and theories of knowledge. It is not just about the market.

The influence of neo-liberalism on all three parties has, therefore, perhaps been rather more subtle (if just as pervasive) than has previously been suggested.

For example, in her paper at our event Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite suggested that the way in which the Thatcher-era Conservative Party sought to achieve the moral rejuvenation of society drew on a variety of sources. The restoration of ‘traditional’ values allegedly eroded by forty years of social democracy – values such as thrift and responsibility – required, to their eyes, appropriate economic and legal (i.e. market) structures. Neo-liberal measures were therefore perceived as an essential prerequisite to the reassertion of traditional, old-fashioned Conservative values.

In his discussion of the Liberal Party, Peter Sloman suggested that while many post-war Liberals regarded the neo-liberals of the Mont Pelerin Society as allies, they did not regard their work as a template for political action. While many neo-liberal ideas reinforced existing Liberal prejudices about free trade and economic management, key figures within the party recognised that many of these ideas were difficult to reconcile with their commitment to social reform. As a consequence, neo-liberal intellectuals and the Liberal Party parted company over the course of the 1960s.

My own paper, meanwhile, assessed the role that neo-liberal ideas played in New Labour’s attitude towards equality. While the party retained a commitment to the pursuit of equality (despite claims to the contrary) it did so within a distinctly neo-liberal framework. The centrepiece of New Labour’s strategy for social justice was an investment in education and training designed to offer wider opportunities to the poorest in society. It sought to do so, however, through the enhancement of labour value and developing human capital – a concept that had been borrowed from the neo-liberal economist Gary Becker.

Of course, not all of the papers at the workshop took this line. Some argued that the influence neo-liberalism has been far more prevalent than hitherto suggested, while others suggested that the influence of neo-liberalism has been overstated – a debate best illustrated by the discussion between Kevin Hickson and Matt Beech on the nature of New Labour.

While Lord Lawson, who participated in the day’s concluding roundtable, claimed not to know what was ‘neo-liberalism‘ – other than a French insult – what all of the contributions illustrated is that the influence of neo-liberalism on British politics remains a live question. Even the likes of ‘Red Ed’ Miliband are today the captives of what in the end turned out to be one of the most successful ideologies of the twentieth century – and possibly of the twenty-first.

Matthew Francis

Published inBritish Politics

One Comment

  1. I’d argue that it’s a mistake, in the current age, to think of political parties as implementors of coherent political philosophies.

    Of course, that’s a trivial statement in a way, as the question of vested interests and the compromises of holding power are always present.

    However, there has been a distinct separation in the “neo-liberal” era between economic and social policy. The evidence is that many of the parties around the world that implement neo-liberal economic policies do so whilst espousing social policy goals that either are just not neo-liberal or in fact in conflict with the neo-liberal scheme.

    That in turn suggests that to some degree those arguing that it is not a social tidal wave are correct, many non-neo-liberal social policies have been enacted.

    However, neo-liberalism has dominated economic policy thinking – and in a world where we’re most of us are dependent on wage work for our survival, that has fed through and changed society in neo-liberal directions far more than most of the social policies…

    (Note, this is not a claim that economic policy is inherently more far-reaching than social policy, just that a side effect of neo-liberal thinking is to mostly prevent social policies that truly conflict with the economic policies from being enacted…)

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