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Among the Post-Liberals
On covering the first UK National Conservatism conference
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As many of you have no doubt noticed, I’m often called upon to review books by national conservatives, post-liberals, and their fellow-travellers. This is a function of my fairness, and goes to the name of this Substack: not on your team, but always fair.
As should be obvious, however, I’m not a national conservative.
Yes, my views align with some national conservative policy positions. I think, for example, that every developed country on earth would be better off if it copied Australia’s immigration policy and abrogated the 1951 Refugee Convention. The latter is no longer fit for purpose, while the Australian approach has also meant the country isn’t subjected to horrendous electoral polarisation over the issue of immigration or refugee intake every single election.
I say this while acknowledging that Australia enjoys unusually high state capacity, something many countries—even developed ones—often lack. The countries which have successfully copied its model in whole or part (Denmark, Poland, New Zealand) also have high state capacity. And at least in Australia’s case, high state capacity came about because the “Australian settlement” going back to Federation (in 1901) placed stronger emphasis on democracy and majorities as opposed to liberty and rights.
One reason both national conservatives and their close ideological allies, the post-liberals, are not my cup of tea is because they are good at complaining prettily but utterly, utterly shit at generating workable policy. Hence the desire to copy Australian border control policy—originally developed and introduced by a Labor government (in the 1990s). Mind you, the notion of a controlled migration policy targeted at nation-building was already 50 years old by then; this meant border control was a natural extension.
That 1980s and 90s Labor government was absolutely not post-liberal in any way, shape or form. While it was developing points-based immigration and tearing up the Refugee Convention, it was also floating the dollar, promoting free trade, ending protectionism, and disciplining the unions. The latter led to a long period of industrial peace.
Even people sympathetic to the core post-liberal claim that technocratic liberalism has exhausted itself—Philip Blond, the original “Red Tory”, for example—have noticed the lack of policy heft. “The overwhelming conclusion about post-liberalism outside of central Europe,” Blond wrote in a recent piece, “is that despite clear opportunity it has been a manifest and ongoing failure”. One reason for this, he suggests, “is the absolute lack of any serious policy offer from post-liberals or those populists who purport to be post-liberal”.
This shortage of post-liberal policy proposals is evident in the conference’s speaker lineup: there are an awful lot of free-market liberals in there, and one straight-up classical liberal. When I saw Daniel Hannan’s name on the schedule, I caught myself snorting in shock.
Of course, they’re there to provide policy heft. Classical liberals and free-marketeers have enjoyed—much like their ideological opponents, the social democratic Blairites—an outsized influence on policy development and implementation because so many of them are good at sums, detail-minded, and understand the importance of costing their claims.
That said, the presence of so many free marketeers and classical liberals has annoyed a genuine post-liberal, Adrian Pabst, who argues they indicate little more than a “return to the fusionism of Reagan and Thatcher that the NatCons purport to transcend”.
Nonetheless, alongside the hyper-numerate policy wonks are a great many of the people I disdained above as pretty complainers. That may be a bit unfair. David Goodhart has developed fully costed policy proposals, while Louise Perry is beginning to do so. Mind you, I don’t think it’s telling tales out of school to note—when I met Perry for lunch recently—she admitted to me how hard this is to do well.
I have seen, for example, a policy suggestion among various post-liberals that it should be made easier and less expensive for women to depart the workforce when they have small children. In support, a great deal of robust research showing children thrive in intact families with a stay-at-home mother before they reach school age—while a majority of women are thereby made much happier—is offered up.
At the same time this claim is advanced, no-one evinces any understanding of the cost to the Treasury and labour markets it would entail. Some basic statistics: 75 per cent of teachers are women, as are 89 per cent of nurses. Women also comprise 82 per cent of social workers, 85 per cent of the social care workforce, and 43 percent of ambulance staff. Treasury would have a cow and public services would simply cease to function if an uncosted policy making it easier for women to exit the workforce either temporarily or permanently was enacted into law.
Of course, one expects classical liberals to worry about the Treasury and Blairites to worry about the NHS. But that, of course, is my point.
The same goes for post-liberal criticism of free markets and free trade. There is now a considerable amount of evidence that globalisation has acted as a universal solvent. That is, it’s made us more prosperous but also stripped working-class men in particular of both income and dignity. Where post-liberals make policy proposals in response to this, however, they often take the form of a return to the 70s—industrial policy, strong labour unions, and protectionism.
This forgets that one of the reasons why free market liberals won so many arguments in the 1980s was precisely because industrial policy, strong labour unions, and protectionism not only tanked the UK economy but meant the things we manufactured were often—not to put too fine a point on it—shit. I’m old enough to remember jokes about British Leyland cars arriving in showrooms “pre-rusted”, so shoddy was their construction.
If the price of enhanced worker wages and dignity is terrible products and taxpayers propping up ailing industries, then forgive me if I remain skeptical of the post-liberal policy offer. Relatedly, we’re all in trouble if free markets and free trade do turn out to be a universal solvent and the only way to ensure rising prosperity. Maybe it really is trade-offs all the way down.
National Conservatives and post-liberals have correctly identified serious problems with the global liberal order. They deserve credit for that. However, recruiting a lot of numerate classical liberals who also happen to view the Westphalian nation-state as an important counterbalance to globalism’s penchant for undemocratic technocracy makes me think Adrian Pabst’s criticisms carry some weight.
The Eighties were great. They’re also over, boys and girls.
What I’ve set out above is fairly unformed. While I’ve read a lot of books by post-liberals I’m also commenting before the conference has even started. There are no doubt lots of other approaches to take. And, if nothing else, I don’t want to turn up at the Emmanuel Centre in Westminster on Monday with my mind already made up.
To that end—given this substack has finished up unexpectedly popular—I’d like to hear from its readers. What do you think of post-liberalism and national-conservatism? What do they have to offer? Is there anyone at the conference I should make a point of interviewing for one of the outlets listed above?
Answers on a postcard, please.
Note: Louise Perry has already interviewed me for a forthcoming episode of her Maiden Mother Matriarch podcast, and I’m currently reviewing Matthew Goodwin’s Values, Voice, and Virtue for Law & Liberty. I’ve previously reviewed books by David Goodhart, Louise Perry, Matthew Goodwin, Nigel Biggar, Ed West, and Douglas Murray.