Conservatism, neoliberalism and cakeism.

AuthorJackson, Ben

Robert Saunders's characteristically lucid and powerful article makes an indispensable contribution to clarifying the character of contemporary British Conservatism. Saunders shows that we should think of Boris Johnson not as a deviation from the Conservative tradition but rather as the culmination of how Conservatism has changed in recent decades. Saunders's article has the inestimable virtue of screening out the day-to-day media frenzy and focusing on the deeper historical story that has brought us to this juncture. I am in enthusiastic agreement with Saunders's depiction of that story, so I would simply like to add two additional points. First, I want to register the importance of ideological change within Conservatism, as a condition of Johnson's rise but also as a source of persisting political tension within the party. Second, I will reflect in more detail on the politics of what Saunders describes as Johnson's 'cakeist' tendency.

The end of neoliberal 'globalism'

Saunders assembles a formidable list of the factors that have pushed Conservatism in a new direction over the last decade or so: a loss of anchoring in key social institutions such as business and the church; the end of the Cold War and socialism as an alternative economic system; the decline of class politics and the rise of populism; the retreat of Scottish and Welsh conservatism; and a (faulty) historical memory of Thatcherism as a product of sheer political willpower and creative destruction. It is a great list and I do not want to subtract from it. I do want to add one item to it, though, which is our old friend the ideology of neoliberalism and, more specifically, how neoliberal ideology has mutated over the last couple of decades.

As scholars of neoliberalism have noted, the intellectual origins of contemporary right populism - and of Brexit - are in part to be found within competing factions of the neoliberal right. Earlier neoliberal thinkers and activists had broadly subscribed to a 'globalist' political position, which sought to construct international economic agreements that would constrain the capacity of states to tax, spend and regulate. Their assumption was that legally binding international rules about trade and capital flows would induce states to reduce welfare spending and labour market regulation in order to remain economically competitive. By the early twenty-first century, a significant faction of neoliberal thinkers had become disillusioned with this...

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