Liz Truss, the new prime minister of the United Kingdom who may not be in office for long, is, in general opinion, out of touch with reality.
His big gamble in succeeding Boris Johnson — a mini-budget full of tax cuts, from which there have already been rollbacks — looks like a political disaster, recklessly inflationary and fiscally destabilizing. As a policy, mini-budget seems even more idiotic.
At the moment, the electoral ideal for center-right governments in the Western world is a mixture of cultural (non-religious) conservatism and relative economic moderation. An anti-libertarian right-wing policy, in favor of the welfare state and distrustful of immigration, which appeals to an electorate buffeted by globalization and concerned with national identity.
This is the style of politics that has just elected the populist movement of Giorgia Meloni in Italy and that has brought right-wing populism into the mainstream of Swedish politics. It is also the policy that the US Republican Party is perpetually groping without getting there.
But Truss went in the opposite direction, not just with his fiscal-reduction measure, but with a push to expand immigration — a double bet on a 1980s growth recipe, a Ronald Reagan-Margaret Thatcher nostalgia trip that turned conservatives away from his electorate and rendered his party absolutely apocalyptic numbers at the polls.
Is there anything to say in defense of the staggering prime minister? That’s all: when politicians revert, with seeming irrationality, to ideas that seem zombie-like and inappropriate for the present moment, it is often a sign that the problems of the present moment simply do not have clear solutions. Past choices may be wrong, but at least they look familiar and appealing.
This is the difficult situation of European conservatism at the moment. It can gain power because the old establishment, the supposedly sensible center, helped create and failed to solve three interconnected problems. First, globalization and European integration have enriched the center more than the periphery. Second, wealth, secularization, and economic stagnation have reduced birth rates, threatening depopulation and decline. Third, the preferred centrist solution to both economic stagnation and demographic decline—mass immigration—has contributed to Balkanization, criminality, and native backlash, even in a progressive bastion like Sweden.
Only the populist right consistently talks about all three issues, hence its current political advantage. But does the populist right know how to approach them? Not exactly. Boris, Truss’s ill-fated predecessor, promised a rebalancing of investment that would benefit the UK’s neglected non-London regions — and you could argue that greater rebalancing is what all these troubles are supposed to bring about.
A shift from public spending on seniors to spending on youth and parents. A shift from welfare spending to industrial policies. A shift from relying on immigrants to increase GDP to investing in domestic growth and regional renewal. From deregulation for the sake of finance to deregulation for the benefit of young families who cannot afford a home.
But each of these ideas requires extreme attention to detail—what kind of industrial policy? What about family politics?—and many of them can take a generation to bear fruit. Meanwhile, many conservative voters have an interest in the current situation; they don’t like the way things have changed, without admitting how they contributed to the problems.
Older people in particular are likely to resist rebalancing that lowers pensions or the value of their homes, even if it is needed to restore the social vigor they lack.
Then add in the spending limits suddenly imposed by inflation and the energy crisis of the war, and you have a scenario in which populists could end up as right-wing guardians of the same disease that helped bring them to power — ruling as advocates of an old-fashioned chauvinism rather than real tradition (because a secularized continent is not really traditional), preserving a museum culture for as long as possible against new waves of immigration, with some of the rage against civilizational twilight that Meloni presents in his impassioned speeches , but no real plan to transform societies with empty berths and budget deficits.
The authoritarian danger in this kind of populist politics would not be the aggressive warmongering fascism of the 1930s. It would be the fictional Guardian of England, dictator ruling a childless and dying country in PD James’ prophetic novel “The Children of Men”, promising the his aged subjects peace, order and nostalgia in the twilight of the human race.
To feel a little sympathy for Truss’s bet on a return to the 1980s, just consider this alternative scenario. Faced with such a plausible and bleak European future, it is not surprising that some right-wing politicians seek refuge in the happier, simpler future promised by the past.