Although Boris Johnson may have defused a ten-megaton bomb of neo-Marxism in Britain and assured the final passage of Brexit, his Conservative victory is hardly a victory for conservatism. On the far side of the Atlantic, as over here, fiscal responsibility has taken a lethal beating.
Reviewing a failed campaign manifesto by Starbucks titan Howard Schultz a million years ago last spring, Andrew Ferguson wrote, with his typical combination of wit and sagacity, “Schultz hopes to define himself as the political equivalent of a jackalope: the ‘fiscally conservative social liberal’ that folklorists and mythologists have been describing for decades, though no one has ever seen one in the flesh.” Ferguson pointed out that the voters of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania who gave us the Donald Trump presidency “are, alas, best described as ‘fiscally liberal social conservatives.’”
Fiscally liberal social conservatism is a force whose potential electoral power has been greatly underestimated. It’s like a huge basin of light sweet crude that sat patiently about three feet beneath the surface of politics, just waiting for some ragged crew of Beverly Hillbillies to stumble upon it and reap gigantic rewards. Donald Trump achieved the presidency by sheer instinct, not by crunching data and judiciously weighing competing voter interests. He sensed that enormous success could be had by melding a pugnacious brand of cultural conservatism — opposing political correctness and loudly denouncing illegal immigrants — with a defense of the liberal welfare state and its entitlements.
The sources of Boris Johnson’s colossal victory are several: Some voters turned away from Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-Semitism and/or his hard-left economics, while others simply wanted to complete Brexit and move on. Yet despite all of those powerful factors, and despite his considerable advantages in personal appeal, Johnson felt it necessary to add another element to assure the outright majority he needed: a spending blowout. He campaigned against the Conservative party’s alleged post-financial-crisis “austerity” policies (in fact, UK debt has risen from 34 percent of GDP to 81 percent since 2008) and promised to deluge Britain with new spending. Even in the face of Corbyn’s Bolshie radicalism, he made no attempt to make the case for the wisdom of government’s getting out of the way of the private sector to unleash prosperity. He did the opposite, painting a picture of growth and economic security deriving from government spending. The Left denounced him as an apostle of austerity anyway, but it didn’t work. He successfully convinced the voters that if only they’d allow him to pull Brexit across the finish line he’d restore unabashed left-of-center economics. Thatcherism is dead.
Though Johnson proved much more formidable than Theresa May in fighting for Brexit, he has continued with her disturbing policy of simply conceding the premises of liberal economics; he once correctly termed fracking “glorious news for humanity,” yet on November 1 he put a moratorium on it, dealing a blow to British consumers and the country’s energy industry and accepting the Left’s ludicrous scaremongering about the tiny, unnoticeable earthquakes linked to the process. He begged the voters not to lump him in with those nasty Conservatives who advocate for some minimal level of fiscal realism, promising $125 billion in new infrastructure spending, $20 billion in additional annual spending on schools, a hike in the minimum wage, an increase in teacher salaries, and (of course) a huge increase in spending on the National Health Service, for which no amount of spending can ever be enough. He also promised not to raise taxes and to decrease the budget deficit. Good luck with that.
Some of Boris’s fiscal liberalism is, like Trump’s, linked to social conservatism: He promised longer jail sentences for violent criminals, 20,000 additional cops, fewer limits on searching suspects, and limits on immigration through the use of an Australian-style points system to assess the value of incoming would-be Britons. Atop all of this, bringing home Brexit would be the signature social-conservative achievement of the British century and make Johnson’s premiership one of the most consequential in history.
In order to win his majority, Johnson had to vigorously contest seats in traditional Labour constituencies whose distaste for the Tory party is deeply ingrained. Perhaps free-spending promises were the only way to win those voters over, and thus to guarantee five years of Conservative government and achieve Brexit. But we should be clear about the cost: In order to win, he abandoned a core conservative principle and locked himself into an unrealistic economic platform. Though the liberal government Johnson heads is vastly preferable to Corbynista rule, the parameters of British economics just took a large step to the left. If a nominally conservative party lacks either the courage or the communications skills to sell conservative economics when it can boast of having reduced unemployment to a 44-year-low and when its opponent promises to implement unreconstructed socialism, it bodes ill for those on either side of the Atlantic who wonder whether any party will ever even gesture in the direction of sane fiscal policy again.