Shooting for the Moon: Britain’s Tories and the Big State

Every week or so, our government throws out some big idea for solving the United Kingdom’s problems or boosting its position in the world. These ideas are usually half-baked and clearly intended to distract the public’s attention from failures elsewhere.

The newest big idea, the “Moonshot”, is interesting because it suggests that the ruling Conservative party, or parts of it, are trying to think through ways of securing its power at a time when some of its old alliances with big business are looking shaky.

As reported in the media, the “Moonshot” would be a £100 billion scheme to avoid another national lockdown by creating Covid-19 testing for the British population on a massive scale.

This is the Tory party, the party of Capital, so we are probably talking about lucrative contracts for the Big Four and other favoured private firms to create and run the programme in (uneasy) partnership with the different layers of the British state.

Recent experience suggests that this programme will either not happen at all or only in a halting and limited fashion, accompanied by a lot of waste and a certain amount of what will look like corruption. But what it might stand for is worth considering.

The “Moonshot” comes liberally sprinkled with the sci-fi bullshit (“Moonshot HQ”, “Mission Teams”) that we’re coming to associate with Dominic Cummings, the messianic technocrat who, though officially just an adviser, is one of the biggest influences on government policy.

Cummings presents as a clever but narrow man, a singular fusion of techno-geek, skilled propagandist and angry toddler. He seems pathologically frustrated by the problems of inertia and perverse incentives which arise in large bureaucratic structures: in his case, the British civil service which he recently threatened with a “hard rain”, whatever that is.

Cummings evidently favours the kind of tech-driven solutionism which was tried out in international development a decade or so ago. This is the notion that with enough data and clever analysis, you can cut through the boring work of dealing with blockages and misfires in the machinery of governance and simply jump-start it into working as you want it to. The results of this kind of approach tend to be mixed at best, because governance isn’t really a machine at all but something convoluted and organic, with its own tides and weather systems.

There’s more to the kind of thinking that gives rise to the“Moonshot”, however, than one angry man’s obsessions or the dilletantish fondness of his boss, the Prime Minister, for announcing Grand Projects off the cuff. The Tory party is facing a national and global situation which creates both a problem and a temptation.

The Tories used to ally themselves with international mobile capital, in the form of the City of London, the hedge funds and parts of the FTSE-100. Such alliances not only brought in campaign donations and lucrative jobs for retired politicians but, much more profoundly, they helped to cement in the public mind the illusion that the Tory worldview was the natural order of things, to which other parties must adapt themselves.

Now the configurations of British politics are visibly breaking apart. Those parts of the business elite which wanted unhampered access to the European internal market have lost the argument. Trade tensions and now the pandemic have threatened the vision of ever-greater cross-border investment. The idea of Britain as a low-tax haven for the world’s capital flows, though still popular within the Tory party, is not very popular with its electorate.

So a new possibility comes into sight. Since the Tory taboo on public spending has been broken by the pandemic, why not use public money to foster a new business elite of state-dependent private firms whose bosses and workers might come to see their interests as aligned with those of the government? An added bonus is that public investment could be injected, via such companies, into poorer parts of the country which turned Conservative at the last election, in the hope that they won’t return to Labour.

If this is the idea, then it is a very un-Thatcherite one. War may be fought within the Tory party between those who see the political advantages of a British version of the East Asian model – private conglomerates and the government working together, to their mutual benefit – and those who prefer the older vision of low taxes and a small state which uses its powers mainly to uphold private property and keep workers and the poor in their place.

British elections since Thatcher have commonly been presented, whatever the actual details of policy, as a contest between the more statist vision of Labour and the free-market vision of the Tories. It is conceivable, however, that the pressure of political reality could eventually shrink Thatcherite Tories into a wing or faction within their own party.

Flash forward to the 2024 election and the contest might be between rival claims to manage a mixed economy with a much stronger and more explicit role for the state. The Tories’ version would bend to the interests of owners and managers, and Labour’s to the interests of workers, but both versions would be infused with Green policies and a flavour of economic nationalism and provide for some redistribution of wealth, if only symbolic.

Should the Tories one day get rid of their incompetent leader and his angry-bird sidekick then, given that they’d be going into the next election with an 80-seat advantage in parliament, who’s to say they’d lose with such a position? The opposition parties may be spending a lot of time in the next years working out how to head off to this possible future.

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