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We can't afford for Truss to be conservative in her outlook

Thatcher wasn't able to run a small government during times of widespread deprivation, so why should Truss's time in office be any different?

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New Tory PM Liz Truss is going to have to adopt elements of the Thatcher government’s approach to help the UK’s poorest Photo: PA IMAGES / ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

For the new Prime Minister to say she is going to run a conservative government she is living a pipe dream. Thatcher tried to run a conservative government from ’79 to ’90 but kept finding herself being pushed into a kind of statism; always having to expand the basis of government intervention into the lives of the poorest.  Not intentionally and willingly and constructively.

But if you strip a country of its industrial base before replacing it with something new and shiny, and that industrial base has been kept alive by government support, then you’re going to have to up social security, put more money into hospitals, prisons and schools, and get knee-deep into social control. 

Which is exactly what Thatcher did, growing areas of the UK that looked as if they had been blighted by alien life forces. Social clubs, libraries, shops and factories closed down – towering monuments to previous vast activity reduced to rubble. And then having to underwrite this with the people’s taxes. Not very conservative? 

Being a constant mover about, I saw the prosperous ruined with my own eyes and at times lived among communities that, after Thatcher, had lost it all. But the state still had to cough up and support those thrown aside. 

Come forward 40 or so years, and we have passed through the covidisation of government and its departments, and the deep need for collective actions and responses. Communities now need to be kept together or the failure will be catastrophically ruinous to health, school, work and social support. 

The Ukraine war has brought us back to the Second World War and the socialisation of production and need. We are at war whether we like it or not, because Ukraine has brought our usual supply lines into question. We have entered a kind of war economy, so talking about running a conservative economy is window dressing. This government is going to have to intervene in the lives of more people harmed by that war and the increasing inflation, whether they like it or not. 

The state worldwide has become the great socialiser. It has brought things together to keep society functioning. When in 2008, Obama and Brown rescued capitalism by socialising ownerships of the banks – owned largely by the taxpayer because they were rescued by the taxpayer – they upped the state’s involvement in even more nooks and crannies of our lives. 

The fact that capitalism was saved by the public purse and not by itself was a necessity for the continuation of society. That it was handed back on non-commercial, old-boy-network, self-enriching terms to the arses who got us into the crisis is what happens in a chumocracy. But it cannot be denied that talk of being conservative doesn’t mean an awful lot when the state becomes increasingly necessary to keep the whole show on the road. 

I do believe that Liz Truss is expecting her regime to stick to party lines and partisan political thinking. But having been through 9/11 and its incredible dislocating effects, the banking crisis of 2008, Brexit, Covid and now Ukraine, our century is demanding some TLC government, and that can’t be provided by looking back to some halcyon Conservative time. 

What Truss inherits is dislocation, added together with enormous responsibilities and a micro-managing media that is always reminding us that we are heading towards Armageddon. A ramping up of fear and loathing, and an abandoning of cool judgement. 

As usual, the poorest will be hit the hardest. Therefore, we still have a mighty job as an active public to ensure support is passed out to people in this inflationary war zone. More so than ever, we have to become active in our communities and build better alliances and make bigger demands on the business and government world. 

We may have got out of Covid – mostly – but we still live with the damage it has done to the economy. And now inflation and European war ignites the need to be more clear thinking than at any time I can remember. 

But one thing we certainly don’t need is some sloppy government intent on “sticking to its conservative guns” as some would have it. Realism is the cry today: action in shoring up the blighted incomes of the neediest. Emergency first, before we can do anything else to prevent the next emergency. Hopefully we can find some firmer times when we can begin the debate again about which ideology will suit better the lives of future generations. But for the moment I can’t help feeling we need to prioritise the most distressed among us in the most task-oriented way.  

(A footnote: Is it any surprise that Gordon Brown, the socialist PM who rescued capitalism in 2008/9, is in the vanguard of this thinking?) 

John Bird is the founder and editor in chief of The Big Issue. Read more of his words here.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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