Government and Institutions

Nick Timothy’s ‘post-liberal conservatism’: nonsense on stilts

Seven years ago, I published an IEA monograph, which was a spin-off from what would later become a dissertation. There were economies of scope in writing for both the IEA and for the university at the same time, but it also created a problem in terms of style.

An IEA publication is supposed to take a clear position. Get off the fence. Don’t waffle. State your policy conclusions explicitly.

That style would not necessarily go down well in the world of academia, where having a clear position is often considered low-brow, and equivocating a sign of sophistication. Since I had written much of the text with an IEA audience in mind, I could not simply reuse it for the dissertation.

So I rewrote it, changing the style. “This shows X” became “We could interpret this as tentative support for X, however…”. “This refutes Y” became “This is difficult to reconcile with Y”. “People who believe in Z are wrong” became “This represents a challenge for proponents of the Z hypothesis”. I added thousands of caveats, provisos and qualifications, and the sort of phrases that academics like to use, like “more research is required”.

I hadn’t suddenly turned from a libertarian polemicist into a serious scholar. I was just following a template. It was colouring by numbers. And it worked.

There is also a template that you can follow if you want to be considered a profound, challenging and original thinker, but if, at the same time, you don’t actually want to do any profound, challenging and original thinking. Here goes:

You need to be notionally on the right, but peddle vacuous anti-market platitudes. You need to write articles which could easily have been written by Owen Jones, and then add a few commonplaces about the importance of family, community and the nation state. Use phrases like “Markets can be a force for good, but…”. A lot.

You will then automatically be celebrated as a deep thinker, someone who crosses ideological boundaries, and who combines the best bits of various political philosophies. It doesn’t matter whether you actually do anything of that kind. You just have to use the correct template.

The most recent example of this genre is Nick Timothy’s attack on imaginary free-market fundamentalists in the Telegraph. Timothy used to work for the Conservative Research Department and for Theresa May, so he ticks the ‘notionally on the right’ box. But his article, a manifesto for what he calls a “post-liberal conservatism”, contains all the usual left-wing karaoke: “largesse and irresponsibility among the powerful”, “bosses exploiting their staff”, “big businesses ripping off their customers”, “[i]nternational corporations seem to see paying the smallest sums of tax as generous acts of charity”, “[w]hile pay for the many has been frozen, for the few it has rocketed”, and so on.

Where Timothy says something substantive, he is wrong, and where he’s right, he’s only right because he says nothing substantive.

Timothy cites the housing crisis as evidence that ‘the system’ doesn’t work. This is a standard left-wing cliché. Housing is probably the one policy area where Britain is furthest away from a free market. If you want to argue that Britain is currently too liberal, this is the worst sector you could possibly choose to make that case. It is Britain’s insanely restrictive planning system, and its interaction with organised NIMBYism, which has caused the housing crisis. If ‘the market’ cannot satisfy housing demand – how come the market does precisely that in most of the developed world? The British housing market is an international outlier, not the norm.

To give an example: just the other week, a group of NIMBYs have shut down a proposed development on the Isle of Dogs, which would have seen 2,000 new homes being built. The place would have been perfect for development: well connected to central London, underdeveloped, and with no remarkable landmarks that need ‘saving’. As Jonn Elledge explains:

“What, you are wondering, have those campaigners managed to save? A children’s play area, perhaps? A lovely park? A site of outstanding natural beauty? An over-crowded and under-funded orphanage? Nope: a branch of Asda and its massive car park.”

Sure, blaming obnoxious NIMBYs and a planning system that empowers them will not earn you any laurels for being ‘thoughtful’ and ‘original’, because it’s not exactly unexpected. But it has the advantage of being correct, and supported by lots of empirical evidence.

Timothy also lays the blame for the UK’s large regional disparities at the door of excessive liberalism. That is, again, pretty much the opposite of the truth. There is no obvious pattern here, but generally speaking, countries which are politically more decentralised also tend to have strong regional economic centres. Could you say, off the top off your head, what the richest region of Switzerland or Germany is? Most citizens of these countries couldn’t, because they have various regions competing for that title.

Decentralisation, of course, was one of the main missing components in Thatcher’s liberal reform package. Britain remains one of the most centralised countries in the world. It is, at least in this respect, not ‘too liberal’, but not liberal enough.

Inevitably, Timothy also repeats the usual clichés about libertarians being selfish individualists, who do not appreciate the value of societal and community cohesion:

“Libertarians may say they have no responsibility to others, but conservatives know that society functions only if we respect our obligations to one another. […] [C]onservatives understand how the cultures, traditions and institutions of a country help to bring about the trust, reciprocity and stability that make a society worth living in”

Wrong again. It is not that libertarians reject such values, but simply, that we do not believe that they are easily amenable to policy. Which tangible policy recommendations could we derive from Timothy’s statement? Should the government distribute free Union Jack flags to every household, in an attempt to make the country more patriotic? Should it subsidise traditional British folk music, to reconnect people with traditions? Public screening of the Dunkirk movie? Without tangible policy implications, the above are just motherhood and apple pie statements.

If an IEA author wrote an article in defence of Nicolas Maduro, you would probably read it, just because it would be unexpected. But that would not automatically make it ‘thoughtful’ or ‘profound’. If that article just repeated the usual nonsense that you can read in any run-of-the-mill article in Jacobin or the Canary, then the fact that you wouldn’t have expected it coming from that particular author should count for nothing.

The same should apply to Timothy. If Timothy has a specific critique of specific markets, ideally combined with specific policy proposals, then let’s hear it. But if I wanted a generic anti-capitalist rant, combined with a bit of warm glow about nationhood and community, I’d just read Owen Jones, and play God Save the Queen in the background.


Head of Political Economy

Dr Kristian Niemietz is the IEA's Head of Political Economy. Kristian studied Economics at the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin and the Universidad de Salamanca, graduating in 2007 as Diplom-Volkswirt (≈MSc in Economics). During his studies, he interned at the Central Bank of Bolivia (2004), the National Statistics Office of Paraguay (2005), and at the IEA (2006). He also studied Political Economy at King's College London, graduating in 2013 with a PhD. Kristian previously worked as a Research Fellow at the Berlin-based Institute for Free Enterprise (IUF), and taught Economics at King's College London. He is the author of the books "Socialism: The Failed Idea That Never Dies" (2019), "Universal Healthcare Without The NHS" (2016), "Redefining The Poverty Debate" (2012) and "A New Understanding of Poverty" (2011).

3 thoughts on “Nick Timothy’s ‘post-liberal conservatism’: nonsense on stilts”

  1. Posted 14/08/2017 at 16:26 | Permalink

    Thank you for this first rate takedown of the nonsense from Timothy, the man desperate to prove that the recent Tory electoral car crash was nothing to do with him. Lord Tebbit also does a good demolition job in the Telegraph.

  2. Posted 14/08/2017 at 19:48 | Permalink

    Masterly article – total demolition. Why on Earth is the Telegraph giving Timothy, of all people, a regular column? The manifesto he co-authored is widely acknowledged to have been the death-knell of the Conservative campaign. Most people would have crawled away and found a job more suited to their talents.

  3. Posted 15/08/2017 at 10:24 | Permalink

    The Telegraph is encouraging the kind of debate about ideas and philosophy essential to reinvigorate people on the right and widen understanding of how capitalism doesn’t have to be the crony variety … and it seems to be working! (see also Roger Scruton in S Times). I hate the anti-capitalist guff also but diagnosing how Corbyn won the votes of so many intelligent people is a crucial first step so let’s debate respectfully with our friends and opponents and avoid attributing motive?

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