To answer the question whether Liberals are still able to succeed, we must first find the answer to the question whether they are able to draw conclusions from their greatest failure. Then we will see quite easily that regular Thatcherism is not enough and there is a desperate need for the left-wing variety of it.
As it often happens in life, the greatest failure comes after the biggest success. However, contrary to popular belief, the greatest success of the Liberals is not connected with the actions of the Conservatives, like Margaret Thatcher or Ronald Reagan, but with slightly forgotten decisions of another Conservative – Robert Peel. That success occurred in 1846, when British Prime Minister Robert Peel, along with his followers, left the Conservative Party and together with the Whigs and the Radicals voted in favour of the repeal of the Corn Laws, thus forming the basis for the foundation of the Liberal Party that united the Whigs, the Radicals and the so-called Peelites. This opened a quarter-century of the era of free trade and the dominance of liberal thought.
It is often believed that the entire nineteenth century was the time of unrestrained free market, but in reality, that ‘golden era’ lasted less than three decades – between 1846 and the 70s of the 19th century. That short period was enough, however, for Great Britain to become the ‘world factory’ and to reach the summit of its power. At the same time, a feudal society was eventually replaced by an industrial society.
The dominance of the Liberals was based largely on the electoral law of 1832, which, in order to override the influence of the aristocracy, secured the right to vote to a sufficient number of potential Liberal voters. Throughout that period, the Liberals called for a further electoral reform – by lowering the property qualification they wanted to extend suffrage to more potential voters of the Liberal Party. The aristocracy strongly opposed it and consequently it was losing its power.
A former chartist Benjamin Disraeli persuaded then the Conservative Party, which traditionally represented the interests of the aristocracy and large landowners, to turn to the poor, renewing thereby the traditional alliance between the two classes. Disraeli bade the Liberals with the electoral reform from 1867. Not only did he slightly decrease the property qualification, but he also virtually abolished it, so that almost all adult males met the requirements. Thanks to the reform, not only potential Liberal Party voters, but also the poor classes could go to the polls.
Disraeli’s brilliant idea was to transfer the traditional paternalistic relationship between the aristocracy and the poor class from the feudal society into the industrial background. Completely different societies, but the principle is the same: recognition or even promotion of the social hierarchy, with all its limitations, in return for protection. Disraeli assured the return to power for the aristocracy in exchange for their promise to defend workers from industrialists, which voted mostly in favour of the Liberal Party.
The return to power occurred not right away. The elections in 1868 were lost for the Conservatives. However, in 1873, the so-called long crisis began, then known as the Great Depression, effectively discouraging voters from the ideas of free market. After the elections in 1874 Disraeli became Prime Minister, dashing all the libertarian dreams about the world of universal happiness. What followed then was a return to protectionism, the rise of imperialism, colonialism, the petrification of social structure, the gradual monopolization of the economy, and in the moral sphere – Puritanism. The Liberal Party came to power a few times later, but it never succeeded in changing the trend that was initiated during the rule of Disraeli. At the beginning of the 20th century, eventually, it lost its position in favour of the Labour Party.
All the future projects such as Roosevelt’s New Deal or the post-war welfare state are based on the very same diagram invented by Disraeli. The upper class enjoys the protection of their higher social position, while the lower class receives social protection. The Liberals were not able, as it happened in the 70s of the 19th century, to convince less well-off voters that the libertarian society is also in their interest. Many liberal parties have become a minority, which represents only free lancers and specialists – they are just partners in coalition governments and as a result have a limited impact on the state.
From the point of view presented above, Thatcherism, Reaganomics or more generally, Neoliberalism, are not at all the victories of liberal thought, but only the termination of the alliance created by Disraeli in the 19th century. Due to the low efficiency of the welfare state, better-off voters rejected that agreement and forced less-paid employees to be more productive at work, while at the same time they did not reject their privileges. Therefore, except for one notable example of the financial market deregulation by Prime Minister Thatcher from the year 1986, the neoliberal reforms generally mean de-monopolization of industries that are in fact mainly sponsored by the poorer voters. It goes together with further protection for the limited competition among the professions that are practiced by the voters of a higher social status.
It is clearly visible when one compares Anglo-Saxon countries with France. The French elite have never denounced that alliance and they still continue to support the welfare state solution. In return, they receive support for its privileges and social status. In France, as in any other developed country, corporations and better-off voters enjoy such a broad support of the masses.
In such situation, it is difficult to recognize the success of free market ideas. As consumers, we are all supporters of free market, we want to have the freedom to choose what and at what price we consume. As producers, however, most of us are full-time workers. We want protection for our jobs and our income level. We are not the supporters of free competition when we ask for the deregulation of products and services that we use, but when we call for the deregulation of products and services that we produce. The same happens with the freedom of speech. We do not support it when we demand the freedom for ideas that we agree with, but when we demand the freedom for expressing things with which we disagree and even those we hate.
It seems that the governments of Thatcher and Reagan would have been followed by left-wing governments, which because of the termination of the alliance on which the welfare state was based, should have taken back all privileges from better-off groups, so that the benefits of the deregulation and free competition could be beneficial to all social groups. Nevertheless, the Left has not done so. In defense, one can say that it is much easier to de-monopolize the industry than the world of banking, finance or other highly specialized services that are provided by the better-off voters.
However, the main reason for the failure of the Left was its devotion to the welfare state, the petrification of the society and the order imposed from the above. The Left has been unable to adapt to voters who longed for the society that is more flexible and preferred the bottom- introduced order. Attempts to return to the welfare state were doomed to failure, because the voters would never accept the decline in consumption. Therefore, the only thing to do for the left is defending the welfare state elements that remained after the reforms of Thatcher and Reagan – even though it represents the interests of the higher social classes and completely loses contact with its potential electorate.
Due to the same processes that led to the collapse of the Left – from which it still cannot raise – liberalism has been reduced to an ideology that expresses the interests of the rich. The Liberals still cannot convince poorer voters that they also represent their interests. They are not able to pick themselves up after the blow given to them by Disraeli in the 19th century. If one proposes to carry out a deregulation, which is to improve or maintain their financial situation, they are not liberal, they are just someone who cares about their interests. Liberalism is a vision of a society based on freedom of the individual; it does not matter whether that person comes from the lower or the higher social class. Hence the importance of the existence of a left-wing variety of Thatcherism, so that the deregulation and de-monopolization could be available to all members of the society. As a result, the vision of the liberal, libertarian society will have a chance to gain the support of the broad masses and once again become the dominant vision.
Translation: Martyna Kozik