February 7, 2023

When I last interviewed Liz Truss — in early 2022, when she was just Foreign Secretary — I spotted a copy of Rick Perlstein’s The Invisible Bridge on her shelf. The book explores the links between the post-war administrations of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, the latter of whom is one of Truss’s great heroes. The reading material was, I thought, very Truss. The Invisible Bridge is the third in a four-part series chronicling the great conservative revolution in the United States, which seemed to come from nothing in the Sixties to sweep away everything barely two decades later. For Truss, Perlstein’s books were totemic, romantic dispatches from another age when true believers transformed the world around them. Here, in other words, was the Truss plan.

And then came her time in office, all 44 days of it, which saw her grand plans swept into the dustbin of history, along, it seemed, with her reputation. Yet now — with a 4,000-word essay in the Sunday Telegraph and an interview with Spectator TV yesterday — we discover she is mounting something of a comeback, or, at least, a defence of her legacy. Her premiership might not have survived, so the argument seems to go, but her ideas will live on. And she is not Nixon or Reagan, but Barry Goldwater, the Arizonian senator who lost to Lyndon B. Johnson in a landslide in 1964, only to spark an ideological transformation of American politics.

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As it happens, the first in Rick Perlstein’s series of books tells this exact story. In Before the Storm, Perlstein describes what came before Nixon and Reagan. Up until 1964, the party political divide in the US was not as simple as it is today. Back then, both parties contained distinctly conservative and liberal wings: southern segregationists and northern liberals in the Democratic Party, for example; Waspish liberals and mid-western conservatives in the Republican. After 1964, the two parties began to divide into more obvious ideological camps, sparked in large part by Johnson’s Civil Rights Act, which outlawed racial segregation.

In 1964, it looked very much as though the future would be Democratic. Goldwater had been crushed. Johnson won more than 60% of the vote, the highest share in history, collecting 486 electoral college votes to Goldwater’s 52. Still licking its wounds, the conventional wisdom within the Republican Party was that it needed to avoid Goldwater’s brand of ideological conservatism if it were to stand any chance of winning again. By choosing someone like him, the Republicans might have won the South, but they had lost almost everywhere else. In a stroke, Johnson’s Democrats were the party of civil rights and moderation.

And yet, the conventional wisdom was wrong. Over the following years, Goldwater’s acolytes began to win governorship after governorship before eventually sweeping into the White House in 1980 under Reagan. So complete was the conservative victory that in 1992 Bill Clinton and the Democrats had to sue for peace, accepting much of the conservative agenda just to stand a chance of winning.

No wonder Liz Truss is reportedly comforting herself with the belief that she is the Goldwater of Britain, rather than just a humiliated former prime minister. If only it were that simple.

To begin with, the bridge from Goldwater to Reagan is quite a long one which, as Perlstein’s books show, starts with that distinctly problematic figure in American politics, Richard Nixon, before ending with Reagan. In other words, even if Truss were the Goldwater of Britain, if the American experience is anything to go by, it could be decades before the conditions are right for a Trussite agenda to triumph. And if it did, it would not be copy-and-paste Trussism, just as Reagan was not delayed Goldwaterism. Even Nixon, remember, was not a conservative Goldwater acolyte but very much his own man, who had already been vice president to the moderate Dwight Eisenhower for eight years before 1964. The idea of Truss being a second Goldwater is based less on the reality of the Nixon presidency that came next and more on the idea of the Reagan one that followed much later on.

Truss’s latest cosplay is made all the more peculiar given that Goldwater’s legacy is hardly blemish-free. Outside his own state of Arizona, Goldwater’s only endorsements had come from the segregationist south which supported his opposition to Johnson’s Civil Rights Act — a defining piece of legislation in favour of states’ rights. Prophets of our political future are rarely quite as all-seeing as they seem when re-examined. And Goldwater was no different: he is not some simple conservative hero, but a complicated figure whose policies were not even adopted wholesale by his ideological fellow-travellers who came next.

What, then, is it about her agenda that Truss believes will come to dominate the Conservative Party and British politics? Unfunded tax cuts which spark financial crises and a collapse in public support? I am being facetious, of course, but it is a reasonable question. Goldwater was an electoral failure but he didn’t cause a pensions and debt crisis after promising a sweep of giveaways without a fiat currency to depend on.

The strongest argument in favour of the Truss-as-Goldwater idea, is that she was right to challenge the sense of inevitability about Britain’s poor economic performance, anaemic growth and high taxes. Outside the EU, there is a reasonable argument to say that Britain needs to work harder to carve out a competitive edge — and that regulation and taxes will play a big role in this. Other than Johnson’s big-state “levelling up” Toryism, Truss’s Reaganite dash for growth is the obvious alternative, more in tune with the ordinary Conservative member than Johnsonism. It is far from impossible that Rishi Sunak leads the party to defeat and a form of Trussism emerges, once again, to claim the leadership.

Yet, even if this were true, the other moral of the Goldwater story is that it is not just ideas which matter, but the people to sell and deliver them in a way that works. The practical application of Trussism sparked a financial crisis which forced her from office. The art of politics is to win power and wield it effectively. Truss only managed the former. For the Conservative Party the more interesting question is not whether Truss is Goldwater, but where on earth they are going to find their Reagan.