July 3, 2023   8 mins

Victory should feel more satisfying than it does. Just a few years ago, arguing that globalisation had been a great policy error by the West’s political class was still viewed as a heretical position, its adherents fighting in vain against an unstoppable and desirable force of history. To say that placing the West in a relationship of dependency on Russia and China’s autocracies was a profound security risk, a wilful act of negligence bordering on treason, was still seen by the liberal commentariat as eccentrically misguided at best, and Trumpian nativism at worst. The postliberal assertion that the nation’s security as well as prosperity relied on a secure domestic industrial base, fostered and defended by an activist state, was still viewed as a backwards nostalgia for a vanished world.

But all these arguments have now been decisively won, so swiftly and totally that it is apparently difficult for liberals to remember that they ever held different views, let alone denounced the ones they now profess.

Yet while the world has moved beyond economic liberalism, leftover liberals still run the West. Like a post-Communist state where the old nomenklatura, having hurriedly adopted the mantle of liberal capitalists, still run the show, a great, historic revolution has occurred but the same people remain in charge, having suffered no retribution for the catastrophic mistakes their failed idealism brought in tow. A massive clear-out is long overdue: and no more absurd an illustration can be found of the immovable fatberg blocking our political future, the sheer ideological inertia preventing reform, than Britain’s failing water companies.

The failed status quo our politicians contort themselves to defend, like some ancient pillar of our constitution, was itself a bold act of political change. Thatcher’s privatisation of the national water supply was a course of action so daringly radical, so intuitively wrongheaded that only one other nation on earth, Pinochet’s Chile, took the same path. As in so many other aspects of national life, Britain carried out a reckless experiment on itself which failed. Like so much else of Westminster’s tinkering with a country which in retrospect seems to have functioned perfectly well, the failure was so disastrous that the error cannot be admitted, let alone rectified.

The results fulfilled none of the stated aims of privatisation: competition among providers did not lower costs or improve services, as instead the spoils were portioned out among regional monopolies; no new infrastructure was built, as profits were extracted as dividends, with crippling new debt added on top; precious national resources, whether the public’s wealth or Britain’s famously over-abundant supply of water, were squandered. Yet if the water supply systems of every other country in the world provide insufficient comparison, we possess a control group within our own borders, studiously ignored by London commentators. In both Scotland and Northern Ireland, water remained under state control: bills are lower (in Northern Ireland, non-existent for domestic users), infrastructure is not notably worse, and taxpayers have not been saddled with extravagant debt purely to pay out dividends.

In this sense, the oft-made liberal claim that Britain urgently needs to decolonise itself may be correct, though not in the way its adherents think. Exploiting a country’s resources and extracting the wealth of its people solely for the purpose of enriching foreign shareholders is how you run an unloved colony, not a nation. It is striking that it is only England, the submerged nation where Westminster’s writ runs unchallenged, with no viable nationalist independence movement to force the central government to keep voters relatively happy, that has been forced to submit itself to looting by the water companies. That it is Thames Water, whose turbid assets flow past the Palace of Westminster itself, which appears closest to collapse is surely no accident: it is the richest portion of the colony that was latched onto first and most tightly, and was thus the first to be sucked dry. In Britain, just as all distances are measured from Charing Cross, dysfunction radiates out from the centre. The aim of any form of radical politics must surely be, while preserving the Union, to find a way to liberate Britain from Westminster, and from the reliably servile comprador class that scurries along its endless corridors, looking for unguarded family silver to sell.

After all, no voter would actively choose the economic model we have. But as Thames Water’s looming collapse reminds us, we are not governed according to our political desires, instead we are ruled through absolute and open disregard for the popular will. As a recent YouGov poll shows, 69% of the British public, including 66% of Conservative voters, believe the water supply should be run as a public utility, while just 8% believe that things should remain as they are. Like renationalising the railways, a policy which 67% support, bringing water back into public ownership would be wildly popular, yet is viewed with as much distaste by our ruling caste as public hanging (which would, it must be said, also be fairly popular). Yet as the urgent attempt to find some last-ditch alternative to renationalisation shows, both parties still cower in fear from granting the electorate its desires. Viewed objectively, the function of Westminster politicians is not to deliver the policies that voters want, but to frustrate them. A Britain that reflected the majority politics, both Right and Left, of its people, would be a very different and far more liveable country: this should be the postliberal horizon.

Even as British postliberals flirt with a poorly-defined national conservatism, it is the Labour Left pushing tangible improvements to the common good, even if its experimental progressivism makes it an enemy in the cultural sphere. If the Conservatives are unable to conserve anything of value, Labour may at least, through recalibrating the nation’s economy around the now-atrophied power of the state, achieve conservative ends. Family life would be better served by increasing pay, by building houses, and by widening access to childcare than by mocking the latest progressive culture war innovation on Twitter. On home ownership, fearful of the state they were elected to manage, conservative intellectuals provide timid, stuttering suggestions, tinkering at the edges of policy: what if we built nicer-looking houses, or devised a complicated system of street votes so local planning committees wouldn’t object to new development? Instead, Labour proposes to cut this self-imposed Gordian knot through the simple expedient of the state buying land cheaply, relaxing planning restrictions and building houses, just as a Conservative party that knew how to win elections used to do.

Effectively a conservative variant of socialism, postliberalism has always struggled to reconcile the two halves of its worldview: the post-industrial working class is, in truth, significantly less socially conservative than the tweedy intellectuals professing to speak for them. Equally, the Left’s suspicion that postliberals will always be distracted from pursuing the economics of the common good by shallow nods at social conservatism is often more accurate than we would prefer to think. Yet by fundamentally rejecting the narrow parameters of the liberal worldview, it is afforded a welcome degree of detachment from the rounds of partisan politics: with no particular loyalty to either viable party, postliberals can flit between whichever promises to implement the greater part of its ideal programme. Yet while its synthesis of economic radicalism and social conservatism may double the chance of at least some of its demands being implemented by one of the two Westminster factions, it also offers twice the opportunity for disappointment.

A few years ago, I declared that the Conservative party represented the best hope for postliberal governance: back in 2021, it really did seem that “the only current means of shaping British politics is as a faction within the ruling Conservative party, whose dominance of British politics is unchallenged”, a party “already making postliberal noises to anchor its new hold on the post-industrial North”, so that “whether we like it or not, postliberalism’s greatest opportunity to sway the course of politics is on the centre-right — and the road to doing so is through ideological capture of the state’s institutions, just as the neoliberals did 40 years ago”. As events proved, I was profoundly mistaken.

Since 2019, postliberal intellectuals have been given to loudly claiming that it is easier for the Right to move Left on economics than for the Left to move Right on culture: but the Conservative party’s public suicide has dramatically revealed the flaw at the heart of this analysis. Just because a particular course of action is the easiest to follow, the one that will be most warmly rewarded by voters, does not mean that our politicians will do it, even in our notional democracy. Through its destructive decades-long love affair with economic liberalism, the Conservative party entirely burned through the foundations of conservatism, rooting up its future voting base like noxious weeds. Sometimes the dead hand of ideology is just too strong, strangling even the most basic instinct for self-preservation as it pulls a party, and a nation into the grave.

The Conservative party can be safely written off for now as a spent force: the current overriding danger is that Labour will fail in turn, and for the same reasons: its leadership also still in thrall to the same dead ideology and the tiny minority of voters who still adhere to it. If anything can rival the uselessness of a Conservative party that conserves nothing, it is a Labour party too timid on the economy to save Britain from its downward, perhaps terminal spiral.

A Labour party already watering down its most ambitious economic pledges serves no purpose at all: the party’s sole appeal is its willingness to harness the power of the state to productive ends. Labour’s cautious retreat from offering free childcare, its delicate dance to avoid renationalising rail and energy at the time of greatest political opportunity in decades does not bode well for Starmer’s prospects as a bold reformer. Who is he trying to win over? When even the Times, the nation’s arbiter of boring status quo centrism, can run leaders lambasting the failure of privatised water, when, even the Reform party can offer a more convincing path towards renationalisation than Labour, something is going terribly wrong with Starmer’s vision. The political stars have aligned, the nation is in agreement: for him to squander this opportunity casts doubt on Starmer’s fitness for leadership, and on the idea of Labour providing a meaningful alternative to Tory dysfunction at all. As Labour’s exiled king Jeremy Corbyn observes with all the piercing clarity of the simple-minded, “It’s really not that complicated: stop bailing out private companies and bring our water into public ownership instead.”

Indeed, through bringing about the wave of renationalisation voters from both parties desire, a Corbyn government in 2019 would perhaps have achieved a greater postliberal synthesis than the futile Johnson show delivered. A Corbyn government that invested in state capacity a whole parliament ago may perhaps have arrested the decline sooner, and stolen a march on the new world economic consensus. Through ramping up state direction of the economy to compete in a world whose economic order has been reshaped by China, and by the looming need to replace fossil fuels and the infrastructure grid underwriting modern life which depends on them, the rest of the world is already moving towards something approaching war economies: only Britain remains the last holdout, the unchanging hermit kingdom of extractive, borderless neoliberalism.

No other developed country would permit its wealth and resources to be looted by foreign investors, or its utilities to be run by foreign states. Britain’s future is not bright: as the global situation deteriorates, the decisions made in the next few parliaments may be all that staves off collapse. Like Chekhov’s gun, in Britain the power of the state is an unused weapon waiting to be wielded: the only question is who will seize it first, and to what ends. With the Conservatives eliminated as an option by their own record of governance, it is the decisions made now by Labour that will determine the nation’s course in the decades to come.

We might wish Labour were led by someone bolder, but for now Starmer is there all there is: his stance on how to handle Thames Water is thus the first great test of our inevitable government-in-waiting. The pressure from the Labour Left to commit the party to renationalising water should therefore be actively supported by those of our political tribe: not only is it desirable in itself, and supported by the vast majority of voters, but it will finally mark the symbolic death of Britain’s old, failed order. And if Labour should fail too, following the Conservatives into political oblivion, at least then may come the time of real politics. Like the shifting establishment stance towards globalisation, when the change comes, it will be swift and total: in the coming waves of crisis lie political opportunities just waiting to be seized.

Aris Roussinos is an UnHerd columnist and a former war reporter.