October 10, 2022 - 12:05pm

Former minister Johnny Mercer was interviewed by Andrew Neil for Channel 4 last night, and it’s fair to say he isn’t exactly on good terms with the current government. When he described Liz Truss and her colleagues as “liberalists” it wasn’t meant as a compliment. 

But what is a ‘liberalist’? Perhaps Mercer misspoke, meaning to say ‘neo-liberal’ or ‘libertarian’. On the other hand, he may have contributed a useful new word to the political lexicon.

Though I’m a conservative, I’m not so blinkered that I can’t recognise liberalism as a massively important — and deeply sophisticated — school of political thought. That’s why it so useful to have ‘liberalist’ as a way of describing the shallow, inconsistent, ersatz liberalism that’s made its way into Downing Street. 

What then is the difference between a true liberal and a liberalist?

Well, let’s start with the liberalist idea that the state shouldn’t try to second guess the market. But if that’s the case, then on what basis did Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng pick which taxes to cut to unleash all that promised growth? The overall package overwhelmingly benefited the rich — presumably on the assumption that the wealthy are the wealth creators. But that required a top-down judgement on the part of the government. 

Similarly, when the Bank of England staged its emergency response to the chaos that followed the mini-budget, that was a massive, market-shaping intervention by a state institution. Of course, a truly liberal government would recognise that the state and the market are deeply intertwined and would develop its ideas around that fact. The liberalist mantra, however, is “state bad, market good” — the moral of Truss’s simplistic speech to party conference. 

There was more liberalist thinking on show when the government pulled a £15 million energy saving campaign. Did ministers object to telling people how to live their lives? Or did they confuse energy efficiency with energy rationing — which would be at odds with the Trussite priorities of “growth, growth and growth.” However, this is to miss the essential context here: the energy price cap, which is costed at £150 billion. If a public information campaign were to achieve nothing more than a 0.1% reduction in energy use, it would save £150 million. There is, of course, nothing illiberal about governments making investments to reduce the future need for government, but for liberalists that’s too counter-intuitive a concept. 

So is the idea that it’s not just the state that exercises top-down power over individuals. For an example, I’d recommend a fascinating Church Times interview with Steve Baker. The influential Tory MP describes himself as “Christian libertarian” and a “classical liberal”. Drawing upon Biblical inspiration he describes (Earthly) power as a “disgusting, awful thing.” But when asked about the power of privatised companies to pump sewage into the environment he appeared wrong-footed. 

A thought-out liberal position would recognise that we live among competing systems of power — and that sometimes the state is all that protects the individual from forces beyond our control. However, such nuances are lost on the liberalists. 

Baker is a backbencher, but there’s no doubt that this is a liberalist government and thus insensible to the complexities and ironies of the market system. Grown-up liberals — including the classical variety — would be ill-advised to regard Liz Truss as their champion. Indeed, her political project is already doomed: holed beneath the water-line by, of all things, a market reaction.

Clarification: Steve Baker was a backbencher at the time of the interview, he is currently Minister of State for Northern Ireland

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.