‘I don’t think I’m quite as Austrian as you are,’ a Tory minister said to me the other day. And I knew then that the party is doomed. It wasn’t what he said so much as the way that he said it: in the fond, amused, each-to-his-own tone you might use to dismiss a friend’s enthusiasm for Morris dancing or Napoleonic re-enactment or dogging…
But personally, I think free market economics (of the Austrian or any other classical liberal school) is far too important to be left to wonks, think-tankers and out-there right-wing commentators. So did Margaret Thatcher. ‘Hayek’s powerful Road to Serfdom left a permanent mark on my own political character, making me a long-term optimist for free enterprise and liberty,’ she said. And so did Ronald Reagan. Asked which philosophical thinker or writers had influenced his conduct as a leader, he replied: ‘I have read the economic views of von Mises and Hayek.’
Much has been made of the unfortunate fact that we now have a Conservative prime minister who doesn’t feel at all comfortable defending free markets. But the bigger problem is: nor do many of her juniors. I could name one or two exceptions: Jacob Rees-Mogg definitely gets it; so do Steve Baker, Kwasi Kwarteng, John Redwood and, I think, Priti Patel. But it’s not very encouraging. Not when you realise that it’s economics — and only economics — which will ultimately decide whether or not Jeremy Corbyn ever gets to become prime minister.
The reason for this is quite simple: when you have a resurgent opposition promising to make everything better by ending austerity, you need a counter-narrative compelling enough to make people vote for you rather than for the party that’s offering all that free jam. ‘Our free jam is more responsibly sourced’ is not a compelling argument.