Professor Albert Weale considers the nature and implications of Trussism for the future of UK-EU relations, and the clash of ideas between libertarian Conservatism and the European project.
Johnson was never an ideologue. In Dominic Cumming’s cruel, but accurate analogy, he was a shopping trolley veering from one side to the other. With Truss it is different. She is more like a tram. We can speak about Trussism, a small state, pro-market view of the world, in much the same way as we can speak about Thatcherism. But, if there is such a thing as Trussism, what does it mean for the future of UK-EU relations?
The initial signs are that the Truss government is pulling back from the more belligerent threats that have been in the air from the UK government for many months. It seems as though the famous Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol in the Withdrawal Agreement will not be invoked. Instead, there will be attempts to extend by negotiation the grace period that allows for lighter customs and regulatory checks on trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. The Northern Ireland bill, giving the UK government the power unilaterally to tear up parts of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, has passed through the Commons. But the Lords is a different matter. There are enough peers, including some Conservatives, worried about the reputational risk of the UK breaking international law, to slow down passage of the bill, even if it eventually passes. And in any case, even a Eurosceptic UK government is likely to realise that now is not the time to put added strain on European relations with the war in Ukraine and the consequent energy crisis.
So, if the immediate threats of an even more serious breach in UK-EU relations have reduced, it is worth stepping back and looking at the bigger picture, particularly in the clash of ideas between Trussism and the European project. Many people have been surprised that Truss, a fervent Remainer, has become the favourite of the Brexiteer wing of the Conservative Party. Her switch of allegiance may, of course, simply be a supremely successful piece of opportunistic behaviour. But consider an alternative view.
Truss has long been a libertarian Conservative, a way of thinking in the party that goes back to the nineteenth century. Within this tradition, the market is a natural or spontaneous order. It emerges from the disposition ‘to truck and barter’, as Adam Smith put it, among individuals. The job of government is to get as much out of the way of these mutually beneficial exchanges as possible. Of course, the government must provide for defence from external threats and domestic security. But the market order is anchored in the individual freedom to exchange. Freedom is the condition of prosperity.
From this point of view, the creation of the European Single Market brings about a vast free trade area, with advantages of economies of scale. That is why Margaret Thatcher was so instrumental in its creation. But from the European side things look different. A single market is more than a ‘natural’ phenomenon . It is the creation of an order in which rights and obligations are legally defined and in which product, environmental and labour standards can be shared. The difference between Thatcher’s support for the single market and her Bruges speech is the realisation that a European single market is more than a free trade area.
Truss has simply replicated at warp speed the realisation that small state Conservativism finds the regulatory underpinning of the single market not only objectionable but often unintelligible. Why in a free trade area would the health regulation of pork products going from Scotland to Northern Ireland be a cause for concern? Why, if countries can gain a comparative economic advantage from loosening the employment security of workers, should they not be free to do so? Why have a common energy policy, if the circumstances of some countries allow access to natural resources that other countries do not have?
From some points of view, this libertarian outlook on life makes UK-EU relations easier. Some libertarian Conservatives, for example, embrace the view that a country is better off not imposing customs and other barriers to trade even if the countries on the other side of the trade do impose such barriers. The EU Commission can be quite relaxed about this importation of first-year text-book economics into government policy if it means that controls are imposed on UK exports to the EU but not on EU exports to the UK. This has indeed been the situation ever since the UK left the EU, a situation sometimes described as taking back control by not taking back control.
Northern Ireland is different. Being in both the EU and the UK single markets means that controls do have to be applied. How far it is technically possible to soften these controls is a question for specialists and for negotiators on each side. But a major issue of principle for Brexiteers is the role of the Court of Justice of the European Union in overseeing trade in Northern Ireland, an issue on which it is hard to see the EU conceding much. It is at this point that libertarian Conservatism joins with the principle that ultimate judicial control should be at the level of the nation state.
For the next few months, however, we might expect to see Trussism dismantling as much as possible the domestic legacy of the UK’s membership of the EU. This is likely to be particularly noticeable in the field of labour legislation and workplace protection. The dilemma for the Conservative government is that the sorts of standards that the EU encouraged are electorally popular. We are about to find out whether libertarian Conservatism is possible in one country. As the next election comes closer, we might suspect that Trussism has a short shelf life.
Professor Albert Weale is Emeritus Professor of Political Theory and Public Policy in the UCL Department of Political Science.
The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.