'Human hand grenade' Liz Truss is a quasi-anarchist (and a warning to us all) – Stewart McDonald

A decent liberal society cannot be built on the reckless, right-wing, 'get rich quick' politics of people like Liz Truss

“It's not much fun being in the Foreign Office during Covid, when drinks receptions are cancelled and travel is replaced by Zoom calls,” writes Liz Truss in her memoir-cum-self-help book. Poor her. Perhaps she should have sought out a job in the Cabinet Office instead. Whole columns – whole books even – could be written, pulling out lines like this and making fun of Liz Truss, the former Prime Minister who is, in a crowded field, one of the least self-aware people in British public life.

In her crusade against the Office for Budget Responsibility and the Bank of England, Truss railed against the deep state and the institutions which, she argued, take power away from democratically elected politicians and place it in the hands of unelected bureaucrats. That is exactly the point.

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Advanced democracies have, one by one, come to embrace technocratic economic governance as a bulwark against the inability of politicians to set long-term fiscal and economic policy. This short-termism is not because they are politicians, but because they are people. The UK has an independent central bank and an Office for Budget Responsibility for the same reason that you and I, and every working person in the country, were automatically enrolled into a pension when we started working. People as a whole are not good at making long-term economic decisions. Recognising this fallibility, we have built institutions around us to act as guardrails to temper our shortcomings.

‘Nanny state’

“I don’t believe in guardrails,” Truss told an interviewer this week. She is not alone: she is the vanguard of a crackpot movement which believes that we should be allowed to do anything we want, at any time. Mandatory seatbelts in cars? No thanks, nanny state! Lighting up a cigarette in the pub next to a sleeping baby? Now we’re talking. Decent liberal societies cannot be built on these quasi-anarchist, ‘libertarian’ principles – a lesson others in Westminster would do well to take note of.

Take the example of the lightly regulated all-party parliamentary groups. Some APPGs are serious working groups driving substantive policy debates: the APPG on Modern Conflict, which I chair, has a secretariat funded by charitable donations and led by a respected academic in the field. But MPs can found and join as many of these groups as they like, so long as they can rope together a committee and provide a secretariat – something lobby groups are more than happy to offer given the direct route into parliament it provides.

Former Prime Minister Liz Truss poses for a selfie at the 'Great British Growth Rally' during the Conservative party conference in October (Picture: Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images)Former Prime Minister Liz Truss poses for a selfie at the 'Great British Growth Rally' during the Conservative party conference in October (Picture: Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images)
Former Prime Minister Liz Truss poses for a selfie at the 'Great British Growth Rally' during the Conservative party conference in October (Picture: Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images)
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MPs have historically defied calls to set stronger rules around APPGs, citing the ancient freedoms their office bestows upon them. In contrast, German MPs may only join three parliamentary friendship groups, with secretariats financed by the Bundestag. Does that make the Bundestag less democratic than Westminster? I don’t think anyone would argue that. Instead, German politicians have accepted limits on their behaviour in order to strengthen the democratic process.

Fake anti-Semitic quote

What do we get instead? A government let by Chief Freedom Fighter Liz Truss, who got the geography of Russia and Ukraine mixed up when she “stood up” to Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov as Foreign Secretary and had to be corrected by the British ambassador. A self-described “human hand grenade”, a car crash of a politician who cost households a fortune in increased mortgage and rental costs in pursuit of her quack proposals. Truss, who once praised the Jewish community for holding values such as “setting up businesses” and whose memoir included a fake anti-Semitic quote attributed to German banker Mayer Amschel Rothschild about a desire to “control the money of a nation”. A decent political culture would not give her the time of day, yet she is omnipresent.

While she was completely wrong about the need to “unchain Britannia”, the ultimate Truss tragedy, however, is, more than anything, the fact that she was right about the UK’s economic model. Something is deeply broken in this country. It is addicted to an economic model that rewards rent-seeking behaviour and strangles aspiration before it has a chance to take root. It needs urgent change.

This will not come from the Conservatives. Just look at Michael Gove’s plainly sensible attempt to reform the feudal leasehold model of home ownership in England and the opposition he has faced from within his own party – the ultimate anti-growth coalition – in doing so. It would, of course, be easier to feel for Gove and his one-man crusade to get the Conservative party to embrace a more pragmatic, evidence-based approach to policymaking if he hadn’t appeared on national television and told the world that he had “had enough of experts”.

Ten years of quiet reflection

From Truss to Gove, Conservative ministers from across their narrow ideological spectrum should serve as a warning about the perils of rejecting expertise, institutions and guardrails in favour of ideological dogma and populist pandering. If, as Truss argues in her book, we have just ten years to save the West, it seems that a decade-long period of quiet and sombre reflection from her and her colleagues would be the best way they can help achieve it.

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As independence supporters meet today in Glasgow to march for Scotland’s right to self-determination – a useful rallying moment for my party and the movement – we should treat Truss as a cautionary tale. Indeed, she’s a lesson for all of us in public life. With her “get rich quick” approach to economic growth symbolising the short-termism at the heart of the Westminster system, Truss reminds us of the dangers of trading on belief alone, and of the inescapable truth that there are few quick easy wins in politics, and there are none to the big global challenges we face today. Amidst the swells that have rocked my party in recent days, my appeal to fellow members must be to remain focused on the slow, steady work of building a more prosperous and democratic nation. It’s coming yet.

Stewart McDonald is SNP MP for Glasgow South

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