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That “Overton Window” thingy

In the nerdier ends of the political press one comes across the term Overton Window, and here is a short version via Wikipedia:

The Overton window is the range of policies politically acceptable to the mainstream population at a given time.[1] It is also known as the window of discourse. The term is named after Joseph P. Overton, who stated that an idea’s political viability depends mainly on whether it falls within this range, rather than on politicians’ individual preferences.[2][3] According to Overton, the window frames the range of policies that a politician can recommend without appearing too extreme to gain or keep public office given the climate of public opinion at that time.

Since last Thursday’s big win for the UK Conservatives, I have read more and more about how Boris Johnson, with his Scotty the engineer in the back, Dominic Cummings, is pushing a sort of “One Nation” Toryism, a mixture of free market economics in some respects, a resistance to forms of nanny state micro-regulation of our lives, greater national independence, plus a solid, Disraelian dose of high public spending “on our marvellous National Health Service”, lots of transport and tech infrastructure in the Midlands and North, plus a focus on STEM education and tech research hubs (Cummings is, so we are told, really keen on this). It is not quite the paternalism of older forms of “One Nation” Toryism that one might have got from, say, Stanley Baldwin, or a bit of a faker like Disraeli (he never actually used that term in his public speeches, as biographers Douglas Hurd and Edward Young pointed out).

So what is going on here and how should an unapologetic “neoliberal” (translation: classical liberal with a few tweaks) like yours truly respond, now that the dust has settled a bit? In the short run, I am like I imagine most readers mightily relieved that a stoat such as Jeremy Corbyn has been dethroned. Gloating is understandable. But like a bit of a party-pooper it is worth taking time out to note that more than 10 million people who presumably have a pulse voted Labour at this election, and although many will have distrusted Corbyn, many did trust or like him, and also liked voting Labour to thwart leaving the EU. Second, there’s an age divide of sorts: it appears a large chunk of adults in their 20s and 30s tilt socialist, and even if some of them change as the joys of paying tax, getting into business and raising families have their effect, many will not do so. (It is also worth recalling, to be fair, that younger adults, used to switching broadband, booking holidays online and dreaming of working for startups are also quite “Thatcherite” in certain respects.)

The Tories need to remember several things, not least that the last time a government shovelled vast amounts of money into a system of state-run healthcare run as a monopoly, during the Blair/Brown years, much of that money was wasted, and inflated a huge public sector payroll. That left the public finances dangerously vulnerable when the sub-prime mortgage bubble burst.

Another, perhaps more fundamental mistake the Tories might be making if they aren’t careful is misreading areas of the country such as the North and Midlands. It’s not all Coronation Street. In my day job as a financial journalist I’ve written a bit about how banks such as UBS (the Swiss private banking group), Coutts and Kleinwort Hambros, among others, have set up regional offices in places such as Manchester, Leeds and Bristol. If the area outside the M25 of the Southeast was really some sort of Dickensian gloomville, rather than a place containing many entrepreneurs and actually plenty of activity, this would not be happening. Every Yorkshireman I have ever met seems to be a solid Thatcherite. So it appears to me that the Tories need to remember to use the political capital earned from this victory to push that “Overton Window”back a bit, and think of new ways to build support for individual liberty, an open market economy, and private property. Some new version, for instance, of the wildly successful policy of letting tenants buy their council houses would be a good start. Put it another way: don’t let the purveyors of the latest conventional wisdom dictate that what the Tories must do is deliver Big Government but without the Corbynite craziness. I’m hoping for better than that. And to that end, I have joined the Conservatives to try and push the needle in the right direction.

16 comments to That “Overton Window” thingy

  • Runcie Balspune

    It would appear to be heading towards a complete flip-flop of the north-south divide, London and the south is lost to a bunch of Marxist elite pandering to decidedly undesirable religious and cultural groups, perhaps someone like myself who lives in the south-east will begin to know what it was like during those years when Westminster forgot about life in cities north of Watford because no-one there voted for them.

    If Boris diverts HS2 and Heathrow runway money to northern infrastructure projects he will most certainly improve support, I suspect once Brexit is done this will be his next move.

  • Ben David

    Cutting taxes.
    1. Wildly popular and politically successful.
    2. Undercuts leftie propaganda about which camp is selfish or generous, and forces awareness of the nasty secrets underlying socialist “caring”.
    3. Begins a chain reaction that leads to privatisation and moves government outlays to the local level.
    4. Sends a clear signal to the leech class.
    5. Limits what any subsequent leftie government can do.

    This can be combined with restructuring programs to move the overton window back to choice and alternatives to big government. For example:

    School choice with vouchers.

    Legalized gambling or public-private alliances funding social programs.

  • Nullius in Verba

    Boris talked about this in an interview at the Spectator, that The Great Realignment mentioned here. My comment on it over there got smited or spam-binned or something, but I think it’s still relevant here.

    I suspect Boris is still very conscious of the deficit problem, but he wants to do it in a different way. The problem is that the country as a whole is spending more than it earns. You can fix that two ways: by spending less, and by earning more. If you increase productivity, you can afford more. You reduce the *relative* size of the state by growing the rest of the economy. Tricky to pull off, of course, but not as bad an idea as more borrowing and taxing-the-rich.

    From the article: “The remedy, he says, is ‘infrastructure and education and technology.’”

    Rather than pulling the rich down, to bring about ‘equality’, he is proposing to lift the poor up. He’s suggesting that the problem that led to Brexit is the same one that led to Trump – the rural/industrial poor in the ‘rust belt’ have not kept up with London and the M4 corridor in being able to deliver the more high-tech industries. This has led to a huge imbalance, with prices in London rocketing sky high as every business tries to crowd into the tiny patch where high-tech is possible, and the rest of the country left a resentful wasteland. We need to spread the London effect around the rest of the country a bit. And just imagine, if *the whole country* was as productive as London, how much smaller and more affordable that tax would look. That, I think, is his vision.

    Of course, it requires a deep understanding of what makes London special, from the point of view of business, and replicating that elsewhere. It’s likely that it’s not simply a matter of investment – I don’t know the reasons myself, but I would suspect that for such a severe imbalance to persist in the face of the economic pressures, government regulation must be behind it somehow. So a more useful approach would be for him to deregulate, and then allow *the market* to decide where to invest.

    However, if spending promises are what gets him elected to carry out such a plan, then spending on ‘infrastructure and education and technology’ sounds a lot less damaging than spending it on welfare.

    I suspect that he’s hoping the phrase ‘an end to austerity’ leads the low-information voters to assume he means welfare and big government, because that gets votes. Once he’s in, it’ll be safe to explain what he *really* means. But I don’t know. They’re not the libertarian party, even now. And even if they were, it’s probably not an easy or fast thing to fix.

  • Kevin B

    The Tories in general and Boris in particular cannot be said to be pushing the Overton window to the right while simultaneously supporting the Climate Change nonsense. And it’s not as if they mumble a few soothing words about the subject in order to get elected. They enthusiastically follow every daft and dangerous idea put forward by the ludicrous Climate Change Committee* and Boris specifically promised to take us back to year zero by 2050 in his big speech outside No10. He had no need to say anything about this unless he truly believes.

    Following the diktats of the green agenda absolutely demands that government interferes in every single aspect of our lives from the food we eat, (no more steak), to our kettles to how we cook and pretty soon they’ll be taking away your car.

    And all to make a useless gesture at appeasing the Climate Gods while the rest of the world gets on with growing their economies.

    This government is not in any way conservative.

    * Replacing mains gas with hydrogen FFS!!! And large scale carbon capture!! Lunatic.

  • Johnathan Pearce (London)

    Kevin B, agree on all counts.

    There is actually what might be loosely called free market environmentalism that stresses how property rights and genuine economic incentives can be harnessed to reduce pollution and other problems, and indeed, that it is communist nations that have often despoiled the planet far more badly than any corporation or private businessman has ever done.

    Unfortunately, along with the NHS, climate change has become a focus for religious devotion. Boris is a part-believer, to the extent he believes anything coherent at all.

    But we can be of reasonable good cheer. Like I said, some of the political capital is there to be invested, not simply recycled (forgive me the pun!)

  • James Strong

    ‘Boris is a part-believer, to the extent he believes anything coherent at all.’

    I suspect that Boris has only the faintest idea of policy details, and not much interest in learning more.

    However, he does seem to have the ability to get people to want to work for him. I cannot see why he has this appeal because to me he is a semi-articulate oaf, but I do acknowledge that it is real.And it is very valuable.

    I hope that he will delegate to good people and largely stay out of the way except as a speech-making front man.

  • Nullius in Verba

    “and Boris specifically promised to take us back to year zero by 2050 in his big speech outside No10.”

    And why do you think Boris would set the deadline for delivery to 2050, 30 years hence, if he had any intention or expectation of delivering it? He’s in for the next 5 years. He’ll likely be retired by 2050. (He’d be 85.) And it’s not like any other national leaders have any intention whatsoever of delivering on it, either. Hence all the current moaning and snivelling at the Madrid conference.

    In exactly the same way that the predictions of imminent doom keep on getting shifted back 5 or 10 years at a time, so do the promises to do something about it. In the current political climate, expressing scepticism about climate change gives their opponents an easy line of attack, with which to discredit them. So there’s lots of pressure to back the rhetoric. But there’s virtually no pressure to actually do anything, because everybody knows how much that would cost, and because it’s all so far in the future that it’s easy to say “We’ve got the time to do it later.” So they’ll keep going to the conferences and assuring everyone of how committed to the cause they are, but they’ll not commit to anything at all that’s legally binding. They know.

    Politicians lie. If they can find some way to use the scare to get what they want, to slip public funds to their backers in business, sure. Corruption is eternal. But if they really thought there was a climate emergency, they’d have done something about it by now, and not the ineffective rubbish the Greens keep talking about. It’d be a nuclear power station in every city, and large-scale geo-engineering, and continued economic development.

    Political cynicism can sometimes work in our favour!

  • Kevin B

    NiV: The Climate Change Act is a legal commitment; the Climate Change Committee does have legal powers; we are building more and more offshore wind farms, (all heavily subsidised), and we are decommissioning, (i.e. blowing up), perfectly viable coal fired power stations.

    This process has real momentum and it won’t be halted easily. We are already losing liberties but the rate of loss will increase rapidly.

    If the Tories want to stop this process they better get a move on.

  • Nullius in Verba

    “NiV: The Climate Change Act is a legal commitment; the Climate Change Committee does have legal powers; we are building more and more offshore wind farms, (all heavily subsidised), and we are decommissioning, (i.e. blowing up), perfectly viable coal fired power stations.”

    Legal commitments can be changed. Wind farms are largely what I was talking about when I mentioned corruption – but they’re a minor annoyance compared to deindustrialisation. Power generation can be turned around quickly, if that’s what they want to do. France went nuclear in about 15 years flat, and that was with 1970s/80s technology.

    Politicians follow the political winds, and until those winds change direction, they’ll pay lip service to it all without doing anything serious about it. They’re delaying and procrastinating, passing small stuff that has relatively little cost and little effect, or which can be quickly fixed, until the public lose faith in climate change. It hasn’t yet, which is why they’re still delaying.

    It’s not the politicians you need to complain about, it’s the public.

  • Paul Marks

    On economic policy Disraeli was a disaster, for example throwing away the chance to get rid of income tax – Gladstone had almost finished getting rid of income tax, but then Disraeli came in and bleeped everything up.

    On regulations Disraeli put unions above the ordinary rule of law, thus planting the seeds for the long term relative decline of British industry. And he also demanded that local government do about 40 things (functions) whether local taxpayers wanted local government to do them or not.

    All part of his “two nations – the rich and the poor” idea. “Social Reform” does not hold off socialism (as fools believe it does), it stimulates socialism by making things worse than they otherwise would be, but also PHILOSOPHICALLY. Because if statism really does make social conditions better, why not a LOT MORE statism to make things better still.

    There is no real stopping point between “Social Reform” and socialism – although the people who back “Social Reform” tend to hope that full socialism will not arrive till after their death. Because they want to enjoy their position of private wealth.

    I hope that Conservative Party policy will NOT just be “whatever was suggested by the Guardian newspaper – but ten years ago”, as being of the left (just a few years behind the left) is not good. So we shall have to see how things go – no point in making predictions when we can just wait and see what happens. Let us hope that yet more “Social Reform” is NOT on the agenda.

    Still to get back to the post…..

    The spread of the “finance economy” to the north is not really a good thing – Northern Rock should have taught us that.

    The last thing any part of this country needs is more Credit Bubble ism.

  • Quentin

    ‘One nation’ is also a put-down of the SNP who want the UK to be two nations.

  • Jon

    Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

    Or even the ok.

    The identity politics purity testing has fractured the left. Don’t let’s make the same mistake.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Franks, Thomas: What’s the Matter with Kansas

    It’s a Plot, I tells yer. A Conservative PLOT!

    They “vote against their social and economic interests.”

    Molly Ivins loves it.

    That’s all I know, and all I need to know.

    . . .

    I cannot say of my own knowledge that Kansas is a poverty-stricken pestilential hell-hole worse than San Fran and Seattle combined. I have the impression that her farmers are doing reasonably well, to the tune of working out ways to pay for quite expensive farming equipment such as combines.

    Of course part of the unseen woes that Kansans must bear is that (per some reviewer) her voters are not full-on with abortion. Silly people, life so much simpler with no rugrats taking up space, dipping into the wallets, needing some sort of child-care and Mom’s foolish desire to see to this her own self….

    “Per capita personal income in the United States in 2018, by state (in U.S. dollars)”


    According to this site, by my count (but be advised, I didn’t take my socks off; so, FWIW) the personal income per capita of Kansas in 2018 was $ 50,155, making it just above the median income per capita per state at 24th-highest.

    Just because these hicks don’t enjoy the nightlife and panache of either left coast doesn’t mean they lack electricity and indoor plumbing. I would even venture that a few of them have washing machines.


    All of which is somewhat of a preamble to a very real question that I have about Britain north of London. Namely,

    Are the people who live there by-and-large unhappy with their social and economic status? I for one don’t want to be in Kansas, because it’s too dry, but you’d have a devil of a time yanking me from there to either U.S. Coast and quite likely to London, though my dream is most certainly to visit London (and the rest of the UK); at least it seems the Londoners don’t have oodles of populace claiming the commons as their preferred digs, including latrines.


    It’s just a question. As, for instance, it came to me in a blinding flash why the native New Hampshirites were and I guess still are against have the wondrous Jason-Sorenson backed libertarians ousting all their born-and-bred from state government so as to pack it with their own breed of possible nut-jobs.

    (Although they’d have been better off to fight off the influx of Taxachusettsans into Keene and from there to infest the wilds of N.H., IMO.)


    So, just a thought…. I do know that Minister Hacker indicated that he didn’t consider northern Ireland a desirable posting….

  • Julie near Chicago

    Forgot. What Paul said, and what Jon said.

  • Barry Dixon

    I’d like to contribute these two VERY LONG reads to help the discourse. One of the papers has, I understand, the fullest attention of Cummings and will probably be going the rounds of various think-tanks and focus groups within the new govt.



  • Nullius in Verba

    Barry, thanks for that!

    Both of them are very interesting. Which one is the one Cummings is looking at? I’m guessing the first one, as (based on my brief skim) it has more ‘meat’ to it, but they’re both a good fit.

    It will take me time to read through them properly, but I definitely intend to.