'The book was not written to win over opponents like me.' (Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)

April 18, 2024   6 mins

She can’t win hearts — or mindsWhat roles do reason and emotion play in politics? Is success a matter of winning over hearts, or about changing minds? To solve this conundrum comes a memoir by someone who apparently can do neither very well: Ten Years To Save The West by Liz Truss.

The ex-Prime Minister has tried to put renewed shine on her political career, culminating in a reappraisal of decisions that almost crashed the economy and foreshortened her premiership. But a bit like The Wizard of Oz, the book also invites readers to consider some intriguing counterfactuals, at least inadvertently: would the eventual political outcome have been any different, had our protagonist only had more brain or more heart?

As far as the former goes, Truss seems unable to defend the Reaganite values she espouses by giving intellectually persuasive reasons for them. Her favourite word is “instinctively” — as in “I see myself as an instinctively anti-establishment figure” and “I am someone who instinctively wants to shake things up”. There’s little attempt to put rational flesh on the basic neoliberal bones. At one point it looks like she might try — “politics has to be about
 the conservative values of patriotism, freedom, and family” — but then immediately retreats into gut feeling again: “We know instinctively why they are better than those of our opponents.”

Throughout her career, colleagues are always gently taking her aside to suggest she should approach issues in a less pugnacious, more collegiate spirit, but she flatly refuses (“they are never going to agree, so it is pointless to try to persuade them”). In place of thrashing out complex ideas, she prefers “ideology”; without which politics “is like trying to navigate a hazardous mountain range in the dark without a compass”. Translation: she has found a few simplistic mantras that appeal to her, and by God, she is going to stick to them. Again, there is no attempt to argue with sceptics: “you either believe in big government running everything or you don’t; you either believe in low taxes stimulating economic growth or you don’t”.

And just as she has no interest in arguing about why she is correct, when it comes to her ideological opponents — Leftists, educationalists, environmentalists, Tory wets, the legal establishment, the Westminster blob — she is equally uninterested in explaining why they are wrong. Everything she disagrees with is basically the fault of Michel Foucault, who she “discovered while taking a course in political sociology”.

In place of rational justification comes a deluge of contemptuous invective. Left-wingers are lily-livered do-gooders, wracked with liberal guilt and self-loathing; educationalists advocating for child-centred play in nurseries are “so-called experts”; environmental campaigners are “watermelons” (green on the outside, red in the middle); world leaders “pontificate” at “jamborees” and “shindigs”; the media is essentially trivial and personality-obsessed; Tory dissenters to the Truss doctrine have forgotten what real Conservatism is; and so on.

She is just as scathing about former senior colleagues. Cameron indulged in “too much wishy-washy flannel about ‘the big society’ and ‘general well-being’”; while Gove and Cummings are both guilty of one of the worst possible offences in Truss’s eyes — having “anti-growth instincts”. Only ordinary party members are as far-sighted and clear-minded as she is, acting as a kind of reassuring mirror whenever she loses faith: “On everything from solar farms (I hate them) to women not having penises to quangos being too powerful to taxes being too high, we were on the same page.”

All in all, then, the former PM does not seem the most obvious candidate for a proposed revamp of The Brains Trust; but nor, unfortunately, would she be much good on The One Show. Warm expressions of empathy appear profoundly alien to her. When, after a demotion from Theresa May, Sue Gray tries to give her an “unsolicited embrace”, she is frosty: “I am not a hugger”.

As Boris Johnson lies in hospital nearly dying of Covid, she seizes the moment as Trade Minister, and gets him “to sign off on starting trade talks with the US… I knew he would have his mobile phone on him and be free of nefarious Downing Street influences.” At another point, she chases him down a fire escape to get him to agree to her meeting Trump.

By her own confession, she is not “a great people manager”. Fellow human beings seem to baffle her; she can’t understand why they don’t see what she does, as she gazes lovingly into the eyes of her twin obsessions, freedom and economic growth (“I hadn’t gone into politics to deal with floods or fix prisons”). She isn’t worried about any of the familiar critiques of neoliberalism, in terms of its causing obscene wealth gaps, community deracination, or cultural homogenisation, for instance; indeed, she doesn’t appear to have heard of them. Technology is good if it leads to growth, and bad if it inhibits it; so fracking and genetic modification of crops are in, and “bat bridges” across motorways — which she seems to think are designed for bats to scurry across on folded wings — are out. One reason we need to stand up to China is that if we don’t, they are going to beat us on growth; and we should copy the brutally draconian Chinese methods of teaching children in order to keep up with them.

“Fellow human beings seem to baffle her.”

At least in the political arena, she seems to dislike groups of all kinds, from trade unions to some large corporations; and is unable to muster any positivity about things like community or solidarity between fellow tribe members. All she sees are “vested interests” constantly thwarting her bold schemes for freedom and growth — as when, for instance, plans as a junior minister to lift limits on the number of children per childcare worker were foiled by “vested interests in the nursery industry”.

Thatcher thought there was no such thing as society; chastened by her eventual humiliation as leader, Truss goes one better and tells readers there is no such thing as “the market”: instead “there are groups of influential individuals in the financial establishment, all of whom know and speak to one another in a closed feedback loop.” It turns out that, even among capitalists and self-described free marketeers, there was cronyism and corruption all along, a result which seems to surprise and sadden her.

It is easy enough to see what Truss hates, then, but what does she love? What is all the hard-won freedom for, as far as she is concerned? She likes getting out in the open air, and staying in budget hotels. Musically speaking, she confesses to pumping herself up before leadership debates to “a soundtrack of Queen and Whitney Houston hits”. There is little affectionate talk of times spent with friends, and she doesn’t seem much of a foodie. Where others might see the EU’s “504 different classifications of biscuit” as a sign of an advanced gastronomic culture, she emphatically does not. She doesn’t seem to have enjoyed her childhood with Left-wing, environmentalist parents much either — “it seemed all about beetroot tarts, composting toilets and talking about the dangers of overpopulation”.

There is a similar lack of enthusiasm for the progressive education she received at her Leeds comprehensive school; for some reason she seems particularly offended at having been asked, aged 13, to stand on her desk and pretend she was on “Sir Francis Drake’s ship, The Golden Hind”. She does seem quite enthusiastic about Australia — “like Britain but without the hand-wringing and declinism” — and also professes herself “a long-standing fan” of the Baltic states and Poland, because of their “visceral love of freedom and democracy after having spent so many years under communist terror”.

Truss’s much vaunted political instincts are not always wrong. There are a few wise attempts at self-deprecation in the book, even if they don’t quite convince. She has embraced several good causes in her career, including making the legal system more meritocratic, extending the use of video evidence for rape victims in court, trenchantly rejecting transactivist nonsense in institutions, and arguing against Chinese slavery practices. Still, having read her book, I couldn’t swear with confidence she didn’t hit upon these commendable attitudes accidentally.

But still, being charitable — as Truss is not — perhaps the book was not written to win over opponents like me. Rather it might have been intended as a stentorian call to fellow-travellers; roughly, saying she’s the biggest, hardest, most tax-cutting freedom-loving neocon in the room. There are also signs that she might have a US audience in mind: for instance, in her introduction, where she dramatically recounts the death of the Queen and crams in some backstory that insular yanks might not know (who Truss is; who Boris Johnson is; who the Queen is). But if this is right, then once again the famed Trussian people skills have let her down — for in the service of winning over supporters abroad, she has irredeemably alienated a far larger number of potential converts at home. Keir Starmer should ship copies to every teetering Tory constituency in the land.

The unintended moral of this book is that if we can’t have high intelligence in a politician, we should at least insist on empathy and good understanding of others; and vice versa. It would be nice if we could have both but beggars can’t be choosers. Without either, we might again end up with a leader who, without any warning, takes a wrecking ball to the status quo at an already profoundly anxious financial moment, in the pursuit of goals relatively few people accept as desirable — and who, two years later, thinks it was mostly the fault of everyone else for not grasping that it was really a precious gift all along.


Liz Truss will be discussing her book at the UnHerd Club on 3 June. Buy tickets here.

Kathleen Stock is an UnHerd columnist and a co-director of The Lesbian Project.