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Ten Years to Save the West by Liz Truss review: Revenge of the lettuce

I have met Liz Truss only once. It was in Oxford Town Hall in November of last year and I had tried (without success) to smuggle in an iceberg lettuce under my shirt. The lettuce having been confiscated, I made my way into the hall. Very soon Truss climbed onstage, looking pleased as a duck. She began to rant about how she had been toppled by transgender activists in the civil service and the left-wing economic establishment. What struck me even more than the talentlessness of her oratory was her absolute lack of self-awareness or self-reflection. “It is,” as James O’Brien puts it, “as if Liz Truss seems to operate in a universe where she’s never met Liz Truss.” 

The same attitude is clear throughout Truss’ new memoir. Reflecting on her time as Prime Minister, she can mention “policies I believed in ” in the same line as “catastrophic economic meltdown” without ever once linking cause to effect. She simply cannot accept that her policies were on the wrong side of the debate, and the few debates in this book which she does win are, as if in the shower, completely imaginary. Justifying radical low-tax policies, she writes that: “If we push taxes up to 80 per cent… fewer people will aspire to earn more or start a new business”. A sound point. But nobody is saying that we should push taxes up to 80 per cent.  

The closest she comes to self-reflection is in a paragraph beginning “To be self-critical,” which runs to about four lines. Mostly she complains that she had no political honeymoon, or that we need radical reforms to give prime ministers more agenda-setting and policymaking power. For one who regards herself as an apostle of democracy, she has remarkably little regard for checks and balances.  

High taxes, wokery, identity politics, the deep state, global left-wing media elites – these, in Truss’ eyes, are the evils from which she is destined to save the West. She comes out with solutions like “We Must be Conservatives” and “We Must Dismantle the Leftist State”. Much of it is pure Daily Mail stuff (although the Mail sells roughly more copies every fifteen minutes than this book sold in its first week). 

Truss, like so many populist politicians and pseudo-intellectuals, is eager to defend “Western values” from attack. But I doubt whether she or anyone of her political leanings could define that term if called upon to do so. It is a tricky one, not least because by naming something as a Western value the implication is that it cannot be an Eastern value. Then what exactly is a Western value, according to Truss? Democracy cannot be one, because she speaks at far-right conferences alongside maniacs whose stated aim is the outright overthrow of democracy. Tolerance? No, no, she wants to repeal the Equality Act. Human Rights? Impossible: she is also opposed to the Human Rights Act. Rational thinking? Individual responsibility? No, in Truss’ case they all fall flat. All that she knows for certain is that Western values are under siege from the woke mob. 

The “wokery” charge is interesting only in one respect. In principle Truss is right to object to “the rewriting of history”, though her examples on the matter are quite misguided. She opposes the idea of schools teaching more inclusive curriculums, or of students moving slaveowner statues from street corners into museums; she cannot see that for a country to have an honest rethink about its own history is not revisionist, at least not dangerously so. The real dangers of revisionism come when some countries – some, indeed, which she otherwise praises in  this book – completely erase or deny the barbarities of their own recent history, and, doing so, go on in the present day to enact even more terror. That is infinitely more dangerous than the kinds of trivialities which Truss falsely holds up as examples of “rewriting history”.  

One positive which emerges from this book is that she has at any rate given up trying to cast herself as a modern-day Margaret Thatcher. She compares herself instead, bizarrely, with Sir Robert Peel. A far closer parallel would be Anthony Eden, another Tory who, despite extensive experience as a minister, made such a hash of the premiership that his only choice was a very hasty resignation. Truss also expresses a strange admiration for the polemicist Thomas Paine, whose work she surely cannot have read; otherwise, she would have denounced his plans for an eighteenth-century welfare state as “handouts”. 

Some of Truss’ personal insights are terrifyingly banal. She confesses that: “Leading the nation in mourning after the death of our beloved monarch of seventy years was not something I had ever expected to do” (it would have been an oddly specific expectation if she had), and adds that this book is not “simply a chance to tell the detailed inside story of my time in government” (a good thing, too, for it would take a Joycean level of detail to fill so many pages with so few days). 

Making an effort to be likeable, she tries to be funny about the inside life of a Prime Minister, and shares some very lifeless anecdotes. For example, she once confused Mrs Macron for Mrs Biden at the UN! (The real master of this kind of gaffe was Truss’ foe Tony Blair, who once tried to tell an interviewer in French that “I desire to emulate the French prime minister in many positions”, but omitted the verb “to emulate”).

The accounts of Truss’ early career do make for fun reading. We learn that at school she was wildly paranoid about the risk of being stabbed with safety-scissors. (It would be useful if any psychology students are able to connect this early phobia to her later career: please do get in touch at [email protected]). She was shaped by her time as an officer at Oxford Student Union, which left her with a loathing of “political correctness”. In Parliament, when she inherited Labour’s Department of Education, she describes her horror at discovering… “rainbow decorations hanging from the ceiling”. (Now, this is just the kind of thing that makes it impossible to take her seriously). It is also interesting to learn that, as early as 2010, The Spectator had named her the “human hand grenade”, and perhaps, if we had known that, we wouldn’t have allowed her within firing distance of the economy.  

There is no question of Truss’ genius, at least in Truss’ own mind. I can only think that – perhaps having heard that the infallible sign of genius is to have all the dunces in confederacy against you – she cast the Treasury, the governor of the Bank of England, Joe Biden, the Office for Budget Responsibility, and the late Queen in the role of the dunces, and herself in the role of the genius referred to.  

And there is nothing that makes for funnier reading than a self-proclaimed genius.

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