Some things in life remain constant, but increasingly British politics are being turned upside down. The old assumptions no longer hold and the conventions and rules which used to define how people and institutions acted are now unashamedly disregarded by the British ruling class and establishment.
This summer has seen another instalment in how broken British politics are: Johnson’s disastrous Premiership coming bitterly to an end; a new Tory leadership contest underway, and Keir Starmers’ Labour Party avoiding anything controversial and praying the Tories continue with their infighting.
Much of this is a very familiar, well-worn script; such has been the dominance of British politics by the Tories. This usually starts with simmering of discontent and rebellion on Tory backbenchers; brought to the head by a vote of confidence among Tory MPs. This is usually won by the leader (Ian Duncan Smith apart), but is the beginning of the end. This is then followed by the ultimate acts of regicide with ministers telling the truth to the leader or resigning from office to precipitate a crisis such as Nigel Lawson and Geoffrey Howe in 1989-90, Boris Johnson and David Davis in 2018, and Rishi Sunak and Sajid Javid in 2022.
The bigger takeaway is how Tories think they can now indulge their fantasies and divisions after shaping UK politics for the past four decades. Since 1979 they have been in office 30 of the past 43 years, winning eight of the past eleven UK elections.
Thatcherism as the Holy Grail of Tory Politics
As marked has been the intellectual ascendancy of the party from the ruptures and disjuncture of British and global politics in the 1970s. Thatcherism was a response to this; a critique of ‘the post-war consensus’ framed as being built on an inexorable rise in the size of the state, public spending and services, and trade union power – all underpinning the march of collectivism.
This has contributed to a political environment where the ideas of Thatcherism have become, despite their actual record, a holy grail. Not just in the Tory Party but also in the creation of New Labour and its apologetic progressive credentials. This has been reinforced by print and broadcast media, the hyper-partisanship of right-wing media, and the assorted bands of cheerleaders in faux think-tanks and advocacy groups. What is not investigated or challenged are examples like Spectator editor Fraser Nelson’s invocation pre-pandemic of ‘the British jobs miracle’ – not only is this false about the past decade, there was no actual Thatcherite economic miracle.
UK politics have been dominated by a mirage of Thatcherism. UK economic growth per year was higher 1945-79 than 1979 to the present; it was higher in the 1970s than in the Thatcher and Major years; and even higher in the Wilson and Callaghan Governments than the following Tory ones.
Yet we have allowed an ideological project with little evidence of its success to shape, distort and bend politics and assault progressive values. The answer for this is complex but includes the fact that Thatcherism spoke of a certain worldview; of a rising class of aspiration, individualism, and self-expression; championed the Tory colours of ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ and wrapped it all in Union Jack nationalism and Churchillian rhetoric.
In the present day it looks now likely that Liz Truss will win. This is due to her willingness to tell Tory fairy tales (trussian fairy tales) and embrace magical thinking on taxes, public spending, and economics, all of which the Tory membership, still supporting the Thatcherite mirage, want to believe.
Sunak is publicly accused in Tory debates of not being ‘loyal’, of ‘betraying Boris Johnson’ and ‘stabbing him in the back’. Neither Sunak or Truss is prepared to say the obvious: that Johnson is a serial liar and unfit to be Prime Minister; they cannot say this for fear of offending Tory members.
What does modern day Toryism stand for?
Beyond all this drama, seldom is the question asked of what does Toryism stand for? Then there is the thorny issue hanging over everything – if the UK is in such a mess, does not this have something to do with the shortcomings of the present-day Tory Government and their dominance since 1979?
Truss and others in this debate have openly trashed the record of a government they have served or are still serving. This is reminiscent of Tony Benn post-1979 distancing himself from the Wilson and Callaghan Governments he was part of. But such is our skewed, distorted political media and wider environment that politicians of the right can get away more easily with double think, hypocrisies and inconsistencies.
What does modern Toryism stand for is being answered by default. The party has become spellbound to a world of Thatcherite dogma and make-belief, with Penny Mordaunt opening her leadership campaign saying ‘give us the good old stuff: low tax, small state, personal responsibility.’ At the same time the party has some awareness that things are not exactly in a good state in the UK, so they need a new set of political weapons – hence ‘the war on woke’ and ‘culture wars’ to which Labour and the left have still to adequately respond.
Contemporary Conservatism – embodied by the likes of Churchill and Macmillan and intellectually by the likes of Michael Oakeshott – based on deference, tradition, respect, the rule of law, and a sense of order and hierarchy in society which included a social contract between the classes, no longer anchors the party and its thinking. But this is a shift wider than British Toryism and can be seen across the West on the right.
Take some of the recurring tropes of the present contest. One of them is that Toryism now seems for the foreseeable future to be locked into Johnsonism without Johnson. It has become wedded to tearing up international treaties, systemic law-breaking at home and abroad, threatening the EU with continual trade-wars, and playing with fire with the Northern Ireland peace settlement and undermining the Good Friday Agreement.
One policy above all which has come to represent the degenerate, toxic Toryism is the Rwanda policy – a one-way deportation scheme with the UK Government engaging in human trafficking at the cost of £600,000 per migrant: enough to buy an insider class ticket into the Tory Party and a permanent seat in the House of Lords.
Both Sunak and Truss are committed to the Rwanda policy despite it not yet having deported a single person; and both want to dig down and go further – with Sunak proposing an illegal cap on asylum seekers. In the recent Tory hustings in Devon, Sunak inadvertently articulated the closed nature of the UK to asylum seekers the world over, apart from a few exceptions and the Sunak family:
We must have control over our borders that is completely consistent with us remaining a compassionate and tolerant country that welcomes people from Syria, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Hong Kong – and indeed my family 60 years ago.
Sunak is of Indian descent and in a Spectator interview with Charles Moore could not bring himself to acknowledge the barbarous nature of the British Empire and rule in India, saying: ‘No country’s history is free of blemishes, but there’s an enormous amount of history to be proud of.’ This sort of mental evasion is what passes for conventional thinking in the Tories and the right – hunting for ‘enemies within’ who want to ‘decolonise’ education, the National Trust in England, and topple statues.
In the same Tory hustings Truss embraced her inner Thatcher which, like all such tribute acts, is a caricature of its best tunes. On the issue of Scottish independence, Truss claimed that Nicola Sturgeon was ‘an attention seeker’ who she would just ‘ignore’. When challenged by the anchor, FT Sebastian Payne, about whether she would ever allow an indyref she replied categorically ‘No, No, No’.
For those who know their Thatcher history, this was a direct citation of late period Thatcher when she was in her imperial Boudicca mode. In October 1990 faced with multiple crises, including in her relations with the EU (then EEC) and the project of European integration headed up by Commission President Jacques Delors, she replied in the Commons that she opposed the EU – unequivocally saying ‘No, No, No’ to the delight of Tory backbenchers.
The next day Geoffrey Howe resigned, delivered a killer resignation speech, and Michael Heseltine stood for the leadership. He lost to Thatcher 204-152, which meant she did not win the requisite majority, and faced with a Cabinet rebellion she resigned to be followed by John Major.
The point of Truss drawing from late period self-destructive Thatcherism is not to evoke the same end, but reveals that Tories have bought into a fantasy of the 1980s which may ultimately lead to their implosion. She floated a ‘hit the north’ policy reducing the pay of public service workers outside of London to benefit the UK’s capital and South East, where a majority (52%) of Tory members reside; and after much criticism publicly dropped it.
The Tories and Britain’s limited democracy
A final observation. The Tory Party gains from the limited nature of British democracy, believing it can do what it likes to the British constitution. There are the distortions of First Past the Post; that one person, one vote only came about across the UK in 1969 with the abolition of plural voting (1949 in GB), and the absence of a culture of citizenship or any kind of basic rights which government cannot remove from us. All this contributes to the atrophied state of democratic politics in the UK. The character of the British state, and the sad reality that the Labour Party is prepared to uphold this undemocratic order.
For all the talk of the wonders of British parliamentary democracy and importance of sovereignty cited by the insider class, the last UK Prime Minister who came to power through winning an election and lost power by losing an election was Ted Heath, winning in June 1970 and losing in February 1974. Only two others in the post-1945 era had a similar experience – Clement Attlee (1945-51) and the first Harold Wilson administrations (1964-70). Over a wider period there have been six Labour Prime Ministers, but twenty PMs educated at Eton such is the dominance of class and a certain kind of England.
Despite all of this and the wider wreckage in government and society, Labour cling to aping the Tories and believing in their own fairy tales and magic thinking: if only Labour can get one more shot of majority government on a minority vote, even if it entails as is likely in 2023-4 a minority administration not going into alliance or doing a formal deal with the Lib Dems or SNP.
This is a view articulated in its intelligent form by Polly Toynbee in this week’s Guardian – believing this year can see Liz Truss become PM, call an election, and lose to Keir Starmer, writing: ‘Whenever the general election comes. Labour looks likely to win’ and that it is in a better place than 1997 to embark on radical policies.
Why has Labour clung so dogmatically to the conservative order that has shaped the UK? In part it is the conservatism inherent in the values of labourism and the trade union movement. But it is also because Labour still believes that the British state can be used as a force for good – a central tenet of Fabianism. All aided by the party’s profound lack of radicalism and understanding of the importance of democratisation, and speaking to and engaging with other radical currents.
The Tory story of Britain has imploded before our eyes. There is no Labour version of the future waiting in the wings. The next few years and rest of this decade will be very bumpy and difficult – in politics, government, across the UK and in how we all make ends meet.
We have not yet seen the depths to which toxic Toryism high on its own mythology and fabricated sense of the past can plummet. It is time for Labour, the left and centre-left, to wake up and realise the high stakes that are in play, and that without a radical counter-offer, the UK could become an even more nasty, brutal, authoritarian country than it currently is.
The stakes really are that high. There is no room for conservatism or complacency in Labour and the wider centre-left. Across the developed world democracy and democratic norms are under sustained attack and the economic and social model of capitalism irretrievably broken. The only response to this is building a radical alliance which understands the need to put democracy and pluralism centre stage, challenges the vested interests in the British state and capitalism, and articulates a different story of Britain to the old, discredited Labour and Tory accounts. All easier said than done; but there can be no clinging to the old shibboleths and totems of the current dispensation.
Gerry Hassan is a leading Scottish thinker and writer. More of his work is here.