The tendency to see British politics as an expression of a deeply entrenched, long-gone past has not helped us understand how much has changed in recent times. We have just witnessed the latest failed Conservative attempt to break with the Cameron-Osborne paradigm to which we have now returned. Labour, too, is tempted to return to the pre-2015 era. But there is no going back, and new realities need new politics.
The transformation of the Tories into a May-Johnson-Truss Brexit Party was an extraordinary rejection of the New Labour/Cameronian consensus. But more than this, it triggered a whole new understanding of the state of the nation. On the one hand there was a radical revivalism, a depiction of Britain as an innovation superpower, ready to unshackle itself from Europe and assume its proper place in the world. It was implied that Margaret Thatcher had reversed the historic decline of the United Kingdom.
On the other hand, there was a new understanding that much of the country had been left behind during these years and that a new national politics of “levelling up” was needed. Brexit contained all this and more.
There was always a hard-right Thatcherite programme of privatisation, deregulation and free trade at the heart of the Brexit project. Both Theresa May, and to a lesser extent Boris Johnson, counterbalanced this with a more interventionist and nationalist approach. But Trussism represented this radical, free-market Brexit in its purest form.
For economic liberals, Brexit was the vehicle for a far more ambitious revolution. “To finish the job that Margaret Thatcher started” in the words of Leave supporter and former chancellor Nigel Lawson. The British economy, they emphasised, had stagnated since the 2008 financial crisis. They were right about that. But their solution was a very particular one, and involved going much further than Thatcher, New Labour and the Cameroons. They wanted even more inequality, even weaker labour unions, even less regulation of business, even more indulgence of the rich.
One had to admire Liz Truss for recognising that all is not well and that Brexit had not (in her view) yet worked. Something radical needed to be done and she did it. This was not an attempt to recreate the “Barber boom” of 1972 but rather to fundamentally restructure the economy and society. And Truss’s Tories might have got away with it, as far as the markets were concerned, had they juxtaposed public spending cuts with their tax cuts. But political necessity trumped squaring finance.
Yet something deeper has also been going on. Brexiteer conservatism alienated itself from most of British and international capitalism, not only by championing EU withdrawal but also by disregarding the complexities of the global economy. This wing of conservatism has also been disturbed by the vast central bank interventions and ultra-loose monetary policy required to cope with the 2008 financial crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic.
Brexit was bad enough, but for central bankers and the markets the current conjuncture was not the moment to threaten the fragile post-crash, post-Covid financial order. They were not rejecting Thatcherism but rather a politics that put actually existing Thatcherism at risk.
Underlying this has been a remarkable change in British political discourse. It was only yesterday that conversation was dominated by the UK’s scientific genius, its “world-beating” vaccine rollout, its fast-recovering economy and other such boosterism. Yet following Truss’s ascent, this revivalism was transformed into declinism. Both are fatally wrong analyses of the British condition.
Revivalism for obvious reasons, declinism because it seeks to attribute British relative performance, usually poorly specified, only to British failings, not the success of other countries, and because its explanations of failure are typically clichéd and wrong and usually based on the distant past, rather than the present.
But a more accurate depiction of the UK did emerge: an economy that has grown at a slower rate than any G7 country except Italy since 2008, that is poorer overall than France or Germany, and that has some of the very poorest regions in north-west Europe. Furthermore, and again suddenly, earlier promises of funding for levelling up and social care reform have evaporated.
Now we are returning to the austerity that defined the political narrative in the pre-Brexit years. (We have also seen the beginnings of a broader reappraisal of the dead end that is Brexit itself.)
Although Labour has benefited from the collapse of Tory support, it is hardly the opposition’s doing, and a reversion to the debates of 2015 poses a threat to Labour. Under Keir Starmer the emphasis has been on the incompetence of Johnson and Truss. That strategy creates a problem when all too competent right-wing “grown-ups” take charge, as they may now do.
Worse, Labour has been far too tempted to stand for sound money, to stand with the market against the government, and to go for growth, growth, growth without understanding the real impediments to it. There is a danger that Labour will once again be trapped in the headlights of the New Labour/Cameron consensus, just as it is trapped with “making Brexit work” as support for Brexit collapses.
This is not 2015, but nor is it 1997. The world has moved on. We have had fantastical Tory answers to the mess left in 2010, 2015, 2017 and 2019 that have now crashed and burned. But the mess remains, and on top of that there have been multiple new crises of the British state, economy and society. We need a whole new political discourse not just to combat the Tory party, but to confront the serious challenges of decarbonisation, of public health, of increasing poverty and misery.
The answers lie only in a new politics that understands what has gone wrong since 1979, not just since 2010, and will necessarily be a politics not of imaginary growth rates but of real redistribution to those whose incomes are collapsing. We need transformation, not growth.
[See also: Who could replace Liz Truss as prime minister?]