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28 June 2024

Britain’s new Powellites

With the Conservative Party intellectually exhausted, a very-online vanguard is trying to refresh right-wing thought – but how much of it is actually new?

By John Merrick

“Good historians,” the historian EH Carr wrote, “have the future in their bones.” So do plenty of bad ones. And while political thinkers of many stripes have looked to the past for signs of the future, none have been so relentlessly obsessed with history than those of the radical right. As Mark Lilla notes in a recent essay on the post-liberal current in American politics and letters, this search for a “usable past” on the right has long taken many forms, from neo-pagans lamenting the corrosive effects of a universalising Christianity to elegies for a simpler, more rural England before the coming of the machine. This search even goes as far as neo-Nazis enamoured with the German fight against the Allies and, as Lilla writes, “acned young men waving around thick manifestos by a preposterous figure known as the Bronze Age Pervert”.

Yet each has found common conservative cause. The reason for this alliance, a coming together of what would otherwise seem contradictory or incompatible visions, is that the histories on which the radical right’s politics are built, Lilla notes, “serve more as symbolic hieroglyphs… than as actual models for orienting action”. More prelapsarian foils against which to measure the decadence of the present, or markers of Spenglerian decline, than roadmaps towards our current crisis.

The left, on the other hand, has plenty of guiding historical schemas. In Britain, the most influential over the past half century has been the so-called Nairn-Anderson thesis, constructed by the New Left historians Tom Nairn and Perry Anderson from the mid-1960s on, which explains both the persistence of the archaic remnants of the British state (the monarchy and the Crown-in-parliament, unelected lords and an anachronistic economic liberalism) and the country’s otherwise sickly and moribund revolutionary left.

During the 1980s, the right had a complementary vision: an understanding of a British state and society fettered by the dominance of an aristocratic ruling clique and its attendant culture of bungling amateurism which had held back the growth of modern industry. This was informed by the “declinist” histories of Correlli Barnett and Martin Wiener. Such was its influence that Margaret Thatcher’s closest political ally, Keith Joseph, supposedly gave a copy of Wiener’s English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit: 1850-1980 to every Tory minister. Its historical vision served to bolster the Thatcherite model. Against certain High Tory instincts, Thatcher believed that this decline had to be reversed: the country’s historical stupor was to be ruthlessly confronted in order to release a new spirit of entrepreneurialism.

Until recently, the right seemed to believe that Thatcherism had worked. Britain’s economy had been saved from stagnation, and all that was left to do was manage its growth. Yet, with the Conservatives expected to lose the forthcoming general election, and many young right-wingers hoping for the party’s electoral annihilation, space for a new vision is emerging.

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What that could be can be detected in the pages of a new, anonymous Substack, the Pimlico Journal. The journal is just one of a string of online right-wing publications that have emerged in recent years, ranging from the broad-based conservatism of UnHerd and the culture warriors at the Critic, to more niche concerns such as the irony-laced provocations of J’Accuse and the Forbidden Texts, and the widely read blog of Dominic Cummings. And they are increasingly popular with a growing segment of the new right. The readership is young and very online. Disdainful of the pieties of the old right, they yearn for a new consensus that can blow away the lethargic old Tories and replace them with a sweeping programme of national renewal.

Since it started publishing in October 2023, Pimlico Journal has gained a small but not insignificant following, one that includes many young Conservative activists and special advisers, even some MPs. This may be surprising considering how many of its articles seem directed more towards online provocateurs than those who hope to hold the levers of power. Recent months have seen essays making the case for why “cyclists need to feel fear again”; the supposed malign and feminising influence of the Tory “Lavender Mafia”; and the “Indian freshie invasion” (the arrival of new immigrants, “fresh off the boat”) in London’s hospitality industry, whose fecklessness is apparently furthering the need for digital piecework to “ruthlessly discipline the workers”.

Alongside these have appeared irony-poisoned reports from the up-market finance-bro sushi chain Nobu (“more a living room from a third-world [sic] edition of Big Brother than an authentic Japanese dining space”), while an essay on the dessert cafés that line the streets of London’s “Asian-majority areas” bemoaned the fact that “our health service can be subject to the terrible dietary habits of people who have yet to make the connection between the food they consume and their health”.

But there are more historically lucid essays, such as the one published in March this year on Britain’s desperate economic situation. Britain, the anonymous author wrote, suffers from a peculiar historical curse: the “curse of being first”. The country’s status as the first industrial nation means that it has suffered from many deep and seemingly intractable maladies, the primary and most obvious which, the author writes, is that, as an industrial pioneer, “Britain could not simply copy or import technology from abroad… It had to build everything from scratch.” Lateness in developing industry in other countries, such as Japan, has been a boon; rather than requiring the slow and costly work of research and development, the late developers were able to cherry-pick the most successful models from elsewhere. Lateness, so the argument goes, creates agility in business, and the opportunity to copy what is needed while discarding all those expensive failures and derelict historical dead-ends. Britain had no such luck.

This has come at significant cost to British industry, both historically and today. High historical fixed capital costs, and the sunk-cost fallacy (in which investors are less likely to abandon a strategy because of the money already put into it), have since plagued the country, making a bad situation even more resistant to change. But more important, for the writer of the Pimlico Journal, are the effects this has had on the country’s economic and political geography.

A late developer, they write, may have been able to pull labour from the land into new industries in the relatively recent past. Should these then shutter, the newly massed ranks of workers could simply up sticks and move on again, to new industrial centres. But by being a pioneer, Britain’s industrial centres became, they write, “long-lasting and developed much deeper roots”. British workers are, in other words, “sticky”. “The longer that people stay in one place, the more likely they are to develop multi-generational cultural and familial ties that dissuade them from moving with the money.” British workers are thus relatively immobile, having grown deeply attached to specific locations by virtue of kinship and cultural bonds.

Alongside this was the development in these now post-industrial towns and cities of a distinctive civic and proletarian culture, seen in the comparatively high levels of trade union membership and other markers of working-class communalism, and which made its workers distinctively unappealing for modern industry. “Britain’s industrial precocity has thus meant that we have been gifted a population geography (and perhaps even a broader culture),” the writer argues, “that seems archaic and unsuited to modern needs; a population geography that seems in some sense unnatural.”

What can be done about this sorry situation? Can we, by force of government, shift to a more mobile, more natural, state of affairs? The usual political answer to this has been no. Instead, Britain’s former industrial areas such as England’s north-west or the southern Wales coalfields have, argues our right-wing guide, been propped up for generations by state largesse. Since mid-century, at least, the British state has “deliberately hamstrung the growth of the Southeast… while gifting subsidies and tax breaks in an attempt to keep alive struggling regions.” “By the end of the 1970s,” they go on, “two-fifths of the British population lived in an area (by then called ‘assisted areas’) eligible for regional policy assistance of some kind.”

In this tale, there have been many missed opportunities to get British workers back on their bikes to solve this “antiquated demographic geography”, not least under the historically fertile conditions of postwar full employment. With deindustrialisation in the late 1970s and 1980s, rather than clearing out the declining regions, the benefits system and a burgeoning public sector stepped in to sustain them.

What would happen if these subsidies were now cut? What if we could, in one quick stroke, cut through those policies that have “wasted taxpayer money, lowered productivity, distorted economic incentives, and made Britain poorer”? What is required to rectify this, claims the Pimlico writer, is a “bonfire of planning laws and a big reduction in external migration pressures”; a slash and burn of the public state and a gust of market winds, alongside a strong and bolstered security and border regime. Let Oldham rot, says our right-wing firebrand, and Dover Castle be restrengthened. This may even, they say, be a “genuinely compassionate policy”.

Not if the journal’s other writing is to be believed. References to the “teeming, ever-expanding, unproductive masses” hardly suggest compassion with those who are suffering the effects of national economic decline. The Pimlico Journal’s vision is a harsh one, with a strong state and free economic activity. The invisible hand of the market can move populations at will and the state has the power to crush dissent and put people to work while fortifying the nation’s borders.

The constant refrain throughout the essays in the Pimlico Journal is that our lax border controls over the past few decades have crippled the country and its economically productive populace. “Britain’s large and growing underclass, many of whom are recent immigrants,” they say, drain the finances of those “Protestant-minded citizens who have not given themselves over to the culture of sloth.” And with them has come crime and disorder. “The British state has a twenty-one mile wide moat,” they write, and yet “basic crimes are no longer policed, and… organised ethnic rape gangs continue to operate with seeming impunity”.

It’s a comforting vision: it is in fact Britain’s greatness that is the source of its decline. Its crime was to be the first among unequals. All that’s needed to undo the mess is a blast of shock therapy. It is also a vision given to us with the false erudition of the recent graduate, occasionally peppered with the ugly slang of the online far right (“longhouse”, “Anon”) and a barely concealed xenophobia.

What is genuinely new about this vision is harder to determine. In seeming to prove that, with the right’s obsessive focus on the past, it is destined to forever repeat itself, their “curse of being first” reads like little more than a harsher version of a report published by the conservative think tank Policy Exchange in 2008. That report, much like our Young Turks, recommended that people from “failed” and “worthless” cities such as Liverpool and Sunderland be moved to the south-east, all the better to sustain London’s economic bubble.

While scathing of several emerging currents on the right, such as the “‘post-liberals’ at Compact and UnHerd”, who would wish to marry a cultural conservative with a social democratic political economy (“anyone still involved with ‘Blue Labour’ is surely a masochist”), it is ultimately left-wing critics of neoliberalism such as Quinn Slobodian who bare the greatest brunt of their ire. “What is it that left-wing critics of neoliberalism want?”, they ask. “They want you, the metaphorical sheep, to remain stuck in place, glassy-eyed, quiescent, industrious; to keep on working, to keep on producing, to keep on allowing yourself to be sheared on behalf of the ‘Global South’.” “It would be deeply foolish for any right-winger,” they write, with the post-liberals in mind, to throw their lot in with left critics of neoliberalism: “These are extremely dangerous allies.”

“Better the neoliberal allies we do know than the leftist allies we don’t.” Which seems to raise the question: just what is it they want that is different from these allies? Beyond the harshness of their rhetoric, it is hard to see. They may be critical of the nation that neoliberalism has created, but their vision for a national renewal – effectively, free markets plus xenophobic nationalism – is reminiscent of no one more than Enoch Powell, Britain’s most prominent early exponent of neoliberal economics. Even their chorus of “free markets, strong state” echoes Andrew Gamble’s famous anatomy of Thatcherism from 1988, The Free Economy and the Strong State. Equally, much of what they write wouldn’t seem out of place coming from Nigel Farage or the “Britannia Unchained” wing of the Tories, or even the continental declinists in France’s National Rally and Alternative for Germany.

What the forthcoming general election shows, however, is that a wholly new vision for the British state is needed. After three decades of dominance, the allure of neoliberalism across the world is on the wane. The prosperity and the endless growth that decades of liberalism promised was illusory, and the atomisation and endless crises that have followed have left towns and cities, even whole regions and countries, across the world devastated, blighted by poverty and deprivation.

Recent years have seen, as Aditya Chakrabortty writes, a sea-change in the British public, against these “children of Thatcher”. For now, the beneficiaries of this will be Keir Starmer’s Labour Party, with a warmed-over Blairism under economically suboptimal conditions. The right, split between a failed Conservatism and a resurgent Reform, will be defeated. Into the void could step any number of competing visions. As the anonymous writers of the Pimlico Journal note, “On July 5th, it will be easy for the Right to be longhoused into a bottomless pit of despair. But remember, Anon: the worse things get, the sooner they will change.” That may be so, and with Nigel Farage challenging the Tories from the right, there’s a chance that a similar vision could capture the top of the Conservative Party in the coming years. But it will take more than a revived neoliberalism, however authoritarian, for them to win power again.

[See also: This is the long Brexit election]

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