Boris Johnson is not a One Nation Conservative but an ardent Thatcherite

In common with his predecessors, Johnson would enrich and empower a wealthy constituency centred in the City of London. 

NS

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In 2013, five years after the financial crisis, Boris Johnson hailed the greed of the “Gordon Gekkos of London” as a “motivator” for economic growth. Johnson used the annual Margaret Thatcher lecture to lavish praise on the late Conservative leader, hailing her as Britain's “greatest post-war prime minister” and reserving special admiration for her reforms to the City of London, which “restored [London] to its Victorian eminence as the financial capital of the world”.

At this point, London’s economy had only just recovered from the biggest economic crisis in living memory, aided by one of the largest programmes of state intervention in British history. The rest of the country, however, had not — outside of London and the south east, GDP per capita in every single one of the UK’s nations and regions was lower in 2013 than it had been in 2007.

If Johnson’s post-crisis appeals to the virtues of finance weren’t sufficiently tone deaf, he proceeded to describe an encounter with a woman who had stopped him in the street, in tears, to express her frustration with rising inequality and London’s housing crisis. He told the crowd that the woman’s beliefs were “ill-founded”, before praising inequality — and the spirit of envy it creates — as a “valuable spur to economic activity”.

Several years later, another prominent Londoner — Andy Haldane, the chief economist of the Bank of England — made a speech in Port Talbot in which he asked the pointed question: “whose recovery?” Having spent several months travelling around the country, Haldane realised that post-crisis Britain was suffused with a deep-seated anger about disparities of wealth and power that weren’t reflected in orthodox economic statistics.  

Rather than lecturing those he encountered on how their beliefs were “ill-founded”, Haldane took them at their word and opted to consult a different set of statistics. When he did, he found that the recovery from the financial crisis “for most has been slow and low, for many partial and patchy and for some invisible and incomplete”. “The rising economic tide,” he concluded, “has not lifted all boats”.

The evidence showed that the woman Johnson confronted in the street was right — the financial crisis had made the British economy less equal, less prosperous and less just. Her tears, which Johnson so easily dismissed, provided a profound insight into the state of pre-Brexit Britain — an insight that Johnson chose to ignore.

For Johnson, Thatcher’s great experiment, which created the conditions for the emergence of the great pre-crisis bubble, had paid off. In his world, the financial crisis had simply been a blip in the otherwise uninterrupted expansion in London’s (and, by extension, his own) power and prestige. Anticipating the rhetoric of another blond-haired nationalist, he claimed that Thatcher’s financial reforms had put the “‘great’ back into Britain”.

His blithe disregard for the suffering of the people who ended up paying for the crisis offered a chilling insight into his worldview — one reinforced by the few policy announcements he has made so far. Though sometimes described as a “One Nation Conservative”, he recently vowed to revive the spirit of Thatcherism by raising the threshold for the 40p rate of income tax from £50,000 to £80,000 (at a cost of £9bn), offering a tax cut to millions of the highest-paid people in the country.

Johnson justifies his patronage of the rich by appealing to a social Darwinism with disturbing historical overtones. “Whatever you may think of the value of IQ tests,” he opined, “it is surely relevant to a conversation about equality that as many as 16 per cent of our species have an IQ below 85, while about 2 per cent have an IQ above 130”.

His attempt to naturalise social hierarchy extends from the domestic to the international stage. He speaks nostalgically of a time when Britain “used to rule the world”. Our great nation, he once declared triumphantly, has “conquered or at least invaded 171” of the present members of the United Nations.

The Conservative frontrunner is often derided as a fatuous character — an opportunist who will say and do whatever he needs to in order to attain power. But to truly understand his motives, one has to look behind the rhetoric and analyse the only question that really matters: who stands to benefit from his policy agenda? And who will lose out?  

A cursory glance at history suggests that Johnson’s primary aim, like that of his Thatcherite predecessors, is to enrich and empower a wealthy constituency centred in the City of London. The talk of meritocracy, the praise of free markets, and the nostalgic appeal to empire serve as nothing more than a cover for an ideological project that aims to enrich the top 1 per cent at the expense of the rest of society.

If Johnson’s campaign so far tells us anything, it is that class politics is alive and well in modern Britain. But for the first time in decades, the class politics of the right will be countered by a class politics from the left. As a result, the country will be faced with an existential question when the next election comes: who runs Britain — working people or an unaccountable elite?  

This piece is taken from the Johnson audit series

Grace Blakeley is the New Statesman’s economics commentator and a research fellow at IPPR.