Though its origins go back many years, Boris Johnson’s decisive victory in the general election was made possible by the unwillingness of most of the political class to learn the lessons of the 2016 Brexit referendum. Labour has suffered a cataclysmic defeat. The Liberal Democrats have been reduced to a disoriented rump, while the Independent Group for Change has evaporated along with the phantom of a new centre party. The DUP has been marginalised and the Brexit Party effectively liquidated. The unified Conservative Party that has been created in a matter of months, following generations of division over Europe, is an astonishing feat. The power Johnson commands in the Commons has no precedent for decades, and there is no serious opposition.
Yet outside government, British institutions are vehicles for a progressive mindset that is hostile to much of what he aims to achieve. This places a question mark over whether he will be able to secure the conjunction of political power with cultural legitimacy that Antonio Gramsci, one of the most penetrating 20th-century political thinkers, called hegemony.
At present the logic of events works in Johnson’s favour. Brexit will alter Britain irrevocably. Any project that presupposes close alignment with the EU – such as Scottish independence – belongs in the past. So, for different reasons, does the attempt to impose political choices by legal fiat, which has become entrenched in sections of the judiciary. Large alterations in the machinery of the state and its relations with the market are under way. Britain is moving rapidly towards a new economic regime.
For the two wings of British progressivism – liberal centrism and Corbynite leftism – the election has been a profound shock. It is almost as if there was something in the contemporary scene they have failed to comprehend. They regard themselves as the embodiment of advancing modernity. Yet the pattern they imagined in history shows no signs of emerging. Any tendency to gradual improvement has given way to kaleidoscopic flux. Rather than tending towards some rational harmony, values are plural and contending. Political monotheism – the faith that only one political system can be right for all of humankind – has given way to inescapable pluralism. Progress has ceased to be the providential arc of history and instead become a prize snatched for a moment from the caprice of the gods.
In a droll turn, 21st-century modernity has turned out to be rather like Johnson’s beloved ancient classical world – although the flux we inhabit should temper any confident predictions of Conservative hegemony. Johnson’s invulnerable position in government masks the dominance of progressive ideas throughout much of British life. Even Labour, seemingly damaged beyond recovery, cannot be written off.
Progressive thinkers have reacted to the election result in different ways. Rationalists among them blame the first-past-the post electoral system. If only Britain had European-style proportional representation, the disaster they have experienced could have been avoided. It is obviously true that the result would not have been the same. Whether PR would have produced a progressive majority is another matter. If the 2015 election had been held under the D’Hont system used in elections to the European Parliament, Nigel Farage’s Ukip would have secured 83 seats in the Commons (it won nearly four million votes). In reality, voting patterns would be different under any kind of PR, but the far right would still play a larger part in the British political system than it does now. Progressives talk of building the kind of majority they want, as if it somehow already latently exists. More likely, parties of the far right would set the political agenda, as they do throughout much of the continent. If you want a European-style voting system, you get a European style of politics.
Other progressives prefer a demonological interpretation. Doodling their fever-dreams in green ink, they portray the election as having been hijacked by sinister global forces. Officially, they believe values and beliefs other than their own are errors that can be corrected by reason and education. In practice many among them have invoked an idea of omnipresent evil to explain humankind’s stubborn resistance to their efforts to improve it. Communist regimes pointed to saboteurs and foreign spies to account for the systemic failings of central planning. More recently, liberals have invoked Russian meddling and a global far-right network masterminded by Steve Bannon to explain their political defeats. Delusions of conspiracy are part of the mass psychology of progressivism, and will intensify in the coming months and years.
Taking another tack, avowed liberals carry on attempting to thwart the results of democratic choices – not only the referendum, but now a general election. Such attempts tend to be self-defeating, as American liberals will discover if impeachment solidifies Donald Trump’s base and opens his way to a second term as president. The anti-Brexit campaigner Gina Miller appears set to continue the alt-politics of legal warfare, but the attempt to install rule by lawyers can only have one result. The authority of the executive will be reasserted, and the British judiciary returned to a more modest role like the one it had before Tony Blair conjured up a Supreme Court one wet afternoon.
In these pages in October I suggested that British politics had reached a Hobbesian moment. Voters demanded a government, not anarchy presided over by a gibbering rabble. The clean-out in the Commons followed from this imperative. The single most important lesson of the previous three and more years is the abject incompetence of Britain’s centrist political class. Their comical despair today comes from their inability to grasp the part they played in the debacle that has engulfed them.
That the centre was engaged in a process of self-immolation had been clear for some time. Blair and Peter Mandelson began the embourgeoisement of Labour that allowed Johnson to capture the party’s working-class heartlands in 2019. New Labour’s unthinking embrace of globalisation and open borders produced the working-class revolt against economic liberalism and mobilised support for Brexit. Blair may have won three elections on a centrist prospectus, but there was never any chance of Labour winning another on this basis when – as an unintended consequence of Blairite policies – the centre ground had shifted radically.
A hint of what was to come could be seen in the debacle of the People’s Vote (PV) campaign. Reported as the outcome of organisational conflicts and clashing personalities, its implosion in the run-up to the election revealed the basic contradiction in the Remain movement. Alastair Campbell, an éminence grise of the campaign, has written that it failed because it could not explain to people why, when the country had voted for something, it should not happen. In fact, everyone knew the sole reason for a second referendum was to nullify the first. That is why a section of the PV campaign opted for Revoke. Searching for a unique selling point, the Liberal Democrats did the same. Preferring the risk of a Jeremy Corbyn government to Brexit, Remainer grandees and centrist journals and commentators backed Jo Swinson’s extremism. In turn, she triggered an election that made Brexit inevitable. There is a certain rationality in politics, it seems, after all.
Flouting norms that are central to liberal democracy, Remain was another populist movement, if more short-lived than most. Some of its remnants – such as the Liberal Democrat Ed Davey, who is demanding an enquiry into the 2016 referendum – are in a state of denial. Others, including the Labour leadership contender Jess Phillips, appear to want to regroup under the banner of Rejoin. But with Johnson in control of the Brexit process they will have as much impact as the haggard figures that tramp the streets in sandwich boards announcing the end of the world. The Remain camp has had its final say.
While the liberal centre has disappeared as a significant force in politics, the future of the Corbynite ascendancy has yet to be decided. If, as some are already speculating, Keir Starmer proves most able to unite the party and its affiliated organisations, Corbynism could become not much more than a divisive faction. Wisely, Starmer has accepted the finality of Brexit. In the interests of continuity, he has talked up his humble origins and will make much of his work with trade unions. But he remains ineffably the candidate of the woke bourgeoisie in the party’s mass membership and metropolitan redoubts, and in practice could well complete the detachment of Labour from its working-class roots that Corbynism has accelerated. Rebecca Long-Bailey, the Corbynite continuity candidate despite her protestations otherwise, is campaigning on the basis that Labour voters who rejected Corbyn’s message were mistaken, so it is they – not her party – that must change.
In different ways, each of these candidates represents a style of politics that millions of working-class voters repudiate. Whoever leads the party, Labour could repeat in the North the collapse it has undergone in Scotland.
Regardless, the Corbynites are not going away any time soon. Neither Starmer nor any other candidate could mount a campaign of the kind Neil Kinnock waged in the 1980s – a time when the far left was not so embedded in the party’s power structures. The appointment of Ed Miliband to chair an inquiry on the election suggests that much of Labour may still be in a state of collective solipsism. Another defeat – possibly larger because of likely constituency boundary changes and the evanescence of Farage – may be needed before it can adjust.
Yet it would be a mistake to conclude the party is necessarily in terminal decline.
Seeing off Corbyn and completing the first phase of Brexit has left Johnson’s position unsettled. Without these dead-weights, Labour may be able to revive the domestic agenda that failed to cut through during most of the election campaign. Labour’s economic programme was not, as some are claiming, a roaring success among voters. Large numbers saw its spending pledges as impractical, if not fraudulent. But as the narrow Conservative lead at points in the campaign showed, it spoke to concerns about a dysfunctional economy that much of the electorate shares. Helped by the binary pattern to which British politics has reverted, Labour could yet rebound strongly.
If Johnson falters it will not be because of Scotland. A pervasive meme among progressive commentators is that Brexit will break up the Union. In fact it is only if the UK were somehow to remain in the EU, or make a soft exit, that Scotland could plausibly leave the UK. Seceding once Britain has left means reapplying to join the EU.
Wearied by years of negotiation over Brexit and fearful of reinforcing separatism in Catalonia, Brussels would not make the process easy. Strong tests of fiscal rectitude would be applied, which would mean many years of austerity. The question of which currency an independent Scotland would use would be more intractable. It could not be the euro until Scotland rejoined the EU. Would it be the British pound, or a new Scottish currency that would instantly attract speculative attacks?
The trade regime under which the new Scottish state would operate would pose severe problems. Given its heavy dependency on the rest of the UK, could the Scottish economy survive a hard border? Perhaps the increased economic risks of independence do not matter much in an age of identity politics. But it is hardly imaginable that they would not be a central feature of another independence referendum campaign.
Long-term pressure on the UK comes from Northern Ireland, where demography works in favour of Irish unification, not Scotland. While there will be nothing like a fully federal system, devolution will doubtless go further. Unending discussion of the break-up of the UK is a talking cure for depressed progressives, not realistic analysis.
Boris Johnson by André Carrilho
Corbynism was Marxian in the sense that Oswald Mosley was Keynesian. But it is by using a Marxian idea of hegemony that Labour’s future, and that of Johnson’s Conservatives, can best be plotted. Corbynite Labour is a morbid symptom of the decay of centrism. The problem Johnson faces is that while he exercises unassailable power in government, British institutions as a whole remain vehicles of progressivist ideology.
Understanding the present must start with the end of the Thatcherite era. She was toppled in November 1990, but versions of the neoliberal ideas that may have intermittently informed some of her policies went on to dominate politics for nearly 30 years. Recognising the need for spending and investment in public services, Blair gave Thatcherism a new lease of life. It was David Cameron and George Osborne, with their witless cult of austerity, who brought the Thatcher era to a close. Johnson’s cabinet contains neo-Thatcherites like Esther McVey, while Sajid Javid, the Chancellor, is reportedly a devoted reader of Ayn Rand. But the era of neoliberal hegemony is plainly over. Electoral imperatives are leading Conservatives to abandon any fundamentalist faith in free markets. As Nick Timothy, Theresa May’s former joint chief of staff, perceived, and the political scientist Matthew Goodwin has confirmed in his studies of political realignment in Britain and other countries, the right is moving leftwards in economics. At the same it is moderating its individualist view of society. There is not much call for Rand or Hayek in Blyth Valley.
Representing Johnson’s government as neoliberalism in populist clothing misses the regime shift that is taking place. Horror at the spectre of “Singapore-on-Thames” is a sign of ignorance and confusion. Singapore is far from being an untrammelled market economy. Land is the property of the state, and around 80 per cent of the island’s housing supplied by a government corporation. A highly effective civil service is engaged with companies and active throughout society. Singapore is a success story of managed capitalism, not the free market.
A Singaporean model cannot be transplanted here. Britain is a large, multinational, unevenly developed country, not a city state (though London now resembles one). But Johnson will need something like Singapore-style government if he is to keep his working-class voters on board. Dominic Cummings’s proposals for renovating the state machine reflect this fact.
How hard Brexit will be remains to be seen. Immediately after the election great minds in the City were convinced that Johnson’s large majority would mean him pivoting to a softer exit. That seems highly unlikely. Britain can remain engaged and even friendly with Europe in many areas without being locked into the sclerotic institutions of the EU. Excitable talk about another cliff edge is also inaccurate.
Johnson’s withdrawal deal removes the most disruptive risks of Brexit, and neither the UK nor the EU wants to reach the end of this year without some kind of understanding on trade. A bare-bones agreement is possible and even likely, whatever Brussels may say publicly. All the signs are that Johnson aims to keep the option of the UK diverging from EU rules. Progressives will seethe at the prospect, since it could mean further deregulation. But diverging from the EU also enables government to act in ways that are currently prohibited, such as providing state aid for industry. The EU has long been a neoliberal construction, whereas a hardish Brexit allows a more interventionist mode of capitalism.
Whether Johnson can retain his commanding position depends in the short term primarily on how well he maintains his pact with his new voters. If working-class jobs are hit hard by tariffs in the event of a hard Brexit, Labour has a chance to revive rapidly. The votes that have been lent to Johnson were part of a transaction in which greater economic security was a vital component. Working-class Labour supporters who turned to Johnson after a decade of Conservative austerity did so, in part, because they perceived him as a different kind of Conservative. A spate of closed factories and bankrupt farmers could discredit this perception.
The focal point of power has moved north. Resources will have to move with it, including facilities for scientific and technological innovation. Johnson will have to engineer a fundamental shift in the direction of government, and do so without depriving his traditional voters of what they have come to see as their due. But hegemony has to do with culture as well as government, and it is here that he faces his most formidable challenge.
If only people aged between 18 and 24 had voted in the general election, Corbyn would have won an enormous majority. No doubt this is partly because of Corbyn’s promise to abolish student tuition fees and the difficulties young people face in the housing and jobs markets. But their support for Corbyn is also a by-product of beliefs and values they have absorbed at school and university. According to the progressive ideology that has been instilled in them, the West is uniquely malignant, the ultimate source of injustice and oppression throughout the world, and Western power and values essentially illegitimate.
Humanities and social sciences teaching has been largely shaped by progressive thinking for generations, though other perspectives were previously tolerated. The metamorphosis of universities into centres of censorship and indoctrination is a more recent development, and with the expansion of higher education it has become politically significant. By over-enlarging the university system, Blair created the constituency that enabled the Corbynites to displace New Labour. No longer mainly a cult of intellectuals, as in Orwell’s time, progressivism has become the unthinking faith of millions of graduates.
When Labour voters switched to Johnson, they were surely moved by moral revulsion as well as their material interests. As polls have attested, they rejected Labour because it had become a party that derided everything they loved. Many referenced Corbyn’s support for regimes and movements that are violently hostile to the West. Some cited anti-Semitism as one of the evils their parents or grandparents had gone to war to defeat. For working class voters, Labour had set itself against patriotism and moral decency. For Corbynites, in the form in which they are held by what is still a majority of British people, these values can only be expressions of false consciousness. Labour’s dilemma is whether it continues to promote progressive orthodoxy or tries to reconnect with its traditional voters.
A possible way forward has been presented in Maurice Glasman’s Blue Labour faction. If it is to avoid devastating defeat, the party needs to abandon its anti-Western stance and its hostility to the nation state and treat Brexit as an opportunity rather than a disaster to be mitigated. (It also needs to root out anti-Semitism in its ranks rather than apologise for it.) Spelt out some years ago, Blue Labour’s analysis is extremely prescient, and some leadership candidates are talking vaguely in these terms. But the likelihood of the party changing course on these issues is not high. A Blue Labour takeover along the lines of that mounted by Blair cannot occur when the mass membership recruited by Corbyn is made up overwhelmingly of progressives. Even if a takeover was feasible it is doubtful whether voters would support a programme of moral conservatism, which Blue Labour also proposes. The resistance to progressivism in social matters is focused chiefly on law and order and immigration. There is no detectable enthusiasm for the restoration of traditional family structures or sexual mores. Working-class voters want security and respect, not a wholly different form of life.
Liberal or Corbynite, the core of the progressivist cult is the belief that the values that have guided human civilisation to date, especially in the West, need to be junked. A new kind of society is required, which progressives will devise. They are equipped for this task with scraps of faux-Marxism and hyper-liberalism, from which they have assembled a world-view. They believed a majority of people would submit to their vision and follow them. Instead they have been ignored, while their world-view has melted down into a heap of trash. They retain their position in British institutions, but their self-image as the leaders of society has been badly shaken. It is only to be expected that many should be fixated on conspiracy theories, or otherwise unhinged. The feature of the contemporary scene progressives fail to understand, in the end, is themselves.
Johnson’s dilemma is how to cement his alliance with the working class while the cultural establishment remains wedded to progressivist values. It may be that hegemony is no longer possible for his or any political project. Society may remain fragmented indefinitely, and in some areas unalterably polarised.
Yet with other parties in disarray, there is a clear chance of him occupying a new centre ground. His conservatism is a green-tinged version of a tradition articulated in Lord Randolph Churchill’s concept of Tory Democracy, and before that by Benjamin Disraeli. His ambitious plans for infrastructure and new centres of science and technology allow him to channel the modern faith in a better future. Faced with the possibility of a decade or more of Conservative rule, Britain’s cultural establishment may change its complexion. As well as an identity, progressive views have been a means of advancement in the academy, the arts and broadcast media. With the funding position of cultural institutions under review, the usefulness of progressivism as a career strategy may be about to decline.
Boris Johnson has come to power at a moment of high uncertainty. Progressive theories that claimed to divine the future have proved as trustworthy as Roman auguries. Gramsci’s belief that the working class makes history has turned out to be right, at least in Britain, but not in the way he and his disciples imagined. Somewhere in the heavens, the gods are laughing.
This article appears in the 15 Jan 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Why the left keeps losing