Trust your emotional reaction. I was moved less by the historical sonorities and the crisp military discipline of the Queen’s funeral, than by the quiet, serious, warmly community-minded atmosphere of the famous Queue. That’s the memory that will last. Ordinary faces, honourably grieving. The centripetal instinct: different backgrounds and ages, drawn from across the country, together by choice.
In our individualist culture, this month reminded us of the rival truth, our human need to be part of something bigger. The Queen’s death and the days that followed allowed that rare and valuable experience – the feeling of oneness.
I know there’s a large minority who felt none of this, who were indifferent, baffled or even hostile. I am no monarchist myself. But what follows is a first attempt to guess some of the political implications of the days that have shaken the country. If you think that’s irrelevant then the following is not for you.
The death of the Queen and the arrival of King Charles III provoked saturation coverage of an uncritical, adulatory temper that, we must assume, will itself produce a mildly pro-establishment, pro-conservative shift. But this may not last long, nor will it inevitably help the Tories. The notion of us being “all in it together” is not exactly at the core of the Truss government’s project.
Liz Truss herself is an attacking, aggressive politician. As politics restarts, won’t the brief, patriotic and consensual lull make full-throttle chainsaw hostility – as Truss and her cabinet launch themselves at Keir Starmer, who has been eloquent and dignified – seem grindingly unattractive?
I don’t know. Never in our democratic history has the British state experienced so much change so quickly – therefore every prediction must come hedged with caution.
The fundamentals, however, have not changed. We still have a state-sceptic administration at a time when the country needs and yearns for good government. It takes a lot of gold leaf and royal grief to move the political dial at all. We will now see, only a few weeks later than expected, a radical right-wing government emerging in plain sight and moving fast, with none of its sharp edges softened.
Truss is focused on winning the 2024 general election. “Seven years, not two,” is the mantra in Downing Street according to a No 10 adviser. To have a chance she must do two things. With the emergency energy support package she must reassure families and businesses that they can make it through the winter. Then, next year, she must somehow achieve growth so noticeable and cheering that middle-of-the-road voters forgive the bankers’ bonuses, tax cuts for the rich, the fracking, and the prioritising of the purity of Brexit over the survival of British exporters.
Let’s start with the relatively short-term. The government has announced its Energy Price Guarantee, which will ensure that households pay an average of £2,500 a year on their energy bill from October. Even with this policy, however, can the government avoid enacting a windfall tax on the profit surge of energy companies? This is a lottery bonus not caused by the faintest glimmer of shrewdness from management nor a single bead of sweat in those organisations.
Sticking tight means the government has almost no defence against opposition demands for higher spending elsewhere. That’s remarkable. The new chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng’s enthusiasm for cutting taxes for the better off, and refusing to hit corporate profits, gives Labour almost perfect framing, directing voters’ attention to an untouched pot of money.
Then there’s that unavoidable question of who pays for the emergency support. If we are into the economics of high borrowing, higher interest rates, and a lower pound that imports yet more inflation, the answer is: all of us. This central issue will not be adjudicated by the party system, but by international finance, which will make a simple, brutal judgement about the credibility of the new government. Right now, ministers are even more worried about the pound than they are about the Labour Party.
Next, will the new package do the job it’s designed for? Given food inflation, and historically high heating bills despite the energy cap, can the Truss policy avoid widespread misery and bankruptcies, even after huge spending and borrowing?
This takes us to the second, longer-term political fight. The Truss strategy is, essentially, go for bust; to borrow, and slash taxes to get surprisingly fast growth. It’s a hell-for-leather, don’t-spare-the-horses politics. Historically minded folk will cast straight back to the Barber boom of 1971-74. During that period, Edward Heath’s radical, war-hero chancellor, Anthony Barber, reduced taxes and stated that his Budget would add 10 per cent to the UK’s growth in two years, but it all ended badly as inflation took fierce hold and the Tory government lost its grip on the country, and indeed on power.
Replaying the story is, to put it gently, a courageous play. It certainly isn’t Thatcherism. But who knows? The currency and labour markets, and indeed the structure of the British economy, were very different then: none of us can be sure how, second time around, this will play out.
The Tory gamble is that if there is real growth in two years’ time, voters, feeling more optimistic about their personal prospects, will forgive everything. In some ways it’s refreshing, after the endless cakeism, the fudges and U-turns, of the Johnson years, to have ministers who are bold enough to endure short-term unpopularity in pursuit of a clear, ideological agenda.
The result, however, is that not for decades has Labour found itself so well-placed as the party of prudence and reassurance. Keir Starmer is pleased that a period of cartoonish personality politics has terminated alongside Boris Johnson’s premiership, and that we are now into serious political debate of a kind we had almost left behind. The intense exchanges in the House of Commons between him and Truss were at their most interesting even as notes were being passed around the chamber reporting the Queen’s illness.
In this new atmosphere, it doesn’t matter so much that Starmer is not naturally charismatic. But there are elephant traps ahead; and a huge task of sharpening political arguments.
One strategic puzzle is how to speak for the seething distress and growing militancy of a disintegrating society, while at the same time offering reassurance to the middling, nervous voters of what I call Lidl England. Is it possible to be the insurgent and the conciliator at the same time?
There is an opportunity for Starmer here, exposed by the period of royal mourning. He needs to emphasise the majority, decent, ordinary community that recognised itself on the streets this September. For sure, as many senior Labour people say in private, he needs to loosen up, to stop trying to chastise colleagues who want to appear on picket lines, and to welcome, rather than flinch from, passionate rhetoric.
But to solve the puzzle, Starmer needs to challenge the country directly as well. He needs to ask whether an ideological economics that focuses on the richest, and that borrows for a short, sugar-rush spurt of growth, is a proper response to a national community that is suffering. A King who spent so much time establishing his Prince’s Trust, which he founded in 1976 to help disadvantaged young people, is likely to be a man receptive to such a message.
This is a rare moment when Labour can seize the cause of progressive patriotism. If singing “God save the King” at the start of the Labour Party Conference seems going for it a bit, then Paris is worth a mass. There is almost no time left to get the rhetoric right. We are now into a period of relentless, pre-election advocacy. Truss and her team are ready for it. Starmer, whose private office has been so far too protective and defensive of him, must now be making his case, every single day, on every single outlet, never letting up.
The best strategy is to concentrate on specific failures: the under-invested utilities, failing schools, court systems, A&E departments, and a police force struggling to cope. Economic growth must be a Labour promise too, but growth for all; growth that doesn’t leave half the country behind.
In terms of specific policy, Starmer will soon need to be bolder about the European question. As Truss confronts the Biden problem over the Northern Ireland protocol, and tries to make it up to a French president who has gone so far out of his way to be friendly, how can the opposition not start saying the obvious about our relations with the outside world? If “going for growth” is the centrepiece of Tory thinking, is it sensible that Labour stays mute about the impact of Brexit regulations on exporters and employment?
On nationalisation, Starmer will at least have to acknowledge the case for temporary measures during the fuel crisis. Then there is the voting system, the structures of power, centralisation and the rest. “For the first time in a dozen years, I feel we are within touching point of forming a Labour-led government,” says one senior party figure. But it is, still, so far, Labour-led, not Labour. Conversations have to begin, however privately, with other opposition parties. The apparent determination of the new government to ditch net zero and “green crap” in pursuit of growth – something the King will loathe – gives Labour a great opportunity to expand its appeal.
So much ahead, so little time. Keir Starmer’s model must be the great Labour leaders who looked and sounded reticent and conservative, but who unleashed substantive changes, such as Clement Attlee and Harold Wilson. He can do this, and there is a mood change in the country, which helps. If there is one piece of advice Labour should heed after recent weeks it’s this: forget the pomp if you like. But remember, for God’s sake, the Queue.
This article appears in the 21 Sep 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Going for broke