An unreal consensus grips British politics. The cost-of-living crisis and an aborted Brexit have left the government directionless. Strikes across the public sector express a powerful demand for change, not only in pay and conditions but in how the economy works. There is a pervasive sense that the free-market model that guided governments for the past 40-odd years has broken down.
The response of the two main parties is a descent into corporate newspeak. Mimicking the bland tones of CEOs of failing companies, Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak have each produced lists of five “pledges” and “missions” that are interchangeable in their emptiness. These are not workable policies but public relations exercises of a kind common in the brand of capitalism whose decline their parties are competing to manage.
Starmer is at pains to distinguish his offer as being different in kind from Sunak’s. Writing in the New Statesman on 1 March of a new species of “mission-driven government”, the Labour leader insists that “the word mission is not just another word for promise or pledge. The ‘offer’ we make to voters on the doorstep will flow from these ambitious goals.” Juggling with words, however, cannot disguise what the two lists have in common. Both screen out awkward realities.
There is no chance of Britain achieving the highest growth rate in the G7 – one of Starmer’s missions – on any continuing basis. It would involve a radical departure from the UK’s historic performance, but moreover no British government can determine the growth rates of the other economies with which it is compared. Starmer’s “mission” is a mirror image of Sunak’s pledge to slash inflation by half this year. Because of deteriorating global conditions, many economists expect inflation to fall by this amount (or more) anyway. Achieving either of these goals is beyond the power of any prime minister, though Sunak’s is the smarter bet.
Curiously, national defence does not feature in Starmer’s or Sunak’s wish list. Along with the rest of the political class (and the Treasury), they cling to a picture of the world that history has left behind. This country may not have declared war, but it will have to operate in wartime conditions for the foreseeable future.
The postwar social democratic model was a mix of state welfare provision, anti-monopoly regulation and Keynesian full-employment policies. The model began to break down in Britain in the mid-Seventies, but was discarded only in the wake of the Cold War. The so-called liberal order was an interregnum, not the shape of things to come. If the Soviet collapse and globalisation finished off social democracy, Chinese state capitalism and deglobalisation are killing off market liberalism. War in Europe is the coup de grâce. Deindustrialised free market economies cannot fight a long war of attrition of the kind that has emerged in Ukraine. Either they mobilise what remains of their industrial base for the duration, or the war will slip out of their control.
Blithe indifference to uncomfortable realities is the hallmark of Britain’s ruling elites. The forces that have transformed British politics over the past decades have come from outside the metropolitan parties. Alex Salmond, Nigel Farage, Dominic Cummings and now (through her downfall) Nicola Sturgeon are more consequential figures than anyone in the laggard and reactive Westminster political class. The pattern is likely to continue as the Tories and Labour contend as to which of them props up the decrepit market regime.
A close aide of Margaret Thatcher’s described her to me, not long after she had come to power, as “the reality principle in skirts”. It is true that she had a healthy sense of reality – up to a point. She never imagined a free market could function without strong (her critics would say authoritarian) government. She failed to see how imposing a market paradigm on society would lead to a disabling marketisation of the state. A Britain in which overstretched public services are kept going by an army that (according to some reports) could not sustain a land war for much longer than a week due to lack of ammunition would have been unimaginable to her.
A reassertion of the primacy of the state over the market is a precondition of any socially tolerable future for Britain. Public utilities ought to be taken into public ownership and cease being instruments for racking up the profits of private companies, often foreign-owned. No mainstream party offers voters that option.
Since the Cameron-Clegg coalition came to power in 2010, a progressivist fusion of economic and social liberalism with technocratic management has come to define the centre ground. William Hague and Tony Blair’s A New National Purpose: Innovation Can Power the Future of Britain, published in February by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, is a manifesto for this consensus. It is not one that has ever reflected the values of the British majority.
Today’s progressivist ideology – a farrago of critical race and gender theories imported from America – is a legitimating formula for a system in which institutions that once protected workers from markets have been dismantled. When social divisions are framed in terms of ethnic and gender identities, class hierarchies can be disregarded. Despairing working-class communities in post-industrial wastelands can be demonised as retrograde and deplorable, while would-be elites overproduced by a bloated higher-education system scramble for a foothold on crumbling career ladders. With class warfare masquerading as social justice, progressivism is the ruling version of bourgeois ideology. Somewhere, Marx’s shade must be laughing.
The abrupt departure of Nicola Sturgeon demonstrates some of the limitations of this ideology. The background of her resignation was the stalled Scottish independence project that defined her political life, together with the SNP’s sub-mediocre record on the economy, healthcare, education and the drugs epidemic. But it was the floundering incoherence of her attempt to defend the highly unpopular gender self-identification bill that spelled her end.
Scottish nationalism is not going to disappear, but it could well become a frozen movement, as in Catalonia and Quebec. In a time of mounting international anarchy, secessionist parties are going to find it difficult to maintain momentum in countries that are otherwise relatively stable. Belonging in the archaic, Habsburg-like realm of “Ukania” (as the late Scottish writer Tom Nairn derisively called the United Kingdom) may prove a safer option, in the eyes of most Scottish voters, than leaping into a geopolitical abyss.
Many have concluded that Labour will be the beneficiary of a Unionist revival. But the SNP could yet steal a march on Labour if a new leader focuses on improving Scottish public services and shelves gender self-ID, which Scottish (and Welsh) Labour have unthinkingly endorsed. If a continuity candidate is chosen to replace Sturgeon, Salmond’s Alba Party may continue to grow.
Whoever emerges as SNP leader, Sturgeon’s downfall puts a question mark over Starmer’s programme. She remained untouchable for so long because her party was the vehicle of a widely supported radical project.
Labour under Starmer can make no such claim. He has crafted Labour’s agenda in pursuit of respectability and safety, but the two objectives do not always coincide. Terrified of anything remotely reminiscent of the Corbyn era, he has ditched the last vestiges of radicalism on the economy. But Corbyn’s economic programme – however flawed – was popular with Labour voters in 2019. At the same time, Starmer has allowed the party to become identified with a gender ideology many voters regard with some misgivings.
He has made clear he will not introduce anything like Sturgeon’s self-ID bill. But his refusal last March to say whether a woman can have a penis (which he clarified in June by noting that “the vast majority” do not) shows him fudging questions voters are bound to ask. If the British majority has a common view on transgender people, it is positive: it takes all sorts to make a world. They may nonetheless find troubling the practice of encouraging children to take irreversible steps in transitioning. As in Scotland, there will also be resistance from many feminists. It was a combination of these forces that finally undid Sturgeon, who was, until her auto-defenestration, a more gifted and formidable politician than Starmer has ever been.
[See also: What is behind the fall of Nicola Sturgeon?]
A meme has it that the Labour leader has revealed himself to be exceptionally ruthless. A truly ruthless leader would take care to conceal their lack of scruples, but let that pass. If Starmer fails to inspire trust among voters – as is plainly the case – it is because he is unable to explain what he believes. His New Statesman essay shows he is aware of the problem, but by evading any clear account of his political past he has only made it worse.
He has denied ever having supported nationalising utilities, a claim that is hard to take seriously, since bringing Royal Mail and parts of the energy and water sectors into public ownership was included in the manifesto he defended in 2019, when Jeremy Corbyn was leader. Rightly, in view of Corbyn’s persistent tolerance of anti-Semitism in the party and inveterate fondness for Britain’s enemies, Starmer has announced that the former leader will not be standing as a Labour candidate at the next election. But how does this square with Starmer’s declaration, made in an interview with Andrew Marr on 20 October 2019, that he was “100 per cent behind Jeremy Corbyn”?
Voters may not insist on consistency in their leaders. They do, however, want some idea of what their leaders will be like in power. In a choice between two technocrats, Sunak may have the edge. He is demonstrating competence in government, whereas Starmer is so far no more than an effective party manager. The result of the next election is far from settled. Whatever the outcome, the two parties are unprepared for the challenges they will face. While Labour is applying for the post of caretaker for the market-liberal ancien régime, the Tories are occupying themselves in vacuous plots around the return of Boris Johnson and squabbles over Sunak’s Northern Ireland deal.
Whether Johnson can finagle another spell as prime minister is highly doubtful. If he continues to attempt a comeback, it will succeed only by defying the wishes of many in his party. His manoeuvres will inevitably be hindered by further allegations of misconduct. As a leadership contender, perhaps as a political figure, the arch chancer is a busted flush.
Sunak’s Northern Ireland deal is the best the Brexit Trojans and the DUP are going to get. It will reduce the frictions that go with leaving the single market. But it is a distraction from the fact that Brexit was stillborn. Giving up frictionless trade within the EU made sense if, and only if, government committed itself to a high-productivity, high-wage economy and fully exploited regulatory freedoms. A more resilient economy might have been fashioned that was better adapted to a deglobalising world. Public ownership of utilities could have been joined with aid to high-tech industries, state intervention with entrepreneurship, and withdrawal from the EU’s agricultural policy with greater food security.
That would have involved hard work and new thinking, a prospect our ruling elites would rather avoid. So the Tories offer the fantasy of “Global Britain”, a buccaneering trader in a global free market that no longer exists, while the rest of the political class dream idly of rejoining the European Union – a course that many voters, however disillusioned, will not support.
The concerns that fuelled Brexit have not gone away. One was a demand for control of national borders. There is widespread disquiet about the government’s failures in dealing with rising numbers of migrants who enter the country by small boats. It is not difficult to envision a backlash against liberal immigration policies – a revival of what progressives would call populism. As in the past, the deciding forces in politics are likely to come from outside the political class.
The fusion of free markets and technocratic management is the fag end of Thatcherism, an experiment which has long since run its course. A breakdown in the delusory consensus will surely come with further unravelling in the post-Cold War global order – a widening of the Ukraine war, another breakdown in the global financial system, or a concatenation of crises whose shape cannot be foreseen. Our feckless rulers may not be interested in reality, but it will not be long before they find reality is interested in them.
[See also: The hollowness of Boris Johnson]
This article appears in the 08 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Why universities are making us stupid