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Power without purpose: how the Tories don’t have a national plan

The Conservatives are dominant but their plans are contradictory, seeking to fuse a shallow tech utopianism with national populism.

 

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Anthony Trollope once remarked about the 19th-century Conservative Party: “No revolution stinks so foully in the nostrils of an English Tory as to be absolutely irreconcilable to him. When taken in the refreshing waters of office any such pill can be swallowed.” Trollope’s point seems prescient. Today’s Tories are revolutionaries – true modernising radicals possessed by faith in technology and intent on governing by permanent insurgency.

Led by a vanguard in No 10, they have declared war on Whitehall, seeking to revolutionise the state machine and turn Britain into a fortress of science parks and tech start-ups. They will boost the fortunes of investors and innovators, while the masses are bought off with a few more Boris buses and police on the beat. And Keynesian state capitalism is the means by which the Tories hope to accelerate their version of modernity.

Yet the Conservatives’ cunning conversion to Keynesian economic activism represents not so much a realignment of British politics as a repositioning of the party. With promises to unchain capital and loosen the public purse strings, the government will prop up an economic model that is failing millions. Toughening immigration controls and their stance on law and order will satisfy demands for greater security, but will do nothing to reverse social fragmentation or address community breakdown.

Going left on the economy and right on identity is hardly the same as initiating a new political settlement. That would require a coherent governing philosophy, but unlike Thatcherism, which drew on 30 years of Hayekian thinking, the government lacks the intellectual resources to bring about a different consensus. Boris Johnson is by instinct an economic and social liberal. His senior aide Dominic Cummings’ data-crunching futurism pursues greater efficiency gains for the greatest number, and so is utilitarian. They have an inkling of what needs to be done but lack the concepts and policy tools to make it happen.

Their strategy of “disruptive centralism” was ruthlessly effective in the 2016 Brexit referendum campaign and the December general election. And they now have a large parliamentary majority and big plans. But their revolutionary reforms will unleash the forces of technology and accelerated capitalism, and so deepen divisions just at the time when the country needs a politics of the common good.

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The general election, we are told, marked a fundamental realignment in British politics. The Conservatives won decisively by uniting the Leave coalition of the Tory shires and the ex-industrial working class with promises of greater spending and “getting Brexit done”. Labour, with its support base of middle-class professionals and students, lost everywhere to everyone. The Tory majority owes much to its new northern voters, whereas Labour’s dwindling strongholds, based in London and the other big cities, could condemn the party to permanent minority status.

In this extraordinary era, the fault-line is no longer between left and right but between liberal and post-liberal. The Tories are apparently post-neoliberal on the economy and post-social liberal on immigration and crime. Labour, meanwhile, still seems wedded to the liberalism of the EU’s capitalist club, based on the single market’s four freedoms in movement of goods, services, money and people. The Conservatives claim to occupy a new post-liberal centre ground that has more support than the old liberal consensus exemplified by the governments of Tony Blair and David Cameron.

But even this new polarity seems inadequate to understand what is really going on. The liberal and the post-liberal camps both have internal divisions, and in any case sometimes act in complex collusion with one another across this divide. Johnson’s victory brings this tension and confusion to the fore.

Tory liberals can be divided between economic libertarians – such as the Ayn Rand-reading Chancellor Sajid Javid, and the Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab – and those who champion a mix of higher public spending and monetary moderation, such as the de facto deputy prime minister Michael Gove and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury Rishi Sunak.

In truth, both factions are united by their belief in deregulation and tax cuts. 

Boris Johnson is, of course, a politician of contradictions. By promising to reduce regional inequality, diverge from EU rules, cut inheritance and income tax for high earners, and slash stamp duty, he embodies the two faces of contemporary conservatism. 

Post-liberal Tories are split between those who are nationalist, authoritarian and anti-liberal on social issues, such as the Home Secretary Priti Patel, and those who promote civic ties and patriotism, like the new MP Danny Kruger, whose recent maiden speech in the Commons was widely shared on social media. But both the anti-liberals and the post-liberals support the new government’s programme of toughening immigration controls by promising to introduce an Australian-style points system. This, they believe, will lead to an increase in high-skilled economic migration.

Post-liberal Tories also agree on bolstering law and order through longer prison sentences, but prisoner rehabilitation and more equal access to justice based on better-funded legal aid are missing from the legislative agenda. Nor is there much thinking about renewing the meaning of citizenship, duties and civic institutions. 

Worse, contemporary Conservatism stretches the definition of paradox – something that looks wrong but turns out to be right. Tories such as the Leader of the House Jacob Rees-Mogg champion an aggressive market liberalism while showing little understanding that it undermines the social conservatism they also purport to defend. As the late conservative philosopher Roger Scruton often reminded the Thatcher and post-Thatcher Tory party, the unfettered market turns everyone and everything into a commodity.

Others, such as the veteran Eurosceptic Iain Duncan Smith, profess to uphold a Christian social justice tradition while replacing compassion for people in need with central state power enacting draconian social control. Duncan Smith was the architect of Universal Credit, a bureaucratic system under which people who care for relatives can miss out on support or lose their benefits altogether. It treats human beings like administrative units whose contribution to community and country is deemed worthless. They get “nothing for something”.

Nor have the Conservatives broken with their creed of the undeserving poor. The National Audit Office showed in 2017 that homelessness of all kinds had risen sharply since austerity began in 2010. According to the charity Shelter, in December of last year over 280,000 people were homeless in England – that is 1 in every 200. 

Most contemporary Tories are not compassionate conservatives or even conservatives. Their One-Nation rhetoric is a cipher for the free-market fundamentalism of regulatory divergence and global trade deals, combined with social regression and culture wars. What looks post-liberal turns out to be a combination of the old and the new right orthodoxies, and so is doubly wrong.

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The new Conservatives are Britain’s only national party, with MPs in all three nations of Great Britain. In Scotland they attracted nearly 700,000 votes in the December election and are the official opposition at Holyrood. Remarkably, the Conservatives led Labour among all social classes at the election (although Labour was much more popular among the student demographic), and their advance was greatest among working-class C2DE voters.

Despite being powerful and ambitious, the government lacks a coherent political platform. Johnson and Cummings use populist means to achieve liberal, utilitarian ends. Regional regeneration for areas hit hard by deindustrialisation and global finance is focused on infrastructure investment for the many: but more Boris buses and new dual carriageways will not make up for the degrading jobs many people do. So far, the government’s economic plan appears uncoordinated and will provide little more than a sticking plaster for the wounds inflicted first by Thatcherism and then by George Osborne’s austerity agenda.

It is wrong to dismiss Johnson’s Conservatives as a rehash of the old Thatcherite vision of the UK as a low-tax, high-finance “Singapore-on-Thames”. The Tories are pursuing a programme more akin to Taiwan-on-Trent; an activist, entrepreneurial state that supports technology-intensive industries and relies on exporting services to compete in the global economy. 

But such a strategy exacerbates the economic insecurity facing many communities. Free-trade deals and a top-down interventionist state will continue to concentrate wealth and power even as a new elite purges the old establishment. It will neither encourage virtuous behaviour among leaders and their followers, nor bring about greater popular participation in our democracy.

The so-called creative destruction brought by high-tech state capitalism and which Cummings favours does not produce a gushing spring of wealth that trickles down every provincial gulley.

Undoubtedly, invoking the “will of the people” against institutions has been popular with many Conservative voters, both old and new. They share Cummings’ belief that civil servants are a self-serving class of bureaucrats whose main motivation is to obstruct bold reform. Calling this populism crypto-fascist is hysterical and misses the Caesarean element – that is, of a political movement with mass support for ideas of which elites disapprove.

But Cummings’ contempt for the civil service also reflects a mindless modernising tendency first popularised by New Labour. The assumption is that public sector organisations always lag behind business and that the state should be more like the market. But this can be characterised as a London-led revolution that hollows out social institutions even as the government pours money into public services. This is what New Labour did and what the Tories promise to do. The HS2 project looks every bit as wasteful of public money as Gordon Brown’s public-private partnerships.

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In the emerging era, the Conservatives are trying to occupy the new centre ground built around the sovereign state, democracy and a novel cross-class coalition. But as before, the spectre haunting the right is capital-ism and its destructive consequences for society. While there is growing popular disillusionment with neoliberal econom-ics, it is far from clear whether the Tories have broken with the cultural logic of market fundamentalism.

Capitalism’s relentless tendency to commodify human beings and nature means that culture is stripped of meaning and purpose. If everything has a market price – if we are all “customers” – then nothing has intrinsic worth and all is subordinate to utilitarian cost-benefit analysis. 

But efficiency and “value for money” are no measure for the public good. While adding artificial intelligence (AI) and algorithms to such calculations, as Cummings advocates, can be beneficial, it also devalues human judgement and creativity. These processes are associated with the most mobile and instant forms of digital technology and their expanded capacities for mass surveillance and continuous spectacle – which controls people through addictive fascination. Cummings shares his preference for creative destruction with the tech oligarchs: “move fast and break things”, as Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg is fond of saying. In this spirit, accelerated capitalism clears the way for technologies that redefine what makes us human. The individual, released from all constraints, can be whatever he wants. 

Yet Cummings’ preoccupation with libertarian anarchy contains within it the seeds of authoritarian control in the name of tech liberation. “We will soon be able to remake human nature itself,” he wrote in one of his book-length blogs – and sovereign nations are unconstrained individuals writ large. This logic is also behind the most potent slogans in our recent political campaigns: “Take Back Control”, “Get Brexit Done” and “Unleash Britain’s Potential”.

The Conservatives’ addiction to technocratic uber-capitalism blinds them in other ways too, not least the threat of China to British sovereignty. Johnson’s decision to let Huawei, the Chinese telecoms giant, provide part of the infrastructure for our 5G network was based on the belief that engagement with Beijing brings benefits for Britain – new technology and inward investment subject to our rules. 

This shallow optimism forgets that the Chinese hybrid of brutal competition and tight state control is fast becoming dominant throughout the world. China’s fusion of a Leninist state with totalitarian technological oversight threatens much more than our national security. It is about technological mastery capable of redefining what we mean by freedom of conscience and free speech. At stake is our historic commitment to the dignity of the person enshrined in liberties, rights and mutual obligations. 

For all its present dominance, it is doubtful whether the Tory party can create a new post-Brexit political and economic consensus. The new government’s rhetoric oscillates between globalism and national populism. Johnson is attempting to fuse a free-trade utopia with a selectively protectionist state. Cummings’ vision combines state-funded uber-capitalism with collective control by a data-driven vanguard. Both pit the power of tech start-ups against the old elites in ways that generate a modern hybrid of populist technocracy. The unresolved contradictions of contemporary Conservatism do not bode well for a renewal of the One Nation tradition.

More mutual arrangements are surely the key to renewal. Local government was obliterated by the Tories twice, first when Margaret Thatcher took power away and then when Osborne’s austerity removed resources.  While the Conservatives privilege metro mayors, it is time to devolve more power and resources to towns and small cities in rural and coastal areas by connecting political institutions to cultural attachment.

A popular majority are looking for a combination that is not as yet on offer from either of the two main parties. This is a vision of national renewal that marries a bold transformation of capitalism with greater participation in power for most people. It involves greater economic equality coupled with moderate social policies that are family-friendly and link a respect for cultural inheritance to a sense of belonging and place. As a politics based on a particular conception of the person as both free and attached, it is about what sort of people the British now want to be in this post-Brexit era.

Adrian Pabst is head of the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent and a New Statesman contributing writer. He is the author of Liberal World Order and Its Critics (Routledge). Follow him on Twitter: @AdrianPabst1​.

This article appears in the 14 February 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Power without purpose