What makes British politics today stand out in the world? Not, in fact, the ongoing Conservative Party psychodrama; Tory agonies over Boris Johnson’s future as party leader are not in themselves internationally unique. Nor are the years of grinding Brexit disputes the most notable trait. No, to view Britain from the outside is to be struck most by the apparent lack of almost any substantive debate on – or governing agenda for – the country’s long-term future.
Think back. Margaret Thatcher’s mission in power comprised monetarism, privatisation, foreign-policy Atlanticism and the goal of a “property-owning democracy”. Later, New Labour’s project could be summed up as: using tax receipts from a deregulated economy to fund public services; social liberalisation with a hard edge on security; and Britain as a bridge between the US and the EU. David Cameron’s so-called Big Society, a push for more civic engagement, came to little, but even his governments had elements of steely substance. George Osborne as chancellor imposed ideological spending cuts and promoted regional devolution, while Michael Gove as education secretary rolled out academies and free schools. One does not have to agree with such visions for the country to recognise them as such.
Even the tumultuous mid-2010s brought streaks of big thinking. There was Ed Miliband’s admittedly over-cautious flirtation with Scandinavian-style “pre-distribution”. Then there was Nigel Farage’s neo-Powellite vision of a Britain alone, as well as the libertarian Brexitism of the likes of Dominic Cummings and the alt-left ideas in the ether around Jeremy Corbyn – not to overlook the “Red Tory” bid to revive Joseph Chamberlain’s brand of statist reformism, as trailed by Theresa May’s team in the early stages of her premiership.
A shift came in the latter part of 2016, and then 2017. Neither May nor Corbyn turned out to be very interested in ideas. Then began the Brexit negotiations and the associated parliamentary drama. Political brains that might once have concentrated on Britain’s political economy, the architecture of its state or its place in the world had to dwell instead on the minutiae of the talks and votes.
[See also: The Tories’ fatal attraction to Boris Johnson]
But it was Boris Johnson’s rise to power that marked the definitive deoxygenation of British politics. Not only is the man who swept to victory at the 2019 election almost entirely free of any conviction, but he lacks moral orientation too. He is an empty vessel, clueless about what he wants to do in power. He has governed accordingly.
Loyalists might plea that the pandemic has obstructed governmental ambition. But look across to the governments of other big economies in 2022, such as the administrations under Joe Biden, Emmanuel Macron, Olaf Scholz and Mario Draghi. You may not agree with the leaders of the US, France, Germany and Italy, but they all govern with something resembling a political project and a sense of where they want their countries to be in five or ten years. Johnson by contrast offers nothing of the sort, nor does he show any inclination to do so following his narrow brush with political mortality on 6 June.
A levelling-up agenda worthy of the name would have been serious about devolving power, creating a federal structure for Britain, and overhauling tax, infrastructure and public services – policies rooted in how the country’s political economy needs to evolve. Yet in Johnson’s hands the term means mere photo opportunities and fluff. It is the flimsy flagship of a fleet of policy vacuity, drifting on the currents of politico-media mood and prime ministerial whim: hyped initiatives that barely outlive their news cycles; cynically divisive culture-war interventions; and non-starters such as the ugly Rwanda refugee policy, the restoration of imperial measurements, and a new royal yacht.
Meanwhile, media coverage of politics is beset with the attendant soap operas, and never more so than over the past six months of partygate. The morally outrageous breaking of lockdown rules, of course, deserves the attention it has received. At the same time, it is yet another example of how the Johnson circus ends up consuming everything, sucking the air out of any sort of constructive debate. And where a dynamic opposition might be filling that vacuum, today’s Labour does not yet seem to be fizzing with bold ideas. What does Keir Starmer want for Britain in 2030 that is more specific than his party’s slogan “security, prosperity and respect”?
Amid the all-consuming, all-distracting Westminster drama it is tempting to compare Johnson to Donald Trump. Yet a better comparison is Silvio Berlusconi. Over his four terms as Italy’s prime minister, “the Cavalier” substituted boosterish posturing for action. The country largely stagnated (apart from its democracy, which went backwards) while the world moved forward; with a backlog of problems growing but ignored, norms decaying, and attentions turned inwards to the constant stream of swaggering chaos and lurid palace intrigue. That, much more than Trumpian fire and fury, is what awaits Britain if Johnson clings on, or if his successor remains stuck in the same furrow, or if Labour does not forge a more compelling story.
Democratic politics needs ideas – preferably good ones, but bad ones too can help get the pistons of thesis and antithesis firing, the national engine spluttering into life and the country’s wheels starting to turn. If not, those wheels grind to a halt. And the longer they stand still, the harder it is to restart them.
This article appears in the 08 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Marked Man