The UK once had a reputation for responsible government and politicians, including the Tory Party and how it acted in office. But this now seems a faraway world that is almost unimaginable and unreachable given the present-day mess. The Tory Party has become a degenerative political force prepared to say anything and insult our intelligences, with the sole aim of continuing the self-preservation society for itself and its insider class friends.
A Tory MP who remained in parliament under Tory administrations for the past 12 years would have gone through many mantras and phases. They would have been for 'vote blue, get green' and 'compassionate conservatism'; then they would have been for austerity and the Cameron-Osborne plan to shrink the state back to the size it was in the 1930s; then Theresa May came to office and they would have been for fighting 'burning injustices', followed by under Boris Johnson 'getting Brexit done' and 'levelling up'; whereas today under Liz Truss they are for widening inequality and being very relaxed about the uber-rich getting much richer.
Toryism has always made great play of its super adaptability and travelling light, so it can shed its political coats and reinvent itself, supposedly renewing itself and outsmarting its more leaden-footed opponents. But this is ridiculous and an insult to the intelligence of voters. The Tories stand for nothing but power – irrespective of the harm their actions do to millions of voters.
One small point as Liz Truss embraces trickle-down economics: her lack of mandate. It is not just that only 81,326 Tory members voted for her, representing 47.2% of Tory members. It is the salient point of the 2019 Tory manifesto that this current government was elected upon. The Tories do not have a mandate for what they are embarking upon. The last two Tory manifestos – 2017 and 2019 – both called time on the delusions of neoliberalism – 2017 written and inspired by Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, May's two co-chiefs of staff – but you won't be reminded of that in the ever loyal Daily Mail
and Daily Express
Tory governments have had a tendency to see the British constitution as their own personal property and believe that they can take more economic risks than Labour because markets will let them away with it. Thus there is a pattern of Tory shock economics.
In 1963, Reginald Maudling went broke for growth as the UK began to worry about relative decline. When the Tories lost to Labour the following October, he left a note for his incoming Labour replacement Jim Callaghan, that read: 'Good luck, old cock… Sorry to leave it in such a mess'. In the strange world of UK politics, with its right-wing tilt, this note has not passed into history, whereas Liam Byrne's note in the Treasury in 2010 to his Tory successors: 'I'm afraid to tell you there's no money left' has been used again and again by the Tories to summarise New Labour.
In 1972, Tony Barber went bust for growth with the biggest state intervention in post-war Britain and stoked hyperinflation. Twenty years later, in September 1992, Norman Lamont and John Major on 'Black Wednesday' were forced to preside over the pound leaving the ERM and the humiliation of devaluation. Now, in September 2022, Kwasi Kwarteng and Liz Truss are presiding over £45bn in unfunded tax cuts, putting £72bn extra on government debt, as the pound tanks and government debt costs exceed those of Italy and Greece.
There is a discernible pattern in the crises above. All of them come at the end of a period of Tory dominance, or towards the fag end of a flailing Tory administration. In the first three – 1963, 1972, 1992 – they prepared the political weather for the eventual eviction of that government and the coming to office of Labour. It is too early to judge whether the fourth and latest will conform to this pattern but the mood has turned dramatically against the Tories.
The current state of the Tory Government a mere three weeks into Truss being in Downing Street is a sorry sight. There is a pattern of PM-Chancellor relations going wrong: Thatcher-Lawson, Blair-Brown, Johnson-Sunak, but normally it takes years of attrition and manoeuvring to wear down the bonds of trust. Truss and Kwarteng have managed to get there in under three weeks. Already talk in Tory tea rooms is that one of them will have to go, and that may more likely be Kwarteng so that Truss can cling on a little longer.
The underlying thread of post-war UK economic crises is the long-term relative decline of the UK economy. This we are regularly reminded is 'the sixth richest economy in the world' but that only matters to Tories when they want it to. The UK cannot, they claim at the same time, afford a decent welfare state for those of working age. And the only way for the UK internationally is down. The UK was not so long ago until the mid-1960s the second largest economy in the world, only behind the USA, and ahead of Japan and Germany, so the trajectory is now fairly well established.
The story of post-war Britain pre-Thatcherism was of UK Governments trying to manage this decline and break out of its root causes. Thus, the Macmillan Government of which Reggie Maudling was Chancellor, Harold Wilson in the 1960s with the National Plan, and Ted Heath with Tony Barber and their search for corporatism, were all engaged in attempting to modernise the structures of British capitalism, business and the economy.
They were all trying to shift the modus operandi of capitalism from short-term, speculative, shareholder-focused culture to one more long-term based on research and development, innovation and investment. This could only ever be done by changing corporate governance, the shadow of the City of London and finance capitalism which 'crowded out' real business, and fostering a radically different state.
The first two involved having to challenge corporate and business vested interests and make law in an area they saw as a no-go area to government. Hence none of these initiatives delivered, ending in national exhortations to work and export more. Bruce Forsyth even sang a song in the 1960s, I'm Backing Britain
, inviting workers to work longer for no extra pay. It was the initial inspiration behind Paul McCartney's Back in the USSR
as a satirical response.
The cumulative result of these failures has cost the UK dearly. There is a direct relationship between the failures of Macmillan, Wilson and Heath, and the rise of Margaret Thatcher and Thatcherism. Rather than confront some of the above core causes, Thatcher embraced short-termist, speculative finance capitalism and, instead of reforming, let it rip throughout economy and society. There were gainers from this and Tory apologists to this day hail the 'Thatcher economic miracle' of the 1980s, but there was no such thing. Economic growth was lower than the 1970s and what occurred was due to privatisation, North Sea oil and the massive increase in household debt. And yet Thatcherism's mirage, aided by her cheerleaders in the press, was bought hook, line and sinker by Blair, Brown and New Labour.
The long descent of the Tory Party and UK Government is a sad, bitter tale, but one impossible to fully grasp without the backstory of the failed attempts at reform in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, and the myopic fantasy land of smoke and mirrors of Thatcherism which the Tory Party, much of the media and political classes are still beholden to and believe can be recreated again.
The Truss-Kwarteng ideological experiment is but the latest articulation of how hard right-wing opinion (informed by secretly funded think tanks like the Institute of Economic Affairs and Centre for Policy Studies) see the world. They have a natural aversion to government and see comprehensive public services as 'socialism'. They do not believe society, government and citizens have a bond and agreement – in effect a social contract – which means that there are greater interests than that of the individual and that we all have obligations to each other.
The Truss-Kwarteng project will end in tears and humiliation for them and the Tories, but at what cost to the country? And when, if ever, will the Tory Party return to sanity? The 'One Nation' Conservative tradition has long been dissipated and the vandals and hooligans that are the ideological right are now powerfully ensconced in the party. Only a humiliating election defeat can bring them back to their senses such as 1997, but even then, in the words of Theresa May, 'the nasty party' could not be killed off and has returned with a vengeance.
Can Labour supply the deadly blow for all of us, as they did in 1997? Labour have established an impressive lead for now, the party has a bit of swagger, and Keir Starmer is looking more confident by the day. But Labour needs to win 124 seats to have the barest of majorities and the party has only managed that twice in the post-war era: 1945 and 1997.
The bigger issue than electoral arithmetic is the ballast of ideas, energy and intellect behind Labour. Where are the big ideas and plans to remake a broken economy and politics, to challenge an unsustainable capitalism, heal a divided country, and chart a new course? There are some decent ideas and policies, but they are too few, too timid and not up to the scale of the challenge for now.
Can Labour put together an inclusive popular alliance to break the self-interested broken British capitalism, society and politics? And do so in a manner Attlee, Wilson and Blair, for all their talents, failed to do, dismantling 'the conservative nation' of privilege and debasement of the public good? It is, to put it mildly, a tough challenge.
If they are to have any chance, the Tory story of post-war Britain has to be challenged and a different account put forward and gain traction. We have to understand the reasons for the failures of Macmillan, Wilson and Heath. We have to recognise the mirage that was Thatcherism which still holds Tories spellbound and won over New Labour. We need to have a grasp of political economy and the structural shortcomings of British capitalism and offer pathways to a different economy and society.
That is an ambitious project. It would take a generation, huge political will and intellectual force. The alternative is even more grim: a UK caught in a death spiral of decline, run in the interests of an arrogant, self-regarding, shameless class of bloviators, speculators and chancers. And a polity that would surely be reduced to a rump England perhaps with an unhappy Wales still in tow.