Thursday, 19 September 2019

Johnson and Cameron: A Tale of Two Extremes

We are, we are told, suffering under the yoke of one of the most right-wing governments Britain has ever had. Before coming to power, Boris Johnson chewed over tactics with white supremacist Steve Bannon. Upon achieving it, he has suspended Parliament, appointed a Home Secretary who has registered her support for capital punishment and wants criminals to “literally feel terror” and dog-whistled to racists, the far right and empire nostalgists that he is on their side.

Indeed, the person who first came up with the idea of proroguing Parliament is a former Conservative special adviser, now Brexit party supporter, who convinced himself that ex-PM David Cameron was leading a “homesexualist movement” and infecting Britain with ‘cultural Marxism’ lifted straight out of the Frankfurt School.

So it’s plausible – for those of us who inhabit Planet Earth – to believe that Britain is now led by a hard right nationalist party that has brutally severed its ties (by expelling 22 MPs for example) with the saner, moderate, liberal conservatism that preceded it. Plausible, indeed believed in by many people, but not correct.

In fact, we are confronted by two extremes – undoubtedly different in certain ways – but united by a dogmatic, ideological conviction that the damage they inflict is justified and necessary.

It’s hard for people not of the Conservative persuasion – and not under the age of 60 – to understand how David Cameron upset traditional conservatives. Commitments to equal marriage, to disowning Section 28 and to prioritising more female and ethnic minority candidates, which appeared to successfully‘detoxify’ the Conservative brand, were anathema to many Conservative members who think wearing ties should be de rigueur and that Christianity should lie at the heart of public policy. Such people are economically Thatcherite but culturally traditionalist, which might appear contradictory, although not to them. They are also invariably anti-EU. Cameron was tolerated while he won elections and referendums, which all came to juddering halt in June 2016.

But all the while, and despite protestations from esteemed academics that he was a one-nation Conservative at heart, Cameron deepened Thatcherism. Austerity took public sector cuts to places Thatcher could only dream about, privatisation was driven as far as it could go and the NHS was starved of funding like never before while being opened up to the private sector. Anti-trade union laws were extended, while protection against unfair dismissal was diluted. And for the poor and disabled, Cameroonian Conservatism made the Thatcher era look positively compassionate by comparison. The Con/Lib Dem coalition government – followed by a year of ‘pure’ brand Cameron – left a trail of ruined lives, deaths, suicides, destitution, homelessness even self-immolation.

This was, by any fair assessment, an extreme and intensely ideological government but its leading lights presented themselves as centrists, modernisers and “liberal internationalists”. That they were taken seriously by large swathes of the media can be explained in part by the fact that their amplifiers had no personal experience of the depredations the Tories and Lib Dems inflicted. Those that did – though they number in the millions – were largely silent in public debate. Hence, Brexit, which was rooted in deprived areas hardest hit by austerity, appeared to many commentators to come out of the wild blue.

This political mind-set has been described, by Tariq Ali for example, as emanating from the ‘extreme or far centre’. Its manifestation certainly wasn’t limited to Britain. The EU imposed savage austerity on countries such as Ireland, Portugal, Greece and Italy and in order to get its way was quite prepared to overthrow governments and override the will of national Parliaments – in fact proroguing the House of Commons seems almost quaint by comparison. But neither this, nor the pursuing of secretive trade deals with the United States, has dented its reputation as a bastion of enlightened liberalism surrounded by populist sharks.

In Britain, the transition from David Cameron to Boris Johnson – in which the failures of the first flow inexorably into the predominance of the second – reveals several things. One is that the liberal conservatism Johnson is determined to expunge from the Tory party is very selective in the principles it is willing to stand up for. It is pro-EU and against overt bigotry. But, as shown by the voting records of Tory dissidents such as Dominic Grieve and Anna Soubry, strangely unmoved by the social callousness of the Cameron-Lib Dem government. Hence, contemporary liberal conservatism should not be mistaken for a rebirth of the Tory Wets of the 1980s. They – Ian Gilmour for example – would have been outraged, primarily, by Cameron’s inherently Thatcherite approach to social and economic policy and the human damage it inflicted. Unfortunately, they no longer exist.

Another is the strange sight of strict austerians reneging on their previous iron commitments to reducing public spending and controlling the deficit, obsessions which have defined politics for the past eight years. The chancellor, Sajid Javid, noted The Economist, “is a fan of Ayn Rand and hangs pictures of Margaret Thatcher his office. Yet on Mr Johnson’s instructions he announced an extra £13.8bn in election-friendly giveaways, paid for with extra borrowing.”

However, as highlighted by this blog last year, such flexibility is simply what happens when the Right realises that patience with austerity is at breaking point and the consequences of persevering with it are worse than performing an intellectual volte-face.

Undoubtedly Britain now has a ‘hard Right’ government under Boris Johnson. But it has already experienced one for the past eight years, although one whose sheen was that of modernising conservatism. Now some of the elite are getting a taste of the ruthlessness that Cameron routinely meted out to ordinary citizens. But don’t worry too much – they won’t starve.