Rethinking Europe

UK: Tory Men and Labour Measures

How the cooptation of the pre-Corbyn Labour Party’s agenda is designed to keep Boris Johnson and the Tories in power for a long period.

Credit: BackBoris2012 Campaign Team www.flickr.com

Takeaways


  • Due to the #coronavirus, the UK’s Maggie Thatcher-inspired, 40-year run of de-regulation, privatization and public sector disinvestment has come to a crushing end.
  • Because of the present big troubles at Britain’s #NHS, Boris Johnson and the Tories are very eager for their past #austerity to be forgotten ASAP.
  • People falsely assume the Tories to be ideologically rigid and wedded to financial capitalism. The party’s history shows its flexibility. Gaining power and staying in power reigns supreme.
  • #BorisJohnson pledged to raise public spending in northern England. That working-class region was for a long time a very solid #LabourParty voter base. No more.
  • The new Labour leader #KeirStarmer faces a Tory Party delivering Labour-type policies. Labour’s usual anti-Thatcherite refrain – calling for better job protections and decent public services – is now ringing quite hollow.
  • What is #UKLabour to do when on many policy issues #BorisJohnson and the #Tories can simply say: “That’s my policy, that’s what Tories are doing.”

The new conventional wisdom in Britain is that the massive government intervention and spending to combat coronavirus heralds a shift to a socialist-style management of the state, society and the economy.

As Jeremy Corbyn, the failed leader of the Labour Party, sees it in an interview with the BBC:

I was denounced as somebody that wanted to spend more money than we could possibly afford, in order to right the social wrongs of this country. I didn’t think that it would take only three months for me to be proved absolutely right by the amount of money that government is now prepared to put in to deal with the coronavirus crisis.

How the coronavirus killed Thatcherism

Corbyn’s lament is half true. Boris Johnson’s Tory government has recently torn up 40 years of Margaret Thatcher era monetary discipline and fiscal prudence.

She had famously said that she learned from her shopkeeper father never to borrow or spend money you had not earned.

And so it was that, after 1979, Mrs. Thatcher set about dismantling the social welfare mixed economy state put in place in Britain after 1945. Ronald Reagan soon followed her drumbeat in the United States.

The UK’s 40-year run of de-regulated, privatized, globalized economic practice between 1980 and 2020 is coming to an end under the impact of coronavirus.

The Tories have, at long last, toppled their overpowering icon, the lady with the handbag who wants her money back (from others, preferably abroad).

Besting Corbyn, after busting him

Helping workers to be protected at such a moment of economic calamity as the present one with direct payments or bans on being fired is certainly well-established continental European practice.

But in the Tory annals of British capitalism, the Johnson government’s recent moves in that same direction most definitely represent a sacrilegious act. Not long ago, such policy proposals would have been deemed high treason in the Tory camp.

But now, every public service in the UK – social care, the police, schools, above all hospitals – finds that they are having money thrown at them in the common effort to defeat the scourge.

Boris Johnson and his Tories are obviously most eager for their constant budget cuts — which are the cause of the present trouble at the NHS — to be forgotten as soon as possible. No wonder Jeremy Corbyn is so perplexed.

No Manchester capitalists

But what really explains this departure not just from Thatcherism, but from over 300 years of Tory economic policy? (FYI: The name Conservative was only adopted in the middle of the 19th century).

All along, the party has been the ardent representative party first of landed interests. Then, as farming faded and industrial production rose, the Tories became the party of manufacturing.

And, of course, the Tories have always been the party of the City (=London’s financial district). Their enthusiasm for maximizing personal and national wealth through ever changing financial instruments traded across the globe had a clear utilitarian purpose: Filling the party’s campaign coffers.

Yes, the Tories prefer the rich, and the middle classes to the poor and the workers. But, to guard against false legends, they are no Manchester Liberals who disdain the lower classes.

Until Thatcher’s time, the Tories have generally been worker-friendly in order to stave off any revolution and to win votes.

The faint memory of the Tories’ social heart

In 1919, King George V, representing the Tory terror of the Bolshevik Revolution, told Parliament:

We must stop at no sacrifice of interest or prejudice, to stamp out unmerited poverty, to diminish unemployment, to provide decent homes, to improve the nation’s health and to raise well-being throughout the community.

After the 1929 crash the Tories left the Gold Standard, invested in social housing and health care and legislated for paid holidays for the first time.

Similarly in the 1950s, the Tories gave up most British colonies, built 300,000 homes a year and reinforced Britain publicly financed health care system paid for by very high tax rates. It won them three consecutive elections.

Tories now focused on ruling England’s northern lands forever

Now, Boris Johnson has made his move. Even before the coronavirus arrived, the UK’s prime minister had pledged to raise public spending, based on borrowing and deficits, in northern England.

That working-class region was for a long time a very solid Labour Party voter base. No more. To solidify that political re-alignment, Johnson’s Tories are ready to invest heavily in the region to renew transport, housing and health care.

Johnson also boosted the minimum wage and has said no furloughed worker will lose out because of coronavirus shutdowns by private firms.

Invading Labour’s turf

Johnson’s moves make it that much harder for Sir Keir Starmer, the new Labour leader, to rake in voters.

Labour’s usual anti-Thatcherite refrain – to call for better job protections, a home and/or decent public services – is ringing more hollow. Boris Johnson can simply say: “That’s my policy, that’s what Tories are doing.”

The Tories’ historical march

In showing ideological flexibility, the Tories are continuing their historical march. Looking back, they were the first ones to go into and then the first to go out of agricultural and then industrial capitalism.

They were first into European imperialism but got out of that messy game when it stopped delivering.

The Tories were also first to embrace rentier capitalism and the overall financialization of the UK economy after 1980. But this too can be put in the trash can, since it really doesn’t deliver any voters.

Two conclusions

Unlike the UK’s Labour Party, Britain’s Tories focus on winning and keeping power. Also unlike Labour, what is done with power in substantive terms is secondary.

For that reason, Labour, even after it has gotten rid of the unelectable Corbyn, may be in opposition longer than they think.

That also applies to the newly elevated Keir Starmer. Impressive and measured a politician though the new Labour leader is, he may find that a Tory Party delivering Labour-type policies will be hard to dislodge.

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About Denis MacShane

Denis MacShane is a Contributing Editor at The Globalist. He was the UK's Minister for Europe from 2002 to 2005 — and is the author of “Brexiternity. The Uncertain Fate of Britain” published by IB Tauris-Bloomsbury, London, October 2019. Follow him @DenisMacShane

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