As Britain attempts to normalise from the pandemic, the country’s politics is settling into familiar grooves. The hardline Home Secretary Priti Patel has announced measures to offshore the asylum system, while Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, a former Scots Guard and aerospace contractor, celebrated the first British and American sorties to launch from the decks of the nation’s new aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, against scattered ISIS militants in Iraq and Syria – a return to maritime strike operations for the Royal Navy after a ten-year hiatus, Gaddafi’s Libya its last target.
The Labour leader Keir Starmer, who voted against RAF airstrikes in Syria in 2015 because he wanted a ground invasion to accompany them (‘I am not against airstrikes per se’), has been bolstered by a narrow byelection hold in Batley and Spen in West Yorkshire. ‘Labour is coming home’, he declared. The party appears to have benefited from a late shift in opinion in Conservative-leaning mill villages after news of a ministerial tryst at the Department of Health brought charges of Tory hypocrisy over social-distancing regulations.
Whether society is as pacified as the current Westminster scene would suggest, beyond party-political disagreements over the schedule for final lockdown easing, is another question. The Conservatives lost the safe Home Counties seat of Chesham and Amersham on 17 June on a huge swing to the Liberal Democrats, having earlier taken Hartlepool from Labour by a similar magnitude. But see-saw byelection results aren’t necessarily destabilising in the aggregate.
‘Are provincial gains for the long-term? Probably. Can the party hold on to at least most of the affluent South? Definitely’, argues James Frayne, an associate of the Prime Minister’s former advisor Dominic Cummings, writing in the Telegraph. He urges Johnson to hold his nerve and persist with the Vote Leave-derived electoral pivot to working-class voters in the Midlands and the North, although they should dial down the rhetoric – ‘provincial voters doubt “levelling up” could ever happen; affluent Southern voters think they will be fleeced to pay for revolution’.
In The Times, columnist Rachel Sylvester describes a Cabinet tussle between levellers-up and libertarians, the latter identified by their co-sponsorship of a Cameron-era neo-Thatcherite screed, Britannia Unchained (2012), which among other things had urged the Party to ‘stop indulging in irrelevant debates about sharing the pie between manufacturing and services, the North and the South, women and men’. Backbench MPs at the time, they have since risen through the ranks: Patel at the Home Office, Dominic Raab at the Foreign Office, Liz Truss at the Board of Trade, Kwasi Kwarteng at the Department for Business.
To complicate matters, Truss is singled out for criticism by Robert Shrimsley in the Financial Times as one of the ministers seeking to wrest control of competition decisions and trade disputes from the arms-length regulators to which they were hitherto entrusted. Shrimsley decries ‘a new creed of unchained Tory interventionism’ spreading out from Number 10 and he urges more orthodox ministers – presumably, Chancellor Rishi Sunak and the new Health Secretary Sajid Javid, both former investment bankers – to reassert the importance of parameters and self-discipline.
How much Conservative dirigisme will outlast the pandemic emergency? It’s true that Brexit has given ministers a sense of greater latitude on regulation and policy. They have ‘lost the excuse that EU rules prevent action’, Shrimsley despairs. (Two of Thatcher’s chancellors, Nigel Lawson and John Major, had supported the idea of shadowing the deutschmark through the European Exchange Rate Mechanism precisely in search of what the Italians used to call a vincolo esterno). At the same time, however, with Cummings departed from Downing Street, Johnson is the only ‘leveller-up’ that Sylvester can locate on the premises, and it’s often overlooked how much ordinary Thatcherism there is in the Prime Minister’s belief system.
While trailing in the polls last autumn, Johnson generated headlines with a conference speech over Zoom conjuring a New Jerusalem on England’s Covid-splattered shores, invoking the spirit of Second World War state-welfare reformism. But as he made clear to the Party faithful, this time around it would be powered by free enterprise. A subsequent ‘Plan for Growth’ published with the March Budget was a damp squib, retailing discretionary competitive funding pots for infrastructure and skills projects to turn local areas into ‘hives of entrepreneurialism’. A £4.8bn Levelling Up Fund, already in operation, has been converted into a useful pork barrel to divert funds into Tory constituencies. Local authorities are left asking Whitehall for favours, a former official within the Northern Powerhouse unit complains to the FT.
Over at Business, Kwarteng, a former JP Morgan analyst, has scrapped Theresa May’s Industrial Strategy Council and published a Subsidy Control Bill expressly prohibiting subventions that require enterprises to relocate their activities from one part of the UK to another, as post-war regional policy used to do. The Economist observes that measures to boost advanced sectors such as life sciences are likelier to increase regional disparities than to ease them, since ‘turning Britain into a scientific superpower, for example, would be best done by focusing development on the already crowded and wealthy golden triangle of London, Oxford and Cambridge’.
In the real economy, meanwhile – that is, the part of the economy that really matters – Sunak has published the outlines of a new rulebook for financial services, easing the Mifid II regulations inherited from Brussels in order to attract share trading and listings, and to retool the City’s competitive advantage after the loss of EU passporting rights. At the Bank of England, Governor Andrew Bailey tells a parliamentary committee that there are no ‘natural limits’ to a programme of quantitative easing now in its twelfth year and running close to £1 trillion. Indeed he is ‘not in a position at all to promise’ that it can be unwound to any degree.
According to the British Social Attitudes Survey two-thirds of people in both England and Scotland say that the current income distribution – further skewed by the QE stimulus to asset prices – is unfair, and that society needs to change. How to ease neoliberalism’s continued passage against this amount of passive resistance?
Well in advance of the pandemic, the National Health Service had become ideologically amplified in the national culture as a social-democratic companion to a revived monarchy and Army – fixtures of public life untainted by popular animus towards Westminster. Charities supporting veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq were doing a roaring trade until the pandemic disrupted the flow of street donations. Last week, the Palace awarded the NHS the George Cross, home-front counterpart to the Victoria Cross historically awarded to the gallants of colonial conquest. The NHS is the first collective subject to be so garlanded since the viciously sectarian Royal Ulster Constabulary for its service in the Troubles.
Clap for Carers, Help for Heroes, QE for asset holders. It didn’t need a football tournament to keep this long-running show on the road for a while yet.
Read on: Anthony Barnett, ‘Iron Britannia’, NLR I/134.