Future historians will reflect on the events of this week as an extraordinary snapshot of the present moment. Today Boris Johnson has been elected leader of the Conservative party, by tomorrow he will be Britain’s prime minister. On Thursday London expects to see temperatures above 35°C, as the country’s public conversation – through sheer observation – comes to accept the reality of climate change. In the Persian Gulf, meanwhile, a regional cold war continues to turn hot, with members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard interrogating crew members of the UK oil tanker Stena Impero. The rise of the extreme right, climate systems breakdown, the slow ebb of American hegemony, Britain’s inability to navigate a multilateral world. Days which crystallise the stories set to define the coming century.
The common thread to all of this, from a warming planet to a domestic crisis of political legitimacy, is the collapse of neoliberalism. Because the establishment contests the term even means anything, I’ll translate. Neoliberalism is the idea that public policy should, wherever possible, maximise revenues for private interests. Furthermore, it is a worldview which dictates there is almost no area where the market doesn’t outperform the state. Britain, a great power until a few years ago, is presently being cannibalised by this very sensibility – one it embraced before almost any other country. When Iran reverse-engineered the world’s fastest speedboats, Britain’s job creation was in low-paid services and outsourcing; while China built a network of high speed rail, Britain made its industry less productive and its workers poorer. Binding all this together was a religious zeal which repeated the mantra: state bad, market good. People even studied PPE at Oxford to say it with authority.
When Margaret Thatcher became leader of her party in 1975, few grasped the extent to which she would remake the Conservative party, let alone the global order. Yet the project she oversaw, the rapid recasting of Britain’s economy in the interests of business and asset-owners, was radical rather than conservative. In truth, it wouldn’t be until the mid-1980s that she became a colossus within her own ranks – the ‘wets’ decisively sidelined, her revolution triumphant.
That a single individual came to exercise such extraordinary dominance over a national party would sow the seeds of its destruction, however. Before the Iron Lady, the Conservatives had a perennial knack for reinvention: it was the Tories who expanded the franchise in the 1860s and embraced the post-war consensus with remarkable speed and alacrity. Yet the impact she had, and the values she put centre stage, meant this would never happen again. The ascent of Boris Johnson, possibly the most vacuous persona in British political history, is the logical conclusion of ‘greed is good’. In a world bereft of any purpose higher than making money, public service becomes a plaything for public school boys.
There are remnants of the party that preceded Thatcher, but they are scant. You glimpse it in the befuddled prudence of Michael Heseltine and Kenneth Clark. You observe how Norman Lamont’s interventions on the Iran crisis – he heads the British-Iranian chamber of commerce – couldn’t be more at odds with the bile of the tabloids and the invective of his colleagues. Yesterday he spoke of the need for Britain to change path, and that “armed escorts are not going to solve the situation [in Iran]”. Compare that to the jingoism of Johnson, who thinks Britain’s best bet in the Strait of Hormuz is a hybrid of 300 and Flashman in Persia.
But while the old party teeters on oblivion, it will have one final hurrah in trying to dethrone the new king. It is this which stimulated the resignations of Phillip Hammond and Alan Duncan, the latter involved in a failed attempt to no-confidence Johnson before he goes to Buckingham Palace. The truth is, however, the Conservatives are not their party anymore – the cowardice of people like Amber Rudd, who said this week that her colleagues had to back Johnson or face a Corbyn premiership by Christmas, made sure of that.
For several decades Tory hegemony rested on a coalition that bound the mob, the City of London and the older patrician elite. For journalist Paul Mason, it is this alliance of the elite and the mob which denotes the rise of fascism – and yet it was precisely such a coalition which guided Thatcher to successive triumphs. In 1979 the National Front failed to make an anticipated breakthrough as the nativist rhetoric of the new Conservative prime minister swallowed their vote. Take this: “People are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture […] So, if you want good race relations, you have got to allay peoples’ fears on numbers. Now, the key to this [is] […] we must hold out the clear prospect of an end to immigration”. That wasn’t Donald Trump last week or Marine Le Pen last year – it was Thatcher in 1978. With the exception of asylum cases, the then leader of the opposition was clear: she wanted zero immigration. Indeed in the same interview she considered 25-50,000 a year an outlandishly high figure for annual newcomers, an absurdly naive conclusion today.
Thatcher was the most successful politician in Britain’s modern history because she was an alloy of militarism, jingoist nationalism, finance capital and home ownership. It was an exceptional mix and one that Tony Blair managed to successfully mimic – albeit with some progressive tweaks. The major difference? Thatcher’s triumph was so utterly complete that her party remained incapable of reinvention, something which Labour has accomplished under Jeremy Corbyn. What’s more, the Tories can’t repeat her recipe because there is no North Sea oil, no state assets to privatise and no social housing stock to sell.
Which partly explains why the possibility of such an alliance of interests is coming undone, with Brexit an incision between critical parts of the Tory’s electoral base. The Conservatives must decide whether they are the party of British capitalism or the political home of people, primarily older men, who believe they fought at Dunkirk. They cannot be both.
It is precisely this part of the electorate which has become drawn to the Brexit party, whose emergence catalysed the collapse in Tory polling earlier this year. Johnson’s hope, indeed his political offer to colleagues, is that by nullifying the popular energies of Nigel Farage’s latest vehicle he can keep that coalition of little England and international finance together. My view is this is almost certainly impossible. The only thing that will bind the Tories together is the prospect of a Corbyn government.
The rhetoric of Donald Trump may often be indecipherable, but his political project is crystal clear: American nationalism at home and outlandish exceptionalism abroad; protectionism for the US economy and a disdain for international institutions. This is why similarities between Trump and Johnson end when it comes to political economy. In any trade deal between the two nations, it is clear the US president views one side as predator and the other as prey. The Tories, meanwhile, seemingly believe their idiotic platitudes of a ‘global, trading Britain’ without really knowing what it means. It appears that capitalist realism so utterly consumed the British establishment they now can’t see a way past it.
It is in this respect that Johnson, more than Trump, reflects the perfect expression of neoliberalism in collapse. There is no real agenda beyond self-promotion, no vision of the future beyond an affective imperative to ‘be optimistic’. If Trump’s presidency points to a world after neoliberalism – where borders are enhanced, global trade contracts and white nativism returns – Johnson expresses nothing but its downfall.
The challenges confronting Britain, in both the short and long term, are huge. Dissolution of the union, a breaking constitutional order intensified with departure from the EU; a broken economic model. Further along is climate change, demographic ageing, automation, resource scarcity. And yet despite all of this, the truth for the opposition is simple: if party unity can hold, and strong MPs replace those not up to the task, Labour can win a large majority and transform Britain for the better. The Johnson premiership is the final, macabre act of the Thatcher supremacy, and whether it is replaced by something better is down to us.