Brexit has been a long-term project, around 30 years, for a large chunk of the Conservative Party – now perhaps the dominant chunk of the party.
The reason has been to “take back control”. This project has cost the Conservatives and the country a great deal – the Tories have had a civil war, government has been concerned by little else prior to the pandemic and the costs and hassle and damage to Britain’s reputation have been massive.
The government’s actions have made clear which bit of Britain is taking back control. Clearly the government does not like the devolved entities, the civil service, the high court, the BBC or even Parliament. Taking back control means control for the executive branch of government.
Centralisers of the past normally have some grand vision – Louis XIV wanted France to dominate Europe, Mao and Stalin wanted to impose their vision of collectivisation on their empires, Margaret Thatcher wanted to turn Britain into a free-market economy.
What do the Conservatives want to do with all this control that they have taken back? Here are some of the candidates:
- Thatcherism (Free-market/privatisation/low-tax neo-liberalism): clearly some Conservatives support these policies, and a lot of the Tory-hating left think this is their ultimate aim. However, as an intellectual idea, neo-liberalism is dead; even the IMF has eschewed it. It is not viable economically or politically: even advocates would admit that implementing these policies would result in short term pain for long term gain and we’ve had quite enough short-term pain. Lowering taxes for the rich when we have massive government debt and great economic hardship would be political suicide, and this raft of policies would alienate blue-wall voters. Finally, the leading figures of the government: Johnson, Gove and Sunak are not intellectually or temperamentally of this persuasion.
- Managerialism: the most attractive feature of the Conservatives-past was their general competence and pragmatism, embodied by people like Philip Hammond. Johnson has always been the opposite of the sensible/managerial politician, and the cabinet was picked for ideology not competence, but the covid crisis has engendered a world beating level of bumbling incompetence.
- High tech disruption: this was the project of Dominic Cummings; but is an anathema to the Tory Party, their members and their voters, so he and this project are out.
- Trumpism – The government could have gone down a white nationalism and cultural wars path, but fortunately they have chosen to reject this.
- Global Britain – Johnson has talked up Global Britain, but even by his standards there is zero substance behind it. The government have reduced aid spending, Brexit itself is an act of withdrawal; all of the trappings of globalisation – immigration, global supply chains, etc – are what Brexit voters rejected, there has been a constant antagonism between the party and the most international influential sections of UK economy – financial services and the City of London. Brexit and the covid crisis have wrecked Britain’s global reputation for competence. Part of the Brexit rhetoric was to turn Britain into “Singapore-on-Thames” but there has been no appetite to gain an understanding of how a successful modern open economy like Singapore actually works – for example Singapore has been especially successful in dealing with the pandemic the government have made no effort to learn from them.
- The party of business: “fuck business”.
So, the grand project is none of the above.
The Johnson government have been fairly consistent in the kinds of things they are pro – the NHS, “levelling up” and they want to make Britain “green”. Now these claims have been greeted with a great deal of scepticism, because none of the protagonists have a history of fighting for the poor or the environment.
I believe that the government means what it says – because the sad truth is that they have nothing else – now they have “taken back control” they are devoid of … well, anything. And how will they achieve this not so grand vision? – Basically, with latter-day Keynesianism.
So, all the fuss, Brexit and battle to take back control is to enact watered down labour policies (or maybe Heathite policy) from the early 1970s with a green tinge and without the redistribution. And implemented half-heartedly by an incompetent government, who themselves have only adopted them because they can’t think of anything better to do; and these are the policies that most of the party have been opposed to all of their political lives.
This is the vacuum that is conservative ideology. It’s an irony that the project that has preoccupied the likes of Bill Cash and John Redwood – disciples of Margaret Thatcher – for their whole political career, has delivered their own party unprecedented power, so that it can enact a half-baked version of Labour’s agenda, whilst possibly presiding over the break- up of the union.