The Empire Strikes Back
The Tories are valued and respected as a strong and principled party. Their prevailing view is that society needs to do better and many of us need to work harder. Fundamental to this view is that in our society there are some doing well and some not so well. Social mobility is a key principle among the Conservatives, with those at the top acting as examples of how to succeed. Their view is that if you behave like the guys at the top, you will get there too.
By putting herself forward as a pragmatist, Theresa May admits she is no idealist. And it shows. She aligned herself recently with the idea of the UK being a meritocracy when she announced the revival of grammar schools.
If she had done any reading on the matter she would know that Michael Young, who invented the phrase, did so to show the horror of dividing people according to what they can and can’t do. In his book The Rise of the Meritocracy, the new world is one where differences and inequalities create a divided society of haves and have-nots – where division is used as a rights to passage as well as a justification for extreme and inhumane policies.
But such details don’t matter. What matters to the Conservatives is that there is value in the idea of a better ‘them’ and a need-to-do-better ‘us’ – and that this is exploited. It’s the differences that, in their view, help make things better.
Intrinsic to this view is that people are encouraged to excel. But what is often overlooked in this call for excellence, is that it requires the creation of a lower tier. The excellence, in the case of Grammar schools for example, is enabled by selection, exclusion and difference – there is no step up without a step down.
Back to work
This view is one of “we got where we are due to hard work and the right choices, come and join us”. It’s a strong and persuasive logic. And it has as many holes as it has supporters. The biggest ‘hole’ is slap bang in middle of the level playing field that it is required to make it work. It doesn’t exist. In a society of increasing inequalities and a shrinking public sector, the playing fields are not only being sold off at an alarming rate, the notion that they are a public priority no longer exists.
They have been largely replaced with supposed free-market dynamics and the benefactors, ie those in need of help, redefined as individuals who create their own plight, and who may (or may not) be able to improve their own circumstances if the right ‘social business’ can deliver effective solutions. These businesses, which are increasingly replacing public services and healthcare provision, are then paid by results for those it makes better.
In the Conservative ideology, if people find themselves disadvantaged, businesses offer the solution. Those who remain unhealed and unhelped by the Work Programme or the Troubled Families initiative have, in their mind, only themselves to blame. Non-compliance with such programmes will be punished by benefit sanctions, or evictions – cruelties that are inflicted, in this model, for their own good.
This hard-line ‘pragmatism’ to social care and services permits Tory ministers such as Ian Duncan Smith (IDS) to say things like removing people’s access to the little money they get to feed and house themselves is giving them “the chance of a better life…the chance to fulfil their potential”. In other words lower benefits and sanctions IS GOOD FOR THEM. In this world, ill-health, poverty, homelessness, suicide, are all fair prices to pay to encourage people in need to do better and to be like the guys at the top – to be like them.
IDS sums it up when he says, with tear-filled passion, that social services, housing, income support, disability benefits and free adult education are traps that stop people from doing well and improving their lives. Sanctions, he is quoted as saying, help people “focus and get on”. Take their money away, as the twisted logic goes, and they will get out of ‘their’ trap. This is the business-model for meritocracy being sold under the banner of pragmatism.
In Conservative-speak, benefits are cast as ‘incentivising’ worklessness. In their view, giving health-care to smokers and the obese ‘incentivises’ smoking and over-eating. Offering a safe home, for example, to abandoned refugee children in Calais ‘incentivises’ children to become refugees and, as the thinking goes, incentivises their parents to hand their children over to traffickers.
This mindset is almost always used to make doing something utterly callous sound like they are the ones with the ‘tough loving courage’ to do the best thing, rather than the soppy, easy thing. It also ‘pragmatises’ division and distances the government from blame and taking direct responsibility for the vulnerable it disadvantages and the damage their policies inflict.
We can currently see this playing out in the restructuring of NHS in England where the independence of NHS England from the Department of Health allows the government to relinquish direct responsibility for the business-models, cuts and ‘chaos’ currently being rolled-out across most of the country.
Of course this sits in immediate and direct contrast to the equal love of ‘incentives’ for the wealthy – needing to give tax incentives for the wealthy to stay in the UK and defending bonuses as incentives to achieve and perform at work. This is not irony – it’s difference. It’s division. It’s tough-love pragmatism.
This mindset is behind a lot of Conservative policies. It’s behind them trying to make schools, called Acadamies, look and work like private schools. The forthcoming roll-out of Grammar schools fit into that perspective too.
This ‘pragmatic’ logic is so pervasive that it is pursued at great cost – not just to those it is supposed to be liberating but also to the public purse. Recent figures show that not only are the recent benefit reforms causing great hardship, but the system is costing more than it saves. The government’s own report found that the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) spent £230-250 million a year applying and monitoring sanctions while saving just £132 million. Despite this, the policies are deemed a success.
The only way such failures can be deemed a success is that they meet other targets. The target most referred to is lowering unemployment. On the surface this target is being met because figures show less people claiming benefits. These figures however are self-fulfilling. The policy is both the cause and the symptom. In effect this is a system that measures the success of refusing benefits by looking at the numbers of people not getting benefits.
The other great success that ‘isn’t’, is of course the improving economy and the fall in public borrowing. The Conservative government has not only missed almost all of its own fiscal targets, they have, to all intents and purposes, abandoned them, admitting they will not be balancing the books until beyond 2022. Why the pain with little or no gain? And what are the effects?
The real fall-out of the economic failures and the employment fait accomplis is two-fold. Many who are not getting benefits are reliant on food banks for survival, are being re-housed or made homeless. The second disbenefit, is for those who do get work, the benefits are slim. There has been a dramatic rise in low-paid and temporary work (real wages are down 10.7% since 2007) which is matched by a staggering rise in zero hours contracts (with over a million now on long or short-term zero-hours contracts) that have resulted in a growing system where people work hard in dead-end jobs to live well-under the poverty line – which of course keeps them off the benefits stats (there are just under 4 million people estimated to live under the poverty line in the UK according to official figures). These are the ‘hard-working people’ the Conservatives talk of – whether they like it or not.
That this is playing out right in front of us, at great social and personal cost, while the Conservatives increase their popularity among voters, shows that taking such a divisive and hard-stance against poverty is popular – provided you set aspirational goals, nurture a ‘them’ and ‘us’ mindset, portray some of those affected as undeserving of good and deserving of their plight and create self-fulfilling targets that entrench the righteousness of ‘us’ against ‘them’. The lack of effective opposition doesn’t help either.
Theresa May moved from being opposed and lukewarm to Brexit to emerging as a hard-line revisionist. She and her party have come from ‘Oh shit!’ to ‘We can see what is wrong and we will fix it (at almost any cost)’.
There is a new certainty and purpose among the Conservatives and Theresa May who, only a few weeks ago, was named Theresa Maybe by the Economist. Apart from the obvious rhetoric of carrying out the will of the electorate, there is something more profound going on here.
Central to it all is the affirmation that Westminster, under the Conservatives, knows best. The PM and her party see Brexit and, as shown from her recent speech at the Scottish Tory conference, UK devolution as failed experiments.
What is emerging now is a hard-line, tough-love British nationalism based on the idea that anything that dilutes the power of Westminster either through Unions with other nations or devolving power to Edinburgh, Cardiff or Belfast, is bad, small-minded, unpatriotic and weak.
According to May’s current rhetoric, UK political power needs to change. As it is currently expressed, UK politics needs to return to the singular, insular body it apparently came from (ie to return control of immigration, laws, trade and human rights to Westminster). May and David Davies, the Minister responsible for Brexit, are now, quite clearly, setting her eyes on shaking it all up by bringing it all back and restoring the glory of a more powerful and less diluted Britain and Westminster.
There is a restoration project going on right now and it is no exaggeration to see it as framed in ideas of former imperial glory. This is evident in Liam Fox’s recent attempts to set up new trade deals with Africa by calling it Empire 2.0! This is not irony. It’s intention.
Any concessions and compromise from this hard-line objective is diluting the strong and principled notion that the EU and other projects have all failed and they have a better plan. But the problem is they don’t have a plan. They really don’t. When they say they are not wanting to show their hand, lest it weakens their bargaining power in the EU divorce negotiations, it is quite clearly a misrepresentation. They have no economic plan and no card up their sleeve.
In Brexit, we have quite clearly yet another aspirational policy, designed around division, that is being pushed hard despite the costs and the lack of any sound benefits analysis. In its place, we are being sold an even bigger and damaging, self-fulfilling strategy that measures success not on what it brings to the UK but how on quick and hard it can be executed. No deal, as we now know, is better than a bad deal – whatever that means, and at whatever cost.
But that doesn’t matter. They don’t need a plan or analysis. Their aim is now one of simple consolidation. They simply want more power – and they have a vehicle with which to drive it – Brexit. This is about having more power to be more Conservative. This is what ‘taking back control’ looks like. It’s the ‘Empire Strikes Back’ – and it gives them more power to make Britain a greater ‘one-nation under one roof’ with fewer distractions, harder ambitions and orchestrated, self-perpetuating divisions.
Lack of Opposition and Scepticism
Empowered by the Brexit vote that only months ago left them leaderless and speechless, they now see the UK electorate as being behind them to make a harder-working, stronger, undiluted, meritocratic Britain a reality. There is no irony in the fact that these self-proclaimed pragmatists have little or no contingency plan – just a belief in their intent of a higher ground and an emboldened Westminster set on promoting hardline Conservative politics.
If you look hard enough though there is some pragmatism. To the Eurosceptic Tory, the EU is too socialist, bureaucratic and tied up in centralist rules. It is obsessed with human rights, committees and political compromise. It is all too often a fudge. It is clear that Europe is no longer in line with Conservative objectives of making people and Britain better through tough-love, aspirational politics. In its stead, we are witnessing the steady emergence of British nationalism, under the banner of Conservative ‘pragmatism’.
Hard lines for Devolution
With the vision of European technocrats and lefties being kicked into touch, May has her eyes firmly set on the other main distraction – Holyrood and the Nats. Their type of nationalism is bad. It’s the wrong type for lots of reasons – but mostly because it asks too much. And it asserts itself too well. And of course it is not Conservative, free-market, elitist, ironically meritocratic, pro-Brexit and diviso-aspirational in ways they see as key to a successful and hard-working Britain.
In an excellent editorial, Ian Dunt of Politics magazine recently exposed the duplicity and double talk of Theresa May’s speech at the Scottish Conservative’s conference. In it she accused the SNP and the Scottish Parliament of being obsessed with nationalism and division at the expense of the NHS, education and social services. These were not the rantings of a disturbed mind as Dunt playfully suggests, but those of a woman intent on reining-in the power of the Scottish parliament.
That there is intent in reining-in power is obvious not just from May’s refusal to grant approval of a second Scottish referendum but in her government’s underhand power-grab of repatriated EU policies. Both May and the Scottish Conservative Leader, Ruth Davidson have repeatedly failed to confirm jurisdiction over key areas such as farming and fisheries which clearly fall under the 1998 Scotland Act. This is seen as a betrayal by the SNP and goes against assurances given during the Scottish referendum and more recently by the ruling Conservative government.
These principles will also be asserted no doubt if, as is suggested, there is no consensus among the two main parties at Stormont following the rise of Sinn Fein at the recent election. Such a crisis there will result in the Northern Ireland Assembly defaulting back to direct Westminster rule. While this will fall favourably into the hands of the Irish nationalists, via a backlash and increasing disquiet towards threats of a hard-border with the Republic of Ireland following Brexit, this is back to basics for the Tories intent on consolidation and weaker devolved parliaments.
For the ruling Westminster party, there is no need to put the genie back in the box. Power was tested at the recent test case of Article 50 at the Supreme Court where it clearly demonstrated the supremacy of the Westminster Parliament over devolved matters.
The next two years will be momentous ones. While Labour dithers and continues in-fighting and devolved parliaments re-assert their positions within and outwith the UK, the Conservatives will find strength and purpose in taking a hard line against all of it.
Brexit, so it has emerged, is the catalyst for this. It’s not just a catalyst for disquiet in Scotland and Northern Ireland, but a response to continued economic and social hardship. May will continue Cameron and Osborne’s legacy of setting out policies that don’t add up by promoting hard-line, no-messing policies that appeal to an increasingly entrenched and inward-looking Ukip and Conservative voter.
Labour’s faltering opposition is dogged by a lack of a coherent post-Brexit plan and asserting equally inappropriate messages to Scotland and dithering on Irish issues. Corbyn’s recent visit and talk at the Scottish Labour conference in Perth shows an equally disharmonious rhetoric and policies with not only the Scottish voter but their own party in Scotland.
At that conference, Scottish Labour announced their support and policy for a federal Britain, despite there being no appetite for this in England, no chance of it happening, there being no plan or timetable for it and it being completely at odds currently with his party’s UK policy (though there is talk of it be debated). Here we find a party not without a plan, just without a coherent one.
With such a serious lack of UK political consensus looming, fuelled by an increasing appetite for hardline and adversarial politics among the players, things are set to get very messy and more divisive not just within political parties, but across services, regions, parliaments and nations.