Cruel Britannia: the Tories Shameful Legacy
The rush to replace Boris Johnson has started. Without pause for breath or to learn anything from the chaos of the past six months the media breathlessly asks us: “Who would you prefer to become Prime Minister before the next General Election? Tom Tugendhat, Ben Wallace, Liz Truss, Jeremy Hunt, Rishi Sunak, Sajid Javid, Dominic Raab, Michael Gove, Priti Patel, or Nadhim Zahawi?”
“None please, they are all horrific” doesn’t seem to be an answer that’s available right now. With the exceptions of Tom Tugendhat and Ben Wallace most of these people are directly complicit in covering up and supporting Boris Johnson’s abysmal regime. Many of them are hapless incompetent sociopaths who should never have been near public office. But the darling of the moment, the current front-runner is Ben Wallace, the ‘clean break’ candidate, presented as a centrist and a ‘safe pair of hands’.
But Wallace is anything but a ‘centrist’, whatever that means in the modern Tory party.
The former Scots Guard captain and current Defence secretary has been accused of appearing to condone the use of mock executions after comments he once made that soldiers “might pretend to pour petrol” over prisoners taken on the battlefield. Trying to obtain information at the point of capture was critical, he told the Scotsman in 2003 in the immediate aftermath of the Iraq war. “It’s taught to soldiers that’s how it’s done. You might pretend to pour petrol over them, when it’s actually water.”
Maya Foa, director of Reprieve, said: “It’s hard to see why Wallace would pretend he was pouring petrol on a detainee other than to make them think they were about to be burned alive, which quite obviously amounts to a mock execution.”
She added: “The behaviour Mr Wallace is endorsing is not simply ineffective, it is illegal, immoral, and undermines principles which generations of British service personnel risked their lives to protect.”
Mock executions were amongst the torture techniques used by the CIA during the post 9/11 “war on terror”. They were exposed and criticised by a landmark US Senate report in 2014 for being brutal and ineffective.
The possible shift from the clownish Johnson to the brutality of a figure like Wallace will be seamless, as if the range of representations and tones of leadership for Conservatives run only from Eton to Sandhurst. He will be presented to the country as a re-set back to ‘traditional values’ and proof at once that the misfortune of the Johnson era was an aberration and we can now return to great British traditions. You can hear the press lines already: “What this great country needs right now, in this time of war, is a return to the discipline only the military can really bring!”
But it’s not just his endorsement of mock executions that should rule-out Wallace as a leader. His voting record showed him voting sixteen times to reduce Housing Benefit, forty-five times to cut welfare benefits, but twenty-two times to reduce corporation tax, and twelve times against a bankers bonus tax. Last year he claimed £194,387.77 in MPs expenses. He is – unsurprisingly – in the mould of the reactionary Tory far-right. Yet such has the Overton Window of decency and acceptable discourse in public life shifted that he is now presented as a ‘liberal’.
Wallace’s leadership will be presented as competence over decency. But competence isn’t the only issue at play in the aftermath of the Johnson debacle. Decency is also a value that’s been derided and debased and you don’t upgrade it by replacing a man who doesn’t know how many children he has with a man who would endorse battleground atrocities. But that’s where we are, unless you are tempted by Liz Truss and her Pork Markets, Dishy Rishi and his doomed Eat Out to Help Out, or the proto-fascism of the Home Secretary?
While the country is distracted by the slow, drawn-out termination of Boris Johnson’s political career and his weird quasi-resignation we need to look at the shameful legacy the Conservatives have left. It is too easy too be absorbed in Johnson’s personal cluster of tragi-comedy and ignore the social reality of twelve years of Tory rule. The social landscape has changed and the deterioration of basic living standards is changing faster.
As Joanne Barker-Marsh, a participant in Changing Realities, an Abrdn Financial Fairness Trust funded project documenting life on a low-income during the cost of living crisis has said of the outgoing Prime Minister: “He has patronised us incessantly, telling us soaring energy prices are an unavoidable result of war – that doesn’t help me when our gas and energy prices have already doubled. He has boasted how he “got Brexit done”. Brexit might have been pushed through, but to whose benefit? What he cobbled together has only made life harder for those living on a fixed income at the most frightening time of our lives. The extra £20 “uplift” in universal credit payments we received during the pandemic, just about the only good thing he oversaw, was snatched away when we needed it most.”
Johnson’s regime, and the Conservative governments that preceded it, are characterised by the trail of social chaos they have left, but also by excessive and obscene opulence. Brexit Britain is a place characterised by extreme levels of inequality.
Covid Realities – a project funded by the the Child Poverty Action group – documents the reality of life on a low-income through the pandemic with personal testimony. It makes for harrowing, if not surprising, or distant reading. But while the participants document the brutal truth of getting by on benefits or low-income work remember it was reported that, after proposing to spend £3,000 of public money on a diplomatic lunch replete with high-end wine and gin, Liz Truss used a private jet for an official trip to Australia at an estimated cost of £500,000. The excess of the political elite didn’t need personal testimony it rolled out across the media daily, as week in week out for the last six months the culture of entitlement and exceptionalism was plain to see.
As the nation (s) sigh in relief that Tory rule is over (it isn’t) or pretend that the pandemic is over (it isn’t), this in a terrible remake of D:Ream’s 1993 hit Can Only Get Worse. Confidence, hope and prosperity has drained out of Britain in the almost thirty years since the Blairite era. Pre-millennial Cool Britannia has been replaced with post-Brexit Cruel Britannia.
As John Harris wrote a few months ago:
“Meanwhile, though poverty and disadvantage are kept festering by our cruel and miserly benefits system, the government seems to want to make things even worse. Never mind such obstacles to employment as expensive childcare and pitiful local public transport: last week, Johnson and his ministers announced a new scheme titled Way to Work, whereby unemployed people on universal credit will no longer be given three months to find their preferred job, but will instead be seemingly forced to take whatever work they can find after only four weeks. At that point, if they are deemed not to have made “reasonable efforts” to find work, part of their universal credit payments will be stopped.”
The reality of the end of Johnson’s ‘leadership’ is that some of the soap-opera will subside and he will be replaced by another individual who will carry-on with different shades of different spin but inflicting the same social chaos as we have witnessed for the last long twelve years.
Editors Note: in-between writing this (Friday) and publishing this (Sunday) Ben Wallace announced he will not be standing for Conservative leader.
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