The Liz Truss Premiership is about the Tories thinking they own the story of Britain – past, present and future
So begins the Liz Truss Premiership and era. She won with a grim, perilous mandate for all her upbeat ‘boosterist’ optimism which worked for a section of the Tory membership. It convinced enough of them, 81,326 to be precise, which gave her 57.4% of those who voted but rather embarrassingly a mere 47.2% of all Tory members who were entitled to vote.
Public opinion at the outset does not think much of Truss or her prospects as PM. After she was elected Tory leader a mere 14% of the public think Truss will be a better leader than Boris Johnson; a staggering 2% have a lot of confidence in her solving the cost of living crisis while 67% have little to no confidence; and by 50% to 22% public opinion is disappointed that she has become PM, with only 41% of Tory voters pleased according to YouGov.
We are strangers in our own land
The entire contest made most of us feel like strangers in our own land. This is shaped by the narrow, unrepresentative nature of the Tory selectorate. Then there is the embarrassing fact that in choosing Truss, the Tories were selecting their third leader in a row without recourse to a popular mandate and instead imposing their own private prejudices and obsessions as the sterling tests of who should be or should not be the next leader.
Hence Rishi Sunak who had been the darling of Tory constituency opinion until the turn of the year had an impossible hurdle to jump. Having presided over gathering economic stormclouds, his increasing disloyalty to Boris Johnson climaxed in his resignation as Chancellor which precipitated Boris Johnson’s reluctant resignation.
This was enough for Sunak’s support to collapse in sections of the Tory grassroots. In the Tory contest he was frequently asked about his role in bringing Johnson down; despite this he still won 42.6% of Tory members who voted. This clearly points to wider misgivings about Truss even in the heart of Toryland.
Scotland increasingly feels even more distant from what comes over as someone else’s drama and disaster. This spectacle is defined by Westminster concerns, theatre, personalities and the lies and deceptions told in the House of Commons by Johnson and his apologists.
Johnson tarnished and trashed everything that he came into contact with – all of which was deeply predictable. But such is the Tory grassroots love of all things ‘Boris’ that Truss felt compelled throughout the context to praise the outgoing leader including in her painfully bad acceptance speech as Tory leader, meaning that the Tories have not yet come clean about the nature of the man and his leadership. And that still in places they pine for the old emperor to return: a sentiment which will be encouraged in one Boris Johnson.
Scotland’s distance and alienation from all of this is reinforced by the fact that the last time the Tories won an election in this country was the 1959 Westminster general election in terms of votes. This is the election after 1955 which is much cited wrongly as when the Tories last won in Scotland – when they won 50.1% of the vote – and last won both the popular vote and number of seats – winning 36 seats to Labour’s 34 and one solitary Liberal.
October 1959 was when Harold Macmillan went to the country saying ‘you have never had it so good’ and won a 100-seat majority. In Scotland in this contest the Tories won 47.2% of the vote to Labour’s 46.7% – while Labour won 38 out of 71 seats, to 31 for the Tories and two for the Liberals. The SNP in the 1959 election stood a mere five candidates and won only 21,738 votes across Scotland representing 0.8% of the vote – a small improvement on the two candidates and 12,112 (0.5%) of four years previous in 1955.
1959 is a long-time ago. Several generations have past. Then Fidel Castro had just overthrown the Batista dictatorship in Cuba and was widely seen as a young idealist; Nikita Khrushchev was leader of the Soviet Union; Dwight Eisenhower was in the White House and JFK was but a young ambitious Senator; Charles de Gaulle was in the Élysée Palace at the start of the French Fifth Republic; and the European Economic Community was but a mere two years old.
Since then sixteen UK general elections have passed, without the Tories once winning the popular vote in Scotland. This first happened in post-war times with Ted Heath in 1970, but is now such a regular occurrence that some Westminster watchers have started discounting it and think it is just one of those things. Like Yorkshire or Greater London voting Labour and getting a Tory Government.
But it is not like that. For a start, for eight of the past eleven UK elections, and for 30 out of the past 43 years, Scotland has got Tory Governments it did not vote for. That is not something that can endure into perpetuity. And Scotland is not comparable to an English region. It is a nation with its own laws, legislature and government.
The mood of the UK is not a positive one as troubles mount. An astonishing 69% of respondents agree that the UK is in decline; even more surprising 60% of Conservative supporters agree with this sentiment according an Ipsos survey for The Economist.
Then there is how the Tories plan to deal with the cost of living crisis and skyrocketing energy bills. One scheme floated by the Tories was that over £100 billion of support to freeze energy bulls would have seen voters pay back compulsory loans over a timescale of 10-20 years. It is now being briefed that this has been dropped from consideration. But in refusing to levy a windfall tax on excess profits of the energy companies the Tories are subsidising hugely profitable companies and putting the burden of paying back the enormous bill on the shoulders of taxpayers.
If the Tories try to make voters pay for a broken, rigged system shaped by private monopoly energy companies they privatised they will be committing electoral suicide. Such an indefensible offer piling the bill onto the public and taxpayers, rather than profiteering private companies, will show not only how out of touch the Tories are, but how ideologically inflexible and dogmatically attached they are to brutal, exploitative, anti-social capitalism at the expense of the public and any public good.
Expect to see over the coming weeks and months more references to the fact that Liz Truss is the first ever UK PM to have previously worked for Shell as an industrial economist – with some saying that is still where her allegiances lie. As the Scottish based academic Ewan Gibbs pointed out her Premiership will show ‘the oil age is far from over’ – with talk of new licences and fields opening up in the North Sea – none of which will help the public in the immediate.
Tories already have in recent weeks been regularly insulting the intelligence of voters with the likes of former Tory minister Edwina Currie getting out tinfoil on Good Morning Britain on live TV and suggesting worried voters put it behind their radiators. Meanwhile on This Morning later on the same day presenter Phillip Schofield was offering viewers via a roulette style wheel the chance to have their energy bill paid. Such is life in the increasingly Dickensian Tory Britain of the 21st century.
Living in an Old Country and understanding who controls the past controls the future
Present day Toryism has in an Orwellian sense seized control of how we interpret and comprehend the recent past. Hence one of the many validations of Thatcherism when it happened and retrospectively has been that in 1979 when Thatcher took office the UK was a basket case.
The version of 1970s Britain which prepared the ground for Thatcherism is narrowly scoped down to ‘the winter of discontent’ and IMF crisis. The lesson of this is that you cannot trust Labour Governments with the economy with all sorts of cliches defining the former: ‘the dead going unburied in Liverpool’; ‘the piles of rubbish in Leicester Square’ and more – a highly contentious version given validation not just by the likes of the Daily Mail and Daily Express but revisionist historians such as Dominic Sandbrook and Charles Moore.
What is missing from this selective reading is the economic turbulence of the 1970s under a Tory Government remembered as that: the three-day week, the regular blackouts, the two miners’ strikes of 1972 and 1974, alongside the fragile nature of the British economy in a world shaken by the twin oil spikes of 1973 and 1979. These have all been conveniently forgotten in the ideological capture of a decade by the right then and subsequently. It is probably too late for Labour and non-Tories to present a more rounded version of the 1970s, but as George Orwell said in 1984 whoever controls the past controls the future.
Toryism is dealing with the elixir and magic illusions of Thatcherism with the buffer still of that capture of the recent past. For decades we have been told that Thatcher ‘put the great back into Britain’. Not only that but the likes of the Daily Telegraph, Daily Express and Spectator have continually told the lie that Thatcherism presided over a positive economic transformation of Britain and this heralded ‘a great British economic miracle’, the upside of which we are still living with and supposedly benefiting from – for all our present problems.
It is the culmination of decades of this deliberate deception and capture of our collective past – all of which has been aided by the collusion of the Labour Party under Blair and Brown – which ultimately led to Brexit, Boris Johnson and now Liz Truss.
We are in for a bumpy, difficult, hazardous ride and the internal Tory shenanigans we have seen in recent months and years are only just beginning and will obsess them just as we need serious, grown-up government and a politics of solidarity and co-operation.
The Tories think they own the story of Britain and that their economic, social and cultural account of modern UK, combined with their entitlement culture, privilege and self-belief in their divine right to rule, insulate them from opposition criticism and public discontent.
They are admittedly testing this theory to breaking point, but given the built-in advantages the Tories have in UK politics and proven inadequacies of the Labour Party, it would be foolish to completely write off Tory electoral prospects even under Liz Truss.
The terrain for a radical critique of Britain’s broken economic and social order and the undemocratic political system which underpin minority Tory dominance is there to be made, but after years of Labour self-doubt and ingrained conservatism, can they tap into the mood of gathering discontent, anger and indignation? This does feel like the end of an era but can Labour and the centre-left capture that sentiment and shape the future? On that the jury is still out.
Image credit Stewart Bremner, More here: Art created in Scotland – Indy Prints (indy-prints.com)