British politics needs dragging into 21st century . . . . . . lessons from Boris Johnson’s tenure
Over the next few weeks, a maddening political game will unfold. The gaggle of MPs who want to be Tory leader and prime minister — some comically overconfident, others downright absurd — will make their pitch to Conservative MPs, party members and the general public.
All of them will claim they can clear up the debris left by Boris Johnson.
Amid what is already starting to look like frenzied internal warfare, some of the loudest noise will be made by contenders offering a thoroughgoing return to the Tory credo of the small state and free market.
Meanwhile, another ritual will continue — one that is as essential, in its own way, to political business-as-usual grinding on.
Whatever is suggested by polls done in the midst of such a huge Tory meltdown, the Labour party still faces a huge uphill struggle to win a parliamentary majority.
It still has no convincing or even coherent narrative about what Britain has been through or where it is going, and a fresh fear may soon be nagging at its senior figures: when Johnson finally exits, what if a new Tory leader enjoys a honeymoon period and edges ahead?
But whenever any frustrations with Labour start to surface, the electoral system ensures it has an almost brutal pitch to voters: if millions of people want to try to get rid of the Conservatives, it remains the only option they have.
So far, Johnson’s downfall has been almost wholly understood as a matter of his character flaws and administrative incompetence, and the politicians who now present themselves as an alternative are mostly viewed in the same superficial terms.
At the same time, an awareness is slowly dawning of a much deeper aspect of what is happening: a tangle of crises that Johnson’s time in power made more vivid than ever, and that his downfall perfectly symbolises.
Put bluntly, this country is in an awful, increasingly frightening mess, because its politics and system of power remain stuck in the past. The Conservatives have no answers — but neither, in any meaningful sense, does Labour. So what are we going to do?
One of our crises goes back centuries. The UK’s structures of government are based around an antiquated and centralised state, much of which was built during the distant days of empire, and that now barely functions.
Swollen Whitehall departments cannot possibly do what ministers and civil servants claim.
The Houses of Parliament are a shabby symbol of institutional decay. Thanks to the continued existence of the House of Lords, our legislators include a Russian-British newspaper proprietor, Ian Botham and 92 hereditary peers.
And the way we elect the Commons is a creaking joke: the “personal mandate” Johnson recently cited to try to keep himself in office amounted to the support of less than 30 percent of the electorate.
Worse still, there is a deep, symbiotic connection between the institutions of Westminster and Whitehall and the structures of privilege centred on a handful of private schools, and the universities of Oxford and Cambridge.
Together, they have churned out people trained in the arcane ways of the establishment and how to network their way into power, but who usually turn out to be dangerous bullshitters and chancers.
Johnson, obviously, was all this incarnate: once he had got to the top of a system that grants prime ministers mind-boggling levels of power, he could trample over constitutional conventions, push through legislation nullifying basic civil rights, and champion the breaking of international law (not to mention hand out honours to whomever he fancied — a habit that looks set to come roaring back).
Our two other crises are closely interlinked. For 40 years now, the Conservative party has been devoted to the economic ideas glued into its soul by Margaret Thatcher, and overseen a mess of inequality, insecurity and economic fragility.
After the crash of 2008, this approach was patched up on the basis that stagnating wages were matched by flatlining prices, and unprecedentedly low interest rates meant that enough people could get access to cheap credit.
But thanks to Brexit, the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, all that has started to implode. The scale of the UK’s predicament sets it apart from just about all other advanced economies.
No one seems to have any palatable idea about how to tackle the return of inflation; in some quarters, there is grim talk about the only effective option being the return of mass unemployment.
Again, Johnson symbolises a lot of this story. The clearest proof to date that the post-Thatcher order could no longer hold was the huge vote for exiting the EU in places that had been the victims of it.
Once he had surfed the resulting political wave and become prime minister, he offered people in Brexit’s heartlands a winning bargain: that in return for their support, they would benefit from “levelling up” .
Clearly, he had no intention of keeping that promise: apart from anything else, his party’s enduring attachment to Thatcherism runs too deep. But even if his successor tries to somehow make levelling up meaningful, they will bump up against one of modern Britain’s defining paradoxes: the fact that Brexit’s dire economic consequences make the chances of helping many places that voted for it almost non-existent.
A new Conservative leader will get nowhere near even beginning to untie these knots. The official opposition hardly suggests that it will be able to do so.
But in the anxious noises now being made by some Tories, you can divine how a new politics may start to take shape.
There is a lot of fear on the political right about cooperation between non-Tory parties that — in the words of a Johnson ally recently quoted in the Times — “would change the voting rules and force the Tories out of power for decades”.
This reflects increasingly huge support for changing the electoral system among Labour’s grassroots that matches longstanding policies of the Liberal Democrats and Greens, and a plan now being advocated by, among others, the Greater Manchester mayor, Andy Burnham.
Its starting point would be something either opposed or spurned by every Labour leader from Tony Blair to Keir Starmer (including Jeremy Corbyn): Labour working with other progressive parties to bring in proportional representation, abolish the Lords and pursue unprecedented devolution.
When I interviewed Burnham 10 days ago, his pitch was clear enough: “Business as usual isn’t going to get us where we need to get to. Not just from a political point of view, but in terms of where the country is.”
Drastically altering our systems of power — and, via radical thinking about private education and Oxbridge, breaking up ancient networks of privilege and influence — would open the way to changes that would start to pull us out of our endless malaise: a huge housing drive, a basic income, security both within and without work, the kind of moves towards a closer relationship with Europe that the stupidities of current politics rule out.
It would also quash the chances of another entitled would-be Tory autocrat wheedling their way into power.
This is surely the lesson of the past three torrid years — that if Johnson’s time in power demonstrates one thing beyond question, it is the fact that British politics has to finally leave the 20th century. — Guardian