UK goes from bad to worse, by Jamie Maxwell (Le Monde diplomatique

More of the same? Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, Brussels, March 2022

Henry Nicholls · Pool · Getty

On 4 August the Bank of England warned that Britain was drifting into a recession so deep it would last until the end of 2023, inflation would soon hit a 42-year high of 13%, and living standards would sag further under the weight of rising wholesale energy costs and stagnant wages (1). On 6 September Liz Truss replaced Boris Johnson as prime minister of the United Kingdom. Two days later, Queen Elizabeth II, Britain’s longest-reigning sovereign, died at the age of 96.

In response to the monarch’s demise, Britain’s political leaders, past and present, all reached for some variation of the same theme. Elizabeth II was ‘the rock on which modern Britain was built’, said Truss; ‘the matriarch of our nation’, claimed Tony Blair; ‘wise and selfless’ in the exercise of her duties, according to Blair’s Conservative predecessor John Major. Yet the more Westminster politicians synchronised their rhetoric of national unity, the less convincing it began to sound.

Hours before the Queen died, Truss had appeared in the House of Commons to set out a massive programme of state intervention aimed at avoiding an economic cliff edge. She announced up to £150bn of additional spending funded by further borrowing, supplemented by a series of tax cuts and deregulatory reforms. In the teeth of a potentially historic economic downturn, this was ‘a moment to be bold’, she said.

The scale of her spending package exposed the depths of Britain’s social crisis. The average annual energy bill in the UK has nearly doubled over the past 12 months, from £1,400 in October of last year to more than £2,500 today. More households are getting into debt, and monthly mortgage payments are going up. At least eight million British families will be unable to fuel their homes adequately this winter as they struggle to cover basic household expenses. The UK faces a national emergency on the same scale as Covid-19, Torsten Bell, chief executive of the Resolution Foundation, wrote in May (2). Without significant improvements in pay and productivity, the pandemic might be ‘as good as the first half of the 2020s [gets]’ for living standards in Britain.

A country splitting apart

Truss has inherited from Boris Johnson a country coming apart at the seams. Brexit, the centrepiece of his political legacy, is partly to blame for the bleak state of the British economy. The Office for Budget Responsibility, the UK’s official economic forecaster, estimates that the stripped-down Brexit agreement negotiated by Johnson at the end of 2019 will slash Britain’s national output by 4% every year for the foreseeable future. Between 2020 and 2021, UK exports to the EU fell by 13.6% — a direct consequence, the European Commission says, of Johnson’s deal, which extracted Britain from the economic as well as the political architecture of the European project.

The forces pulling Britain apart are not exclusively economic, however. As the UK enters a new era under Charles III, the constitutional integrity of the kingdom itself is starting to fray. Scotland voted by a 24-point margin against leaving the European Union in 2016 and Nicola Sturgeon’s separatist Scottish National Party (SNP) administration in Edinburgh is once again ramping up demands for Scottish independence. Sturgeon wants the UK Supreme Court to sanction an advisory referendum on secession in October 2023. Failing that, she plans to turn the UK’s forthcoming general election, scheduled to take place at some point in 2024, into a de facto poll on a separate Scottish state.

Like Johnson, Truss is a late, radical convert to the Brexit cause, is closely aligned to the party right and panders to the most reactionary elements of the UK tabloid press

Then there is Northern Ireland. The post-Brexit protocol deal signed between London and Brussels in 2020 has paralysed the province’s political institutions. Unionists in Belfast, who view the treaty as a threat to Ulster’s status as part of the UK, want it scrapped, and refuse to resume power-sharing with Sinn Féin at the Stormont Assembly until it is (3). The EU insists it must stay. Either way, the UK now faces months of grinding legal negotiations aimed at resolving a dilemma that Johnson created in his haste to sever Britain’s ties to Europe.

The short lifespan of Britishness

There is no obvious precedent for the mess Britain finds itself in. Commentators on the right point to the 1970s, with their rampant inflationary pressures and regular bouts of industrial unrest, as a parallel period of political turmoil. But back then, neither Scottish independence nor a united Ireland seemed like a credible constitutional proposition, and Britain was still assessing the benefits of joining Europe’s incipient political community, not leaving it.

The historian David Edgerton makes an eye-catching but increasingly plausible claim: Britishness existed as a coherent political identity for a short time before guttering out. The lifespan of political Britishness, Edgerton says, lasted for about 50 years, from just after the second world war to what many consider the high point of the Blair era, in the early 2000s. Before and after Blair, the anchoring institutions of post-war Britishness — the empire, heavy industry, the welfare system, a strong, centralised trade union movement — faded or were reformed into oblivion.

The onset of devolution in the late 1990s accelerated the retreat of post-war British nationalism. Devolution gave the SNP a springboard for independence and amplified Welsh demands for self-government; both Scotland and Wales secured devolved assemblies in 1999. It handed Sinn Féin ministerial posts at Stormont. And it highlighted the absence of a distinctively English state within the UK’s evolving constitutional architecture.

Blair’s decision to conscript Britain into the Bush administration’s war in Iraq was especially unpopular in Scotland and opened up further political space for the SNP on Labour’s social democratic left. It won power at Holyrood for the first time in 2007. The sweeping neoliberal reforms enacted by Blair, and David Cameron’s inroads into UK social security provisions after the 2008 financial crash, helped entrench nationalist hegemony in Scotland.Only under Jeremy Corbyn, who advanced a vision of renationalised public utilities, strategic investments in green energy and constitutional decentralisation, was Labour’s decline in Scotland momentarily stalled. (Even then, the party’s gains at the 2017 general election were slight, and comprehensively lost in 2019.)

One of the ironies facing Truss is that no organisation has played a bigger part in the death of the British idea than the Conservative and Unionist Party itself. In the 1980s Margaret Thatcher privatised many of the pillars of Britain’s publicly owned economy, from its rail network to its telecom and steel industries. In her battle against the miners, she broke the back of organised labour, one of the mainstays of working-class solidarity throughout the UK for much of the 20th century. By deregulating the financial sector and City of London, she focused UK economic activity in and around the English southeast at the expense of Britain’s historic industrial heartlands in central Scotland, northern England and south Wales.

Again, Brexit has played a corrosive role. The UK’s departure from the EU may have been packaged in the language of British nationalism, but its animating impulses were primarily English, and one unintended consequence of the Brexit project has been to amplify English indifference towards the Anglo-Scottish Union. In 2019 a YouGov poll showed that 63% of Conservative Party members would be happy for Scotland (and Northern Ireland) to leave the UK if that meant England could complete its departure from the EU unobstructed.

A separate poll, also from 2019, found that more than three quarters of Tory Brexit voters in England felt the same way. In the years since 2016, the notion of Scotland re-joining the EU as an independent member state has become central to the SNP’s political messaging. ‘Brexit,’ Edgerton wrote in 2019, has ‘provided a long overdue audit of British realities’; the UK’s exit from the EU was a ‘necessary crisis’ that revealed fundamental weaknesses of Britain’s ailing and unequal union state (4).

There was no ‘levelling up’

As prime minister, Johnson tried to paper over Britain’s widening social and constitutional divisions by bullishly asserting Westminster’s sovereignty and pledging to redistribute growth more evenly across the UK. The first part of his strategy backfired. Attempts by Conservative ministers in Whitehall to curtail the autonomy of the Scottish and Welsh parliaments have been fiercely resisted in Edinburgh and Cardiff and may even have contributed to an uptick in support for Scottish and Welsh independence (5). At the same time, the fallout from Brexit in Northern Ireland helped split the unionist vote at the province’s devolved election in May, consolidating the rise of the republican Sinn Féin, which could soon sit, for the first time, as the largest party in the Belfast Assembly — once unionist politicians agree to revive the power-sharing agreement and allow the assembly to reconvene. Stormont is currently suspended.

The second part of Johnson’s strategy simply did not materialise: when he first entered Downing Street in the summer of 2019, Johnson made a flagship promise to ‘level Britain up’. Due in large part to Thatcher’s lopsided rebalancing of the British economy, no nation in Western Europe currently has greater regional discrepancies of wealth and income than the UK. In Glasgow, Scotland’s largest and poorest city, average life expectancy for men is 73; in the Chilterns, a leafy middle-class part of the English countryside not far from London, it is 83. The central goal of his government would be to eliminate those discrepancies by shifting investment from Britain’s asset-rich south to its less dynamic northern peripheries, Johnson said.

Three years on, levelling up has fizzled out, though it still has its own ministry. Regional inequality in Britain is getting worse, and so too are poverty rates. In 2021 data from the Institute for Public Policy Research, a thinktank in London, showed that the proportion of working households in the UK currently classified as poor was higher than it had ever been.

Part of the problem for Truss is that ‘Johnsonism’ was always an incoherent political idea. Johnson’s objectives, after he ousted and replaced Theresa May three years ago, were to defeat Corbyn’s leftwing Labour Party and ‘get Brexit done’. Once those objectives had been achieved — Johnson led the Tories to an 80-seat majority at the UK general election in December 2019 and Brexit formally took effect a month later — his leadership lost all momentum.

Johnson’s handling of the pandemic, marked by muddled health messaging, a string of missed COBRA meetings, an early flirtation with the contested theory of herd immunity and a repeated stop-start reopening of the UK economy, was a disaster. By the start of 2021, the UK boasted one of the highest per capita Covid death rates in the world and had slipped into the worst recession in the G7 (6). The Partygate scandal this January, which saw Johnson and many of his staff fined for staging illegal gatherings in Downing Street during the height of the Covid lockdown in 2020-21, foreshadowed two crushing Conservative by-election defeats in June followed by the Chris Pincher affair in July.

The last straw

Pincher was the last straw for many Tory lawmakers. Johnson had promoted the MP to a senior parliamentary position despite knowing that he faced multiple accusations of sexual misconduct. Then Johnson had lied about it. When the news of his deception broke, his premiership was over, finished off by a tightly coordinated cabinet coup. By the time he left the prime ministerial stage in September, Labour, now led by Corbyn’s centrist successor Keir Starmer, had established an 11-point advantage in the polls (7). Moreover, the Conservative Party itself looked exhausted, strung out by 12 gruelling years in government and an apparently endless stream of national upheavals — from Brexit and the first Scottish independence referendum in 2014, to Covid, and now a rapidly intensifying cost of living crisis.

The true extent of Tory fatigue only became clear after the race to replace Johnson had got under way over the summer. Truss and her chief opponent, Britain’s technocratic ex-chancellor Rishi Sunak, jostled over the 40-year-old mantle of Thatcherism. Truss presented herself as an insurgent, libertarian Thatcherite; Sunak as a fiscally disciplined Thatcherite committed to tight monetary control and minimal inflation. Yet, beyond tax cuts (Truss) and deferred tax cuts (Sunak), neither candidate offered a serious plan to arrest the slide in British living standards or mitigate the country’s economic emergency. Instead, Truss, the frontrunner throughout and far better tuned than her rival to the provincial instincts of the Tory base, dismissed calls for additional government ‘handouts’ and chided economists for ‘talking [Britain] into recession’.

The result was a foregone conclusion. On 5 September, Truss was confirmed as the new Tory leader, winning 57% support from the party’s membership, which is overwhelmingly white, elderly and asset-owning, and accounts for just 0.2% of the UK population. On 6 September, Johnson moved out of Downing Street and his former foreign secretary, one of the few senior cabinet members not to have joined the Pincher rebellion, moved in.

Since becoming prime minister, Truss has sought to cast herself as a unifying figure in keeping with the sombre mood of the nation. In reality, she is every inch Johnson’s erratic populist heir. Over the space of a few days in August, Truss called Sturgeon, the democratically elected leader of the Scottish parliament, an ‘attention-seeker’ who should be ‘ignored’; baselessly and confusingly accused the British civil service of being rife with ‘woke’ anti-Semitism; and asked whether French president Emmanuel Macron was a ‘friend or foe’ of the UK (8).

Like Johnson, Truss is a late, radical convert to the Brexit cause. And, like Johnson, she is closely aligned to the right of the Conservative Party and will eagerly pander to the most reactionary elements of Britain’s tabloid press, particularly on flashpoint cultural issues like immigration and transgender rights. ‘Trussism’, like ‘Johnsonism’, is more a mood than a programme, and its success depends on the new prime minister’s capacity to keep core constituencies in line.

Following Johnson’s hardline lead

On the constitution, too, Truss will follow Johnson’s hardline lead. Earlier this year, in a bid to emphasise her commitment to the Union, she described the UK as a ‘family’ that she would ‘never, ever’ allow the SNP to break up. She is also reportedly considering prohibitive new electoral rules that would make it all but impossible for Sturgeon to win a future referendum on Scottish independence (9).

Nor will Truss seek compromise with the EU over the Northern Ireland protocol. Indeed in June, as foreign secretary, she introduced legislation in the House of Commons that, if passed, would unilaterally scrap some of the protocol’s key provisions. The move provoked a furious response from Brussels, which, alongside Sinn Féin and the Irish government in Dublin, views the treaty as an internationally binding agreement, vital to the maintenance of peace and stability on the island of Ireland. But, for Truss, the legislation signalled a vigorous reassertion of England’s unique national interest; its willingness, post-Brexit, to act without concern for the lofty diktats of the European Commission (or for the internal political harmony of the UK’s Celtic fringes).

There’s no reason to think a more belligerent stance in defence of the Union will work: it certainly didn’t for Johnson. Truss has calculated that in October the UK Supreme Court will reject the SNP’s request for a fresh independence referendum and, eventually, Scots will lose interest in the idea of self-government. She will also embrace the fight with Edinburgh as a way of burnishing her unionist credentials. But such obstructionism could just as easily work to the SNP’s advantage. By blocking the democratic pathways to independence, the Tories risk exacerbating the Anglo-Scottish divide and bolstering Sturgeon’s argument that Scotland is being held hostage inside the UK, locked by its domineering English neighbour into a union it regards as increasingly illegitimate. Once a minority position in Scotland, backing for independence now routinely hits 50% and may well climb higher in the months ahead.

Likewise, Sinn Féin’s electoral ascent, hastened by Brexit, has prompted calls for a border poll on Irish unity. In May, a major survey of political attitudes in Northern Ireland indicated that support for the province remaining part of the UK had dropped by six points since 2020, from 54% to 48%. Meanwhile, Sinn Féin stands a strong chance of entering government at the next Irish election in three years’ time.

Having marked herself out as a Johnson loyalist during the Tory leadership campaign, Truss now has to reckon with the domestic political contradictions embedded in Johnson’s Brexit experiment. His 2019 coalition, which brought traditional Conservative voters in southern, middle-class constituencies together with traditional Labour voters in northern, working-class constituencies, is beginning to crumble. One poll, by JL Partners, published last December, indicated that 42 of the 45 ‘Red Wall’ seats that voted for Johnson three years ago because of Brexit will revert to Labour in 2024. The failure of ‘levelling up’, coupled with the steady stream of sleaze and incompetence that characterised the latter stages of Johnson’s premiership, has dented the broader electability of Tory politicians.

Truss hopes that her decision to freeze skyrocketing energy bills (10), funded by billions in additional government borrowing, will revive her party’s sinking poll numbers — and it may, for a while. But she has to cope with a number of countervailing pressures, one of which is her own natural libertarian hostility towards an expanded state.

Truss committed to the energy prize freeze announced on 8 September reluctantly, and only after it became clear that not doing so would have dire political consequences for the Conservative Party. Hence her insistence on a corresponding slate of supply-side reforms — the scrapping of green energy levies, cuts to National Insurance, lifting environmental controls on fracking and North Sea oil and gas production — that she believes will fire Britain’s ‘low-tax, high-growth economy’. To complement these reforms, Britain’s new chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng has pledged a bonfire of financial regulations aimed, in true Thatcherite fashion, at bolstering the size and scale of the City of London. On 23 September he laid out the full extent of his free-market vision with a mini-budget that slashed taxes for the ultra-rich.

Pressure from Labour

Another pressure stems from Keir Starmer, who seems to have outflanked Truss on the economy. Starmer’s pledge to impose an extended windfall tax on the profits of energy companies has proved hugely popular with the British electorate, less than a quarter of whom think the Tories are doing enough to protect ordinary voters from the impact of recession. As a result, he is now seen as the more appealing prime ministerial candidate. Forty-nine per cent of Brits believe he has a clear grasp of the problems facing Britain. For Truss, that number is 35%. And 40% believe he is in touch with everyday concerns, compared to Truss’s 28%.

Under Starmer’s lawyerly, some might say self-consciously dull, leadership, Labour has positioned itself firmly back in the centre ground following the radical interlude of the Corbyn era. Like Truss, he won’t negotiate with the SNP over Scottish independence. In a jarring break with Labour’s traditionally neutral stance on reunification, he has also said he will campaign to keep Northern Ireland inside the UK in the event of a referendum on Irish unity.

What’s more, there are tight limits to his progressiveness on the economy. Having initially promised to pursue ‘Corbynism without Corbyn’ (11), Starmer has since junked much of his predecessor’s economic agenda, including his commitments to public ownership and workplace democracy, in favour of a more orthodox policy platform.

Yet by commissioning former Labour prime minister Gordon Brown to re-examine the distribution of devolutionary powers to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, Starmer has tied himself to a potentially significant overhaul of the British constitutional system. Earlier this year, Brown said the UK’s unelected upper chamber, the House of Lords, should be abolished and replaced with a ‘senate of the nations and regions’. In the run-up to the 2014 Scottish independence vote, he said Holyrood, Scotland’s devolved parliament in Edinburgh, should function as a federal or quasi-federal legislative body. Starmer may adopt some, or none, of Brown’s recommendations, and the recommendations themselves may fall short of what is needed to bring British politics into the 21st century. But the fact that such seismic constitutional shifts are being talked about at all shows just how precarious the future of the UK has become.

As if to add to the underlying sense of crisis and decline in British national life, the UK is experiencing a wave of industrial unrest. Strike action was initiated by the RMT, the British rail workers’ union, in June and July, in response to surging living costs and static pay, but has since spread to other sectors of the economy — local council workers in Glasgow and Edinburgh, dock workers in Liverpool, bus workers in Bedford and Buckinghamshire. Some strikes were cancelled in the period leading up to the Queen’s funeral ‘out of respect’ for her and ‘her service to the country’, unions representing Royal Mail postal workers and UK rail staff said. But the stoppages were only temporary and more strikes are being planned for the winter. Beneath the veneer of national consensus after the death of a monarch, Britain’s fissures are deepening. UK goes from bad to worse, by Jamie Maxwell (Le Monde diplomatique

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