A Post-Election Reckoning for British Politics
Leaving the European Union on January 31, 2020, will be UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s repayment of the debt he owes to the many Labour supporters who "lent" his Conservatives their votes. But "getting Brexit done" won't be enough for the Tories to hold on to their parliamentary seats.
LONDON – Speaking outside No. 10 Downing Street following his emphatic election victory, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson thanked long-time Labour supporters for having “lent” his Conservative Party their votes. It was a curious phrase, whose meaning depended entirely on context. The Tories had breached Labour’s strongholds in the Midlands and North East England on the promise of “getting Brexit done.” Leaving the European Union, as Britain will on January 31, 2020, will be Johnson’s repayment of the debt he owes these voters.
But “getting Brexit done” won’t be enough for the Tories to hold on to their parliamentary seats, as Johnson recognized. The Conservatives, he said, will need to turn themselves once again into a “one nation” party. For its part, if Labour is to regain its heartlands, it will need to find a way of reconnecting with its alienated supporters.
What this double reconfiguration entails is reasonably clear. The Conservatives will need to break with Thatcherite economics, and Labour will need to loosen its embrace of minorities and minority culture. Both will need to move back to a middle ground. The libertarian dream of a free market in both economics and morals does not resonate with an economically interventionist but socially conservative electorate.
Brexit was a reaction to economic betrayal, the British version of a European-wide revolt by what French President Emmanuel Macron called the “left-behinds.” This label is precisely right as a description, but overwhelmingly wrong as a prescription, for it suggests that the future is technologically determined, and that people simply will have to adapt to it. The state’s duty, according to this view, is to enable the left-behinds to board the cost-cutting, labor-shedding bullet express, whereas what most people want is a reasonably secure job that pays a decent wage and gives them a sense of worth.
No one would deny that governments have a vital role to play in providing people with the employment skills they need. But it is also governments’ task to manage the trade-off between security and efficiency so that no sizeable fraction of the population is left involuntarily unemployed.
Guaranteed full employment was the key point of consensus of the Keynesian economics of the 1950s and 1960s, embraced by right and left, with the political battle centered on questions of wealth and income distribution. This is the kind of dynamic center the Conservatives should try to regain.
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Any Toryism that seeks to be genuinely “one nation” must acknowledge that the fiscal austerity that the Conservatives imposed on the country from 2010 to 2017 caused great and unnecessary harm to millions of people. The Tories must show that they understand why austerity was wrong in those circumstances, and that the purpose of the budget is not to balance the government’s accounts, but to balance the economy at full employment. Deficits and surpluses reflect the state of the economy. This means that no effort should be made to cut the deficit when the economy is shrinking or to expand it when the economy is growing, because that produces deflation in the downswing and inflation in the upswing – exactly the opposite of what is needed. George Osborne’s greatest contribution to Toryism now would be to explain where and how, as chancellor of the exchequer, he went wrong between 2010 and 2016.
A party pledged to govern from the center should implement policies to stabilize the labor market. These should include a permanent public investment program aimed at rebalancing the United Kingdom’s regions and “greening” its infrastructure, together with a buffer of guaranteed public-sector jobs that inflates and deflates automatically with economic downturns and upturns. The beauty of the second lies precisely in its automaticity, guarding it against the charge of being at the mercy of vote-hungry politicians.
Together, these policies would limit business fluctuations, rebalance the economy geographically, and lay the ecological foundations for future growth. What they imply is a deceleration of the rush to automate and globalize, regardless of social cost.
Labour, for its part, needs to recognize that most of its voters are culturally conservative, which became clear with respect to Brexit. The election result disclosed a culture gap between Remainers and Leavers, which for a subset of London and university-campus-based Remainers amounted to a culture war between a politically correct professional class and a swath of the population routinely dubbed stupid, backward, and undereducated, or, more generously, misinformed. One symptom of this gap was the common media depiction of Johnson as a “serial liar,” as though it was his mendacity that obscured from befuddled voters the truth of their situation.
Political correctness ramifies through contemporary culture. I first became aware of a cultural offensive against traditional values in the 1970s, when school history textbooks started to teach that Britain’s achievements were built on the exploitation of colonial peoples, and that people should learn to feel suitably apologetic for the behavior of their forbears. Granted that much history is myth-making, no community can live without a stock of myths in which it can take pride. And “normal” people don’t want to be continuously told that their beliefs, habits, and prejudices are obsolete.
In the continuous evolution of cultural norms, therefore, a new balance needs to be struck between the urge to overthrow prejudice and the need to preserve social cohesion. Moreover, whereas the phrase “left behind” may reasonably describe the situation of the economically precarious, it is quite wrong as a cultural description. There are too many cultural left-behinds, and their cultural “re-skilling” will take much longer than any economic re-skilling. But such re-skilling is not the right prescription. Metropolitan elites have no right to force their norms on the rest of the country. Labour will need to remember that “normal” people want a TransPennine railway much more than a transgender future.
In short, just as the right went wrong in forcing economic individualism down people’s throats, so the left has gone wrong in its contempt for majority culture. In the UK, the price for elite incapacity in both areas has been Brexit; in Europe and the United States generally, it has been the growth of populism.
Economic and cultural utopians alike are destroyers: they want to tear down what has been built in order to create something more perfect. The dream of perfection is the death of statesmanship. Politicians who aspire to govern on behalf of the whole community should aim for the best possible result, not the best result possible.