Mourning in Late Britain

Living in the UK is a bit like living in a museum, in which popular culture is encouraged to steep in nostalgia for lost status. This can be quite bitter, rather like an over stewed pot of tea.

An aspect of early industrialisation and former global dominance here is the survival by inertia of archaic forms of governance mostly abandoned or overthrown elsewhere. Our Head of State has just changed, not by election and not on any political timetable, but because of biology. The former Queen was 96 and as healthy as anyone could be expected to be at that age; but died last week just two days after seeing Boris Johnson off, and Liz Truss in, as Prime Minister.

This is probably entirely coincidental. But we now have a new Head of State and new Prime Minister in the same week, in a bizarre two for one offer. From Elizabeth II and Boris Johnson to Charles III and Liz Truss. “Oh, brave new world that hath such people in it!”

As a result, we are now in a strange pause of “national mourning” in which almost everything is on hold. While they haven’t gone so far as to stop all the clocks, strikes by Rail and Postal workers have been suspended, the TUC postponed, no Party meetings or campaigning is taking place, Parliament has shut down, the media is wall to wall black suits mobilising a tsunami of deference for the old monarch and the new: even the football is cancelled for a week of Sundays, the last two Proms have been scrapped “out of respect” and the music on the Radio has a definite decaffeinated quality. Charles III declaring that this mourning period will extend to 7 days beyond the funeral is probably his first mistake. People will be grumbling.

More to the point, while everyone catches a breath, the underlying crises of what might be called “Late Britain” are building beyond a point that they can all be peacefully contained. In his first address to the nation, Charles III intoned gravely that “our values have remained, and must remain, constant.”

Fat chance of that.

The 2008 crash shattered the notion that things might go on relatively well or relatively badly, but it was all, ultimately, manageable. This went out the door with the boxes carried by the sacked employees of Lehman Brothers. Politics in the UK became more intense, and the unthinkable thought. Much of it fantasy.

This was writ large with Brexit – the notion that with one mighty bound, the UK could free itself from the shackles of EU restrictions holding back its natural market genius and long lost ubermench status, and go sailing off into the wider world, striking “easy” trade deals on favourable terms, especially with countries in the Global South; an approach openly referred to as “Empire 2” in some parts of Whitehall. Wishful thinking as policy.

This has not worked. Levels of private investment and private sector R&D – never high in the UK – have sunk to historic lows. So has growth. Poverty, particularly child poverty, has increased. Wage levels have stagnated or sunk. People in work are having to use food banks in ever increasing numbers. Life expectancy in poorer areas is dropping. People are having fewer children. The future no longer looks like a promise, more like a threat. And that’s leaving aside climate breakdown – which is exactly what they are now trying to do.

Since Brexit, the Tories are now on their third Prime Minister. Each replacement has been a move further right, with wider still and wider Brexit as goal and talisman. In the leadership election campaign over the summer, both candidates were agreed on the aims of deepening Brexit – decoupling the UK from the EU’s environmental and labour standards so the UK becomes more like the USA – but disagreed on the pace of it.

Liz Truss represents a minority of her Parliamentary Party – most of whom supported her rival, Rishi Sunak. Truss’s cabinet rests solely on her own faction – most of whom have essence of Ayn Rand on a drip feed into what passes for their souls – and promises war on all fronts. Stalling on climate action. War drive against Russia and China. Confrontation with the EU – and USA – over the Northern Ireland Protocol. Confrontation with the SNP. Redistribution of wealth up to those who don’t need it from those who do. Attacks on the right to strike and organise. Privatisation of the Health Service. Tearing up all remaining alignment with EU standards on labour and environment standards. War on woke (ie equalities). It’s hard to imagine that this will go well.

Her speech in Downing Street spelled out three priorities and challenges.

She did not mention climate breakdown, which makes everything else she said a form of displacement activity while we are waiting to die. Her list of infrastructure to invest in did not mention insulation but had roads in first place. Truss is backed by the Net Zero Scrutiny Group and Lord Frost, who opined during the week local temperatures exceeded 40C that he saw “no evidence” of a climate crisis, has appointed Jacob “2050 is a long way away” Rees Mogg to energy, plans to open up 130 new gas and oil fields in the North Sea and remove the ban on fracking, opposes onshore wind and rural solar farms. This is proclaimed as a way of increasing domestic energy supply in the face of rising prices, with the implication that this will ease the pressure on bills. It won’t. The quickest sources of low cost additional energy is onshore wind and solar, which she opposes. New North Sea gas and oil fields take 28 years to come into production on average. So, approval now will see them on stream in 2050 which, as Rees Mogg might remark “is a long way away”. It is also the point at which we need to have closed down fossil fuel production almost entirely if we want a planet we can live on. This is a kind of madness and a sign that these people are incapable of rising to the actual challenge of our time and, if left in power, will instead lead us to disaster.

Of the three, her first aim was to “get Britain working again”. This is curious, because employment levels are high, albeit often poorly paid, part time, insecure. Her “bold plan” is to make tax cuts and “reform”. Reform means greater insecurity for workers, greater “flexibility” for employers. Tax cuts benefit people with higher incomes most; which Truss formulates as a reward for “hard work”. In her book, people on low incomes don’t work hard and therefore deserve everything they get. Her presumption is that increased disposable incomes for the better off will lead to greater demand and therefore spark “business led” investment. But increased demand without investment, which is what we’ll get, will just fuel inflation, as it did in the US and beyond, with Joe Biden’s stimulus package. At best, this will be a clumsily inequitable way to try to partially counteract the recessionary impact of higher prices for necessities and increased interest rates leading to reduced demand across the board but seems guaranteed to entrench inflation into stagnation. It serves a political purpose of trying to keep the better off on board with the Conservatives, pulling the ladder up beneath them, consolidating a core vote and preventing total political meltdown. It may not be enough, even for that.

Her second is to “deal with the energy crisis”. The rise in fossil fuel prices started long before the Ukraine war and is now structured into the global economy, but the upward twist the war gave it could be resolved by a push for peace negotiations. As the Financial Times put it, “This coming winter will bring a reckoning. Western governments must either invite economic misery on a scale that would test the fabric of democratic politics in any country, or face the fact that energy supply constrains the means by which Ukraine can be defended.” As it is, Truss sabre rattles in faraway countries of which she knows little, and sometimes can’t pronounce, is pressing for a sharp increase in military spending to 3% of GDP, will try to ride out the economic misery, and will try to tear “the fabric of democratic politics” to do so.

She is standing on thin ice. But she will jump up and down on it all the same.

With UK based fossil fuel companies scheduled to make £170 billion in excess profits in the next two years, she has chosen not to impose a windfall tax on any of it. Shell, her former employer, paid £0 in UK tax in 2021, and she obviously thinks this is the way to go. Instead, the state will borrow up to £150 billion this year alone to subsidise energy costs at £2500 per household per year for the next two years (until the next General Election). Though the details of exactly how this scheme will work are still unclear, this heads off an immediate meltdown, as prices were projected to go up to over £5,000 by January, putting more than half of the population into fuel poverty. But this is still a rise of £600 on current levels, which are already pushing a lot of people into arrears (and this is during the Summer in which most people have their heating off and are just using their boilers to heat water, so this will still be a grim winter on this front and vulnerable elderly people are expected to die).

This is just one aspect of a general inflationary crisis, with prices rising at 13% a year (and projected to rise to 18% next year) while wages are falling well behind. Employers who are offering any rises at all are trying to lock workers into two or three year deals at below the current inflation rate while also proposing “modernisation” (a euphemism to cover cuts in holiday entitlement, pensions, safety measures, extra payments for unsocial hours etc). This is sparking a revival of trade union struggle, support and membership. Rail workers and Post Office workers and Barristers (!) are already engaged in a prolonged series of strikes and these, despite frantic efforts in the media to demonise and divide and rule, are very popular with the public, because everyone is under the cosh in the same way. Union leaders like RMT General Secretary Mick Lynch have become media stars and gained a lot of resonance putting straightforward common sense arguments that workers shouldn’t be expected to carry the can for the crisis when private companies are making massive profits, opening up a space in the mainstream for broadly socialist ideas for the first time since the defeat of Jeremy Corbyn in 2019.

Smaller scale and hard fought local or sectional disputes have often won substantial gains for the striking workers, so in the national disputes there has been a clear line from the government to the companies involved not to make any concessions at all, for fear that these struggles will become contagious. Truss aims to pass legislation to make strike action almost impossible to carry out legally, by imposing high ballot thresholds, while imposing “minimum service levels” if strikes do take place. If passed, in conditions of continued economic pressure, this will lead to what used to be called “wildcat” actions and, at the very least “quiet working” as the norm as resentful people struggle with an unfair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. The coordination of a prolonged series of one day stoppages in the existing disputes would provide a political focus both for the demands of the strikes and opposition to these measures that will spread far beyond them.

Her third priority is to “put our health service on a firm footing”. In her book, that means privatisation. US style labour and environment standards also imply US style health care. Needless to say, this is not popular, even among conservative supporters. When Boris Johnson put his big lie, that leaving the EU would save the UK £350 million a week” on the side of his campaign bus in 2016, the strap line was “let’s spend it on our NHS”. The “our” in that slogan is heartfelt across the country. Anyone who tries to break it up for private insurers to leach off will be well and truly loathed.

Truss could be an easy magnet for that. Trying very hard to be a two dimensional cardboard replica of Margaret Thatcher, she has the brass neck that comes as standard with Tory MPs, but also seems to have had a charisma and empathy bypass operation. It used to be said of Johnson that he was Teflon. Nothing stuck to him. It took a while, but it did in the end. That has never been said of Truss. Excruciating mash ups of her most embarrassing moments are doing the rounds on social media. Just google “Truss cheese speech” for an example. With Johnson’s calculated buffoonery it was possible to believe that, as the old Habsburg joke had it, “the condition of the realm might be terminal, but it’s not serious”. Truss doesn’t do humour, except unintentionally. And she has a gift for dropping unnecessarily antagonistic remarks which exacerbate crises that need emollience, like her comment that SNP leader and Scottish First Minister is an “attention seeker” who should be “ignored” or that workers in the UK are “the worst idlers in the world” who should “graft” more: which won’t exactly endear her to them.

As the polls turn south, the pound sinks slowly in the West, possibly dropping below parity with the dollar for the first time ever, and the nemesis of the 2024 General Election approaches for Tory MPs, expect trouble in Parliament as they fight like ferrets in a sack to keep their jobs. It has been reported that 12 of them have already written letters of no confidence, all ready to go. Some honeymoon period.

Nevertheless, I suspect that the calculation is that whatever they do, the Conservatives will probably be out at the next election in 2024, so they might as well go for broke in the meantime; in full confidence that an incoming Labour government led by Keir Starmer will reverse none of it. The task in the labour movement is to generate such a mobilisation against Truss’s measures that the momentum has to be carried over into government.

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