A little over a year ago, as the Covid crisis first hit, Boris Johnson made headlines for a self-assured declaration. ‘We are going to do it, we are going to do it together,’ he said, ‘one thing I think the coronavirus crisis has already proved is that there really is such a thing as society.’
Faced with a renewed spirit of collectivism, Johnson decided to make a very public break with the Thatcherite ideology which had been his party’s bedrock for decades. It was a smart move — but it wasn’t new. Even before his tenure, the Tories had identified the potential for Brexit to accelerate the realignment of British politics. Historic left–right divides based on class could be replaced by more contemporary ones based on culture — and not a moment too soon.
It had become increasingly difficult for the Right to defend the economy they created. Whereas once capitalism was seen as a dynamic system, synonymous with personal freedom and innovation, its public perception has dramatically changed. The 2008 Financial Crisis exposed the reality of a system driven by profit, aligning capitalism with words like ‘greed’ and ‘corruption’ in the popular imagination. Austerity made this situation even worse — as cutbacks which disproportionately impacted the working class drove home the idea that inequality wasn’t something incidental in capitalist society, it was part of the fabric.
This public disillusionment created the opening for the re-emergence of socialist politics. For years, the economy was seen as the safest ground for the Conservatives — parables about the government spending beyond its means were dutifully repeated by the media, and became common sense to such an extent that even a soft-left Labour leader like Ed Miliband stood on an austerian platform in 2015. But by 2017, it was clear that this had all changed. The public had turned against the cutbacks, and quite liked Jeremy Corbyn’s proposals to tax the rich, increase wages, and invest in public services. The Right found itself in a tough spot.
But the Conservative Party is one of the world’s oldest and most successful political parties for a reason. It is not simply a force of reaction — throughout its history it has constantly adapted to new circumstances in order to better defend property and the propertied. It is embedded in every institution of influence in British society, from local business to the mass media, the parish church to the military. Through these assets it has proven itself capable, more often than not, of reading the public mood and reinventing itself along a defined axis. Imagine, if you will, a great dial in party headquarters which turns, at the right moment, from individual to nation.
In the wake of a near-miss in the 2017 election, the Tories underwent a public transformation. Forces which had been on the fringes seized their opportunity to remake the party, a prime minister was ousted, and MPs with decades of experience — no small-fry politicians, the list included two former chancellors and Winston Churchill’s grandson — were purged from the ranks. Many on the left and in the liberal centre mocked this chaos, and saw in it an inevitable victory for progressive forces. In fact, it was a transition towards a new, potent right wing.
If the Conservative Party was going to survive a political earthquake which drove educated, suburban, middle-class people towards the Remain camp, it would need to rebuild itself on new foundations: as a national-popular political project. Whereas under Cameron and Osborne, the enemies had been ‘scroungers’ who were a drain on public finances, now they were cosmopolitan elites possessed by a sense of cultural superiority who had grown increasingly divorced from the lives of ordinary people.
As economic realities meant that a greater share of popular anger was directed upwards, the Tories adapted and found their own way to channel it. This was quite a transformation: they had, after all, been the greatest proponents of globalisation and the City of London. Now they had been sent to save us from them, defending the nation against faceless transnational institutions and the regions against London — ‘the Great Wen’. They could pull it off too, because their propaganda machine in the right-wing media would never point out the contradictions, and because the greater part of the Parliamentary Labour Party — committed to socially liberal corporate politics above all else — was content with such a realignment.
This process may have begun with Theresa May’s ‘citizens of nowhere’ speech, but she was never capable of carrying the project to its conclusion. The man for that job was Boris Johnson. If you were to design a politician in a lab to front the Tories’ national-popular project, it would probably be him. In a country whose sense of identity is so fundamentally grounded in the social mores of an aristocratic elite, here was one of its most charismatic scions — a product of its elite schools, an editor of its oldest publication, moulded into a public figure by its state broadcaster.
But he was modern as well. He could ridicule opponents, cut through as a personality and provide endless copy for the relentless news cycle. Helpfully, Johnson also had that particular ability for sentimentality which is so valued among Britain’s patriotic commentariat of all stripes — the ability of the statesman, never far from a bottle, to get dewy-eyed about the battles which others have fought.
Under Boris Johnson, the Tories reached out to Labour’s former post-industrial heartlands with a new message which combined greater state involvement in the economy with invective against the perceived victors of globalisation. They planned to disarm Corbynism in the economy and then defeat it on cultural grounds — casting Labour as the party of urban professionals and fracturing a significant portion of its historic working-class base. In an era of widespread popular anger against elites, the party of property had found its means to endure. And in December 2019, it won a generational battle to realign British politics.
In the wake of the election, many predicted that this Conservative transformation would be skin-deep: the party would soon revert to type. But the Right understands the capacity for great social change to sweep away stubborn political forces. In 2017, it met a real enemy for the first time in many years — not one that aimed to merely curb ruling-class excess, but one which threatened to call into question ruling-class politics itself. It did not matter that Corbynism was never robust enough to carry out that task, the point was that it had raised the prospect that property might be challenged and millions of people had found that appealing. This was enough to show that the terrain of politics had fundamentally shifted.
The Tories’ national-popular project is not just an exercise in communications. They have rummaged through Labour’s recent manifestos and stolen policy after policy: an increase in corporation tax, a national infrastructure bank, moving the Treasury to the North, rewriting investment rules to favour the regions, committing to increased green industrial spending. None of these will be part of the transformative economic plan which Corbyn and John McDonnell campaigned, but they are certainly pilfered from the same package. So, too, was the commitment to increase public spending by £18 billion in Rishi Sunak’s first budget — before the pandemic even hit.
The aim is not to improve conditions for workers generally. In fact, those continue to deteriorate. The wave of companies engaging in ‘fire and rehire’ policies while the government stands idle is evidence of that. There has been no move to outlaw zero-hour contracts, either, or introduce a living wage. A huge wave of redundancies has not been met with a serious jobs programme. Perhaps most tellingly, the public sector pay squeeze looks set to continue. The Tories are not changing the dynamics of how wealth and power concentrates — rather they are targeting their policies at precisely the subsections of the working class which they have won over, in order to further integrate them into the project.
This produces contradictions which will likely deepen in the months and years to come. Take, for example, the rail network. On the one hand, the Tories have pledged £500 million to reverse the Beeching cuts and tackle regional inequality by restoring services to cut-off areas. On the other, last year’s Spending Review saw Rishi Sunak cut £1 billion from Network Rail’s overall budget. Similarly, the Northern Research Group of ‘Red Wall’ Tory MPs recently announced an expanded budget and additional researchers — putting its overall staff numbers at a higher level than the anti–EU European Research Group at its peak. But one of the most prominent new Northern Tory MPs, and part of its Blue Collar Conservatives caucus, Dehenna Davison, is leading a pushback against so-called ‘big government’ policies alongside the Thatcherite Institute of Economic Affairs.
But if these are fault lines which run through today’s Conservatives, they are united around the party’s authoritarian turn. Through legislation like the Spy Cops, Overseas Operations, and Police Crackdown Bills, an essential unity has been found in their ranks. This makes a great deal of sense: the Tories have a new coalition and a hegemonic bloc in society, but they have not fundamentally altered the conditions that created such popular anger in the first place. In the era of Keir Starmer and focus-grouped centrism, the greatest threat to that hegemony comes from outside of official politics — from movements channelling deep-seated frustrations at injustice. A series of enabling acts to allow the repressive arm of the state to monitor, infiltrate, and stamp out these relatively nascent movements is logical.
It is consistent with their roots, too. It might be little remembered today, but the seed of the Conservative party was planted at Peterloo in 1819. William Hulton, who sent the Yeomanry into St. Peter’s Field on that day, would later play a pivotal role in the building of Conservative Associations in Lancashire which spread throughout the country in the 1830s. Robert Peel, who was Home Secretary at the time, was later despatched to form the Metropolitan Police. In 1834, he issued the Tamworth Manifesto which, in the historian A. J. P. Taylor’s words, ‘created the modern Conservative party on the ruins of old Toryism.’
Then, as now, the Right was shaped in response to the Left. They are the shadow of our defeats. And the reason is simple: behind all right-wing politics lies a fear of the popular interests we represent. At this time of deep demoralisation, that is something to remember.