The Tories aren’t as stupid as they’re made out. In fact, part of their cleverness has always lain in pretending that they are dumber than they really are. That’s how they escaped the guillotine (or hangman’s noose) in French revolutionary times – who could believe that these British upper-class twits could be worth executing? – and why we still tolerate them today. Boris Johnson’s main value to the Tories is to perpetuate this cuddly, eccentric image, so we won’t get too angry with the obnoxious ones with the real power; like – in the last government – George Osborne.
Boris’s shielding of Osborne, however, couldn’t last for ever. People were beginning to suss the latter out for the gratuitously austerian Chancellor that he was. That was in line with the tide of world opinion, which was turning against extreme free market capitalism on several fronts.
So the Tories’ next cunning plan has been to disown Osborne and his policies, just like that. Osborne himself was dumped unceremoniously. There was to be no more obsession with ‘balancing the books’. State intervention, now, would facilitate growth. Housing would be taken out of the hands of the ‘market’ alone. Rogue capitalists and rich tax-avoiders would be clobbered. Social inequalities would be ironed out. The slogan now was a State – a State, mark you – that works for everyone, not just for the fortunate few: the implication being, of course, that the previous government, Cameron’s, which Teresa May had been part of, had only worked for the toffs. As Cameron’s successor as Tory leader (and as prime minister), May seems to be embarking on a total makeover for the party that she herself once castigated as being perceived, at least, as the ‘nasty’ one. This could mark a political revolution as remarkable as any that New Labour (now Old Labour) would have brought about. And that without a single vote being cast – on this issue, at least. (The Brexit vote, and the political chaos that that unleashed, obviously played its part.)
A number of questions arise from this. The first is, can she keep it up? It’s easy to spell out wonderful ideals, but then also to stumble, in part because of circumstances beyond the idealists’ control. Look at Obama. That is, if we can credit that May really is an idealist, and not just a cynical manipulator of phrases, for party political gain. Will her more Right-wing backbenchers and rich backers be content to travel this new road? I imagine her new xenophobic rhetoric (below) might help. The Nasties will love that.
Secondly: where does it leave the Labour Party? Many of May’s new aims and objectives have been taken right out of Jeremy Corbyn’s book. That leaves Labour with hardly a single original progressive policy to stand on. It’s going to find the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, a less easy target than the monstrous Osborne. With its (ill-deserved) reputation for financial inefficiency, that could well hold Labour back. And then there’s the ‘immigration’ thing to factor in.
That is the Conservatives’ really clever stroke, of course. Opinion is fairly widespread already – it’s what boosted the Brexit vote – that people’s jobs, houses, school places and chances of being treated in British hospitals have been undermined by mass immigration in recent years. It is probably not true; but the new government’s sympathetic response to it – wanting to replace foreign doctors by Brits, to force employers to reveal numbers of immigrant workers, and so on – will feed and boost this prejudice. Disaffected ex-Labour voters will feel they’re being ‘listened to’ at last. That also spells danger for Labour.
The nationalist tone of much of the rhetoric coming from the Conservative camp just now suggests another kind of danger. As a self-proclaimed ‘citizen of the world’, though still a fond Englishman (and soon a Swede, I hope), I resented and feared her slight on my kind of internationalist: ‘a citizen of the world is a citizen of nowhere’. I’m alarmed by the physical attacks taking place against foreigners on English streets just now, which have proliferated greatly since Brexit. If May and her government are going to play that ‘nasty’ card over the next few years, it could be dangerous not only for the Labour party, but for the country, and even for the world; for this new exclusionary nationalism is not, of course, confined to us.
This is exactly the combination of appeals which has given rise to fascist movements in the past. Hitler was popular because he purported to be both a nationalist and a socialist (Nazionalsocialismus). Mussolini did the same. Donald Trump and Marine le Pen seem to be going down this road. It should be said that it doesn’t have to lead to Fascism. Way back in British history, Disraeli’s appeal to working-class voters was similar: in his case it was ‘social reform’ allied to ‘patriotism’. Let’s hope Theresa May’s nationalism goes no further than her illustrious Conservative predecessor’s did. She’s obviously not stupid; in fact she’s proving herself to be very canny. But the danger is there. It may depend on how Brexit goes. And we’re not there yet, of course.