I won’t be the first commentator to note that the current perfect storm of crises, centred on Ukraine in the international sphere, the cost of living at home and Brexit somewhere in-between, barely registered in the Conservative Party leadership contest that, today, gave us a new Prime Minister.
It puts me in mind of the grisly but funny Bob Monkhouse joke: ‘I want to die like my father, peacefully in his sleep, not screaming and terrified, like his passengers’. Johnson, and now Truss, asleep at the wheel. The rest of us, well…
All of this might be shocking, but it’s not really surprising. Both candidates were looking to please a selectorate whose lives are largely insulated from current difficulties. I heard of someone who, when asked whether they now recognised the damage the Brexit they had voted for had caused, answered ‘well, I’m alright’.
But soon they might not be. When business closures start to rise exponentially, unemployment surges, tax revenue is lost, public services collapse – perhaps to a degree beyond even the 2008 crash or the pandemic – then maybe even the Tory selectorate will start to feel vulnerable. They still might not realise, though, that they only have themselves to blame.
Liz Truss has promised a policy to deal with all this very soon after taking office, but the omens aren’t good. If tax cuts really are the mainspring of her thinking, then the heaven I don’t believe in had better help us all.
In theory, of course, there’s supposed to be a ‘trickle down’ effect, with the less well-off benefitting from the increased spending power of the wealthiest in society. But we know how this works in practice, don’t we? The extra financial headroom for the wealthiest trickles down as far as the nearest supercar showroom.
I saw someone say on social media that the essence of conservatism is not wanting the government poking its nose in people’s business. This rather misses the point. Nobody wants the government poking its nose into their business. But they do want the government to be there to help them when needed. As the pandemic demonstrated, this applies to the private sector as much as to the private citizen.
Part of the problem here is that the current version of the Conservative Party is populated by people who believe in the free market above all else, and feel that it can fulfill most of the functions traditionally allocated to government. Of course, there are areas of our lives where you wouldn’t dream of looking to the state for help – buying a new phone, for example. But there are many others in which only government can help.
If you have it as an article of faith that government is a bad thing, the chances are that you’re not going to be very good at it. And so it has proven in an experiment that accelerated post-referendum into the laissez-faire chaos that passes for government today. As I said in my very first blog on this site, the business of government is difficult, and can’t be left to chance.
We need the state to orchestrate the various elements of civil society, or (to extend the metaphor) to act as the conductor of the national orchestra. With no-one in this role, you have a state of nature. With people filling the role without conviction, you have the haphazard, the half-hearted and the underwhelming.
The ‘good’, One Nation Tories got this. They understood the need to manage, and to strike the right balance between state and private sector. Johnson’s project, now adopted by Truss, was to squeeze the quart of reality into the pint pot of ideology, ejecting the One Nation-ers on the way.
Who believes that this can make our country better? Presumably the small number of people who have just voted to give us our new PM, in an electoral process that would make Viktor Orbán blush. Recent research by Dr Karen Stenner suggests that about a third of any population have an ‘authoritarian personality’. That doesn’t mean that they themselves are authoritarians, but rather that they dislike complexity and therefore seek out leaders offering simple solutions.
This presents a problem for the political centre. It’s not just those with authoritarian personalities who aren’t interested in the multitude of trade-offs and compromises that have to be made to get the system to work – it’s probably a substantial chunk of the electorate. People are busy getting on with their lives, so they’re not really interested in the political structures and processes, strategies, plans, resource prioritisation, legal constraints and checks and balances that give a complex modern society dynamic stability, like a cyclist peddling to stay upright. It’s like giving people the choice between trudging through the telephone directory (remember those?) or flipping a page turner.
Not that Prime Minister Truss has really offered a page turner so far. Or even a telephone directory. No vision to speak of; no detail to scrutinise. She starts her Premiership as asleep at the wheel as her predecessor.
But it could be about to get worse. What we should really fear is Truss waking with a start; surveying her surroundings with the ideologue’s thousand yard stare; pressing pedal to the metal on delivering the undeliverable; and taking us all careering towards a wall on which is written, in a shaky hand that is even more indecipherable than it was in 2016, ‘Brexit means Brexit’.
Screaming and terrified indeed.