Jhis country is in crisis. This is what the opposition parties, most of the media and, increasingly, the testimony of our own eyes are saying. With transport chaos, seemingly out of control inflation, constant political scandals, a collapsing currency, a fragmenting UK, deteriorating public finances, struggling public services and a wave of strikes which can last for months, this country is no longer stable, the state of success that it often claims to be.
It may not be time to panic yet. Proud old countries that had empires – France is another – can suffer periods of decline and self-doubt while still, for many people, being good places to live by world or past standards. Many Britons will have whispered to each other this week about the country going to dogs, while enjoying the everyday comforts their ancestors could only have dreamed of. During this week’s Tube strike, the hot streets of London were teeming with air-conditioned SUVs.
Yet the current crisis seems significant. Not just for its effect on people’s lives, but for the way it seems to discredit, bit by bit, a way of running the country that has ruled for 30 of the last 43 years. To adapt the famous slogan that helped Margaret Thatcher get elected in 1979, conservatism doesn’t work.
Even in the right-wing press, which has played such an important role in maintaining the conservative ascendancy, there is a growing sense that the country is on the wrong track. “Why is nothing working in a broken Britain? asks Josh Glancy in the Sunday Times. In the Telegraph, Sherelle Jacobs laments that “mediocre Britain has resigned itself to a harrowing cycle of decline”. The Economist calls Britain a “stagnant nation”, “stuck in a 15-year rut”. Four-fifths of this “rut” has been dug by Conservative governments.
The Economist continues: “Britain has been here before. In 1979… Margaret Thatcher lamented her declining economic situation [by saying], “Travel abroad and see how much better off our neighbors are.” Such comparisons between the current crisis and the British crisis of the 1970s have become so automatic in the right-wing press, as everywhere else, that an obvious question they raise makes little sense. been considered. If Britain’s problems have barely changed since the 1970s, then what problems have every Conservative government solved since?
The last time a Conservative administration was in terminal trouble, in the mid-1990s, the Conservatives took solace in having at least won the big battles during their tenure, decisively weakening unions and creating a free market economy. dynamic. This sense of achievement was heightened when New Labor reversed some of Thatcher’s reforms. During the 1990s, 2000s and much of the 2010s, there was a British convention that to be an adult politician of any party, or simply an adult participant in any political discussion, had to accept, gritted if necessary, that it was the Thatcher government and its Tory successors who had “got it right”.
How outdated that view seems now. While the British economy she is supposed to have revived for good lags behind its competitors, and even the supposedly emasculated unions are still capable of staging big strikes, Thatcher’s victories seem more and more partial and distant. Even within the Conservative Party there is growing doubt about Britain’s free market economy which it has largely created, expressed in panic plans to rescue struggling regions and other victims of capitalism with government handouts. ‘State. Last month, London’s financial newspaper City AM, an increasingly solitary champion of deregulation, asked with dark sarcasm on its front page: “Will the last free marketer to leave the Conservative Party turn off the lights, please.
Similar sadness and frustration permeate the posts of many readers on the popular conservative website ConservativeHome. Understandably, Conservative MPs are more reluctant to publicly express their disappointment at their party’s diminishing ability to govern. But the recent attack on Boris Johnson by Hereford MP Jesse Norman, one of the party’s most thoughtful figures, also reads as a critique of modern Tory rule. The government “seems to lack a sense of mission”, wrote Norman, minister from 2016 to 2021. “It has… no long-term plan”.
Many of those who fear the Conservatives think they have a plan: to stay in power as long as possible, by any means possible, and get as much power as possible. Yet while this project should be alarming to anyone who believes in democracy, it is quite narrow – narrower than trying to change the country, or even just administer it competently. And when Johnson’s government produces policies designed to change society, they often inadvertently point out how, despite having been in power since 2010, the Conservatives have failed to stop many social trends they don’t. dislike, such as the spread of awakened values and asylum seekers crossing the English Channel. . British politics has felt Tory dominated for years. British life, not so much.
It’s possible that replacing Johnson with a better administrator, or adopting consistent free-market policies, as some Tory ministers and newspapers want, would turn the Tories into a much more effective government. But this result does not seem very likely. After too long in power, the party has few new talents, and the credibility of liberal reforms has not recovered since banking deregulation wrecked the economy in the financial crisis.
Alternatively, the Tories could continue to use scapegoats to explain their lack of progress in government: the EU, the liberal elite, uncooperative trade unionists, or even the whole of Britain’s workforce -” among the world’s worst idlers,” according to Britannia Unchained, a 2012 book about returning to “growth and prosperity” co-authored by four current cabinet members. Beneath the bluster and grand promises, the Tory regime is often about blaming Britain’s failures: away from the party and the interests it represents, and onto everyone else.
Yet under Johnson, such fanciful political footwork now struggles to obscure an emerging truth. The great conservative experiment since 1979 seems to have failed. If Labor is ever to be in power as often as the Tories, they must seize the chance.