We revolt against the idea that elites seek power for its own sake. We are the descendants of the great ideological battles of the 19th and 20th centuries and believe that movements have a purpose. They exist to promote the interests of their class, the workers if they are left wing, the middle and upper classes if they are on the right. Or to develop a vision of the good life. Or to enrich their nation.
Yet for most of history it was taken for granted that rulers were solely concerned with protecting themselves and so it is in Britain today.
Most on the left hold on to a diluted version of Karl Marx’s historical materialism and think that the conservative state exists to defend capitalism. Or, to put that thought in language a Tory would accept, that the Conservatives provide the best guarantee of a productive economy.
But materialism cannot explain today’s Conservative government.The Brexit nationalists have wrecked the economy and with it the interest of their supposed masters in the middle and upper classes.
Brexit largely explains a shortfall of 5.2% – or £31bn – in the British economy at the end of last year, according to the Centre for European Reform. Inflation is rising at the fastest rate since the 1980s. Living standards are falling at the fastest rate since the 1950s. (Actually, they’re falling at the fastest rate since comparable records began in the 1950s, so they could be falling at the fastest rate since the 1930s, or the 1810s, or the dark ages, for all anyone knows.)
Although public institutions from the NHS to the military are visibly decaying, the tax burden is at the highest level since the 1940s. The Conservatives’ failure to nurture a productive economy has left the British paying higher taxes for worse services.
As Boris Johnson rose to power, voices from the left through to the former Conservative chancellor Philip Hammond advanced an economic conspiracy theory. They alleged that hedge funds funding the right of the Conservative party wanted the opportunities to take short positions that Johnson’s Brexit chaos brought.
There may have been disaster capitalists who did well out of the UK’s decline, but the truth remains that for the majority of capitalists Brexit has been the disaster. The City is not a monolith and banks, insurers and most asset managers opposed it. Indeed, Dominic Cummings and other Johnson allies tried to silence the Confederation of British Industry. They smeared it as an EU stooge for fear it might alert leave voters to dangers of their adventurism.
I simply do not see how anyone can rationally explain this government’s behaviour by saying that it promotes capitalist interests. If it has an interest it never dares cross, it’s an age group rather than a social class – pensioners. And its dependence on elderly socially conservative voters prevents it from taking measures that might ameliorate the crisis – rejoining the European single market and building homes where young workers need to live.
If people can no longer vote for the Tory party because it enriches them or their country, they may vote for it because they find the leftwing alternative ludicrous, or frightening or both. Deny it if you want, but “wokeness”, and particularly the trans rights campaign, is pushing many rightwards. If the British Labour and Liberal Democrat parties imitate the dogmatism of the US left, they could gift the Conservatives a fifth term.
But to join all those who say that the government’s purpose is now to uphold cultural rather than economic values is to ignore the reason why it hoards power.
It is not fighting a culture war by proposing bans on criticism of the British empire or demanding that universities hire set quotas of right-leaning academics. It is a reactive regime, closer to an opposition party than a government, which knows what it is against but not what it is for. And what it reacts most viciously against are threats to its power.
With the partial exception of the Telegraph, the Conservative press has become an arm of the Conservative state. In the past few weeks, it has denounced Robert Peston of ITN, the BBC’s Mishal Husain, Beth Rigby and Sam Coates of Sky and, it appears, everyone on Twitter, for doing the job it will never do and holding the government to account. “The Remainstream TV media’s hysterical anti-Boris Johnson obsession is nothing less than an attempted coup,” began one piece by a former communist that struck me as proto-fascist.
Meanwhile, the government itself will change the law to limit the ability of both the European Court of Human Rights and the British judiciary to contain ministers. Having lost two ethics advisers, it now says it may not appoint a third, and allow ministers and the prime minister to escape independent scrutiny.
Look closely at the legislation going through the Commons and you see the power grab rolling on. The online harms bill that will police the web allows the secretary of state (Nadine Dorries) the right to tell the regulators what “harmful” content to punish. More ominously, the government’s attempts at voter suppression, which could leave two million unable to cast a ballot at the next election, will remove the independence of the Electoral Commission by allowing ministers to decide the strategy and policy of what was the independent protector of fair elections. It’s as if a football club was giving itself the right to nobble referees.
Fighting an elite that believes only in its own preservation is harder than it looks. It will never say “our work is done and we can step aside”, as it has no tasks to complete or vision to realise beyond maintaining itself in power. At the next election, the opposition will have novel problems that I am not sure it has thought through. It must ensure that voters have the newly mandated ID and explain they must take it to the polling station or be denied the franchise.
Once, politicians would have worried about giving the state more powers, if only because of the self-interested fear that the opposition might become the government and exploit them for their own ends. No such fear restrains Conservatives. You can speculate that they must at some level believe that they will be in power forever. It is a matter of observable fact that they are pulling every trick to ensure that they are.