Wednesday, 18 May 2016

On Tory Weakness

British politics has taken a turn for the worse of late, but let's not forget its settled, normal status is weird. Today's Queen's speech - the outline of "her" government's legislative programme for the coming year - is a case in point. In the thinnest of gruel, which we will come to sift through for juicy morsels shortly, we had the bizarre spectacle of a 15th century relic promising space ports, autonomous cars, and more drones. I'm not sure this is what old Trotters had in mind when he wrote about combined and uneven development. Weird.

The mainstream have had all afternoon to pore over the speech and the jolly Commons back-and-forth about it. Everyone knows it's a slim document so Dave can concentrate on the EU referendum, so push a few eye-catching, future-facing, and largely uncontroversial policies to the front and spend the rest of them time thinking of ways of scaring people to vote remain. It's also the case that this is a government on the ropes. As Jeremy noted rather wryly this afternoon, given the multiple climb downs of recent months, there's little point committing to extensive timetables when uncertainty governs the chances of getting new legislation through. Which probably explains why the so-called British Bill of Rights, a real boondoggle if there ever was one, was present in name only, and the government's academy plans are back in watered down form.

On top of this, there's a few concessions to prison reform, the "right" to broadband and, bizarrely, a requirement that all porn websites verify that their viewers are over 18. Um, how? The sugar tax is in, as is the "repatriation" of the paltry sums foreign visitors "take out" of the NHS. More help for adoption (welcome), and a greater extension of internet surveillance (not so welcome). Absent from today's speech but sure to make itself felt further down the line are government proposals to accelerate the costs of university. Coming in the week the UCU announced strike action and action short of strike in response to a derisory 1.1% pay proposal by the employers, HE is set to be the next big battleground.

While this programme is thinner than Dave's skin, it can't all be down to wanting a quiet life while the referendum campaign trundles on. The truth is the Tories are knackered as a political force. They're out of ideas, falling to bits, and their decline carries on despite winning last year's general election. And this weakness is reflected in their tribulations trying to get legislation through this last 12 months. The problem the Tories have is to successfully implement policy, they need to have a coalition behind them to back them up. This coalition is typically drawn from business elites, sections of the public sector and the media, and descend into its support that loyally turns out at elections. See how these interests have publicly coalesced around the remain campaign, for example. Unfortunately for Dave, he was able to cobble together an alliance of convenience for the general election, but that barely extended into his second term. This lack of a supporting coalition is sowing division in the Tories far beyond the EU fault line. Divisions have opened over tax credits, disability cuts, academisation. It's likely to carry on as future hot buttons glow with the heat of controversy.

Related to this is the Tories lack strategic nous vis a vis wider society. Thatcher had it. When she took on the labour movement, it was in a series of set pieces that saw the government battle individual opponents one at a time. When Liverpool City Council demanded funds, Thatcher stumped up. When the dockers and the pit inspectors threatened action, the government quickly and generously settled. Blair took this lesson on board and avoided set pieces entirely (which he mostly did), preferring to either contract out disputes or nibble around the edges in a series of very small hit-and-runs on pension schemes, retirement ages, working hours, and so on. These lessons have been unlearned by the present lot and in their stupidity court multiple disputes simultaneously. As far as they're concerned, society is so much Play-Doh that can be twisted and cut into whatever shapes they desire. In truth, the social is an agglomeration of individual and collective actions and actors working toward real and imagined interests. They have a movement, a weight, and trajectories that head in certain directions. As much as some Tories dream of rolling back welfare to pre-Beveridge days, undoing the NHS, and stuffing the labour movement below stairs the force of social necessity prevents them. Doing so requires that "backroom" governing coalition, political will and determination, a willingness to openly deploy the forces of the state, and the copious use of officially-sanctified violence. Of course, we're nowhere near that situation now, but in abutting against collections of interests far less powerful than those Thatcher defeated and ruined, the Tories have had to retreat. They are hemmed in by social necessity and can do comparatively little.

When we say the Tories are useless, that's no longer a statement of judgement: it's a factual description of their predicament. This isn't to suggest they can no longer do damage to the social fabric and lives of our people - a smarter, more strategic approach to policy implementation could give them a little more wiggle room. But once the EU referendum dust settles, whoever is left standing will find their programme stymied at every turn. Our movement may be weak, yet in slightly different but important ways, so is theirs.


Ken said...

Twice in the past few days you've done this.

It's 'pore over', (the image, I think, being sweat dripping from pores in your forehead onto the paper you're studying) not 'pour over'.

There's an American socialist, Dave Walters, who invariably writes 'would of' for 'would have'. It's his identifying tic. Drives me nuts. Don't make 'pour over' yours.

Phil said...

Late night blogging is always to blame ...

Metatone said...

Interesting post.

I worry that you underestimate the damage they can do around the edges.

But overall it's a nicely hopeful message - I hope you are right that they are weak at heart, because we certainly seem weak and it's hard to believe we've found the recipe for getting stronger so far.