Friday, 23 September 2022

Naked Toryism

The Conservative Party is the party of privilege. It exists to defend inequality, and to foster inequality. It's its raison d'etre. Since 1979, it has won elections and governed the country by attacking trade unions, scapegoating and whipping up division, and a concerted, continuing cultural project to individuate, atomise, and disrupt collective resistance before it emerges. Having enjoyed power for 12 years, under Boris Johnson's leadership they turned the trick all electorally successful Tory leaders have pulled off: convincing millions that the minority interest is the majority interest, and life is best served by keeping this essential truth untouched. No Tory leader is ever open about this, hidden as it is under layers of schmalz, patriotism, fear, and not a few crumbs to convince enough people to stick with their party. For Thatcher it was council housing and cheap mortgages, the chance to own shares, and a promise of a peaceful life untroubled by unruly trade unionists. For Major it was an end to the Poll Tax, and the assurance they could get an economy back on track after derailing it in the first place. For Dave, a promise to avoid saddling the costs of the banks' bail out on the shoulders of "the strivers", and making the poor and the public services-dependent pick up the tab instead. And for Johnson, it wasn't just breaking the annoying Brexit logjam but offering a vision of wealth spread evenly across the country. Each had an offer with some broad appeal, because if the capitalist class is going to keep on troughing they need a party with a mass following to allow them to carry on. Hence why the Tories are a fundamentally dishonest enterprise.

In his mini-budget address, Kwasi Kwarteng declared we were entering into a new era. He was certainly right about that. It's not just the fact the Tory energy price freeze protects the profits of the humongously wealthy suppliers, nor that his income tax cuts shovels more into the gaping maws of the rich, nor that the abolition of stamp duty will be trousered primarily by landlords and property developers, nor that regulation-free special enterprise zones allows for even more tax dodging and higher rates of exploitation, nor that city slickers will toast the lifting of the bankers' bonus cap, nor that it means more punitive hoop jumping for those subsisting on Universal Credit, nor that the vast borrowing has sunk the pound against major currencies, making imports more expensive and stoking inflation. No, this budget, the worst, most retrogressive budget delivered by a chancellor since the 1930s does offer something new - perhaps epochal. This is the first time in its 200 year history that the Conservative Party have stopped pretending to be a party of all of the people, or even a plurality of the people. The ghastly partnership of Truss and Kwarteng have junked the crap and are presenting themselves unapologetically as the party of the rich, of the government of the wealthy by the wealthy. The oligarchy is all that matters. This is the era of naked Toryism.

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Tuesday, 20 September 2022

The Drivel of Trussonomics

Liz Truss thinks she's still running in the Tory party leadership contest. Her media round with Sky News and the BBC made for painful watching. Painful because what she said spells bad news for our people.

Before the Queen's passing derailed politics, Truss had outlined the bare bones of her energy price freeze. An effective cap for most households of £2,100 and to be paid for, it seems, by government borrowing. Pressed in New York about the funding, she said we can expect the detail in Kwasi Kwarteng's statement this Friday. One supposes it wasn't sight of the figures that had him chuckling his way through the Queen's funeral. As such, Truss barely advanced on her previous arguments. Taxing energy price profits "discourages" investment, and that her proposed tax cuts for the rich - which were so extreme that even arch-Thatcherite Rish! Sunak opposed them in vituperative terms - would magic up economic growth. It's straight out of the blessed Margaret's speeches. Keep taxes low, businesses will invest more, more jobs are created, and all told more taxes flow back to the Treasury.

It's nonsense. Ignoring misleading accounts that measure investment by billions, during the 2010s investment has more or less stagnated. Investment by percentage of GDP is in long-term decline and has been since 1970. Historically, despite the narrative of the stagnant and uncompetitive 70s, investment was higher then that at any time subsequently, save the private building and privatisation bonanza of the late 1980s. Yet the very opposite was supposed to happen, if we accept Truss's argument as good coin. Thatcher slashed taxes for the wealthy, and the Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition followed suit. Using an identical justification, they cut the top rate of income tax, and since 2012 have whittled Corporation Tax down from 24% to 19%, where it has been since 2017. Far from winning more investment, there's a stronger case that evidence of the last 40 years reduces it.

Why? The answer is partially there in Truss's arguments: the route out of the crisis relies on putting money in people's pockets, but the evidence shows allowing business to keep more and more of the wealth we make for them is no way to grow an economy. Indeed, what the Tories have shown in stark terms is that profit is increasingly decoupled from economic growth, conventionally defined. Not-at-all coincidentally, this is related to the country's persistent productivity problem - which, in annual percentage change terms, mirrors the falling rate of investment. What we have seen under successive governments is profit-taking at the expense of investment. More money flows to shareholders, and instead of getting ploughed back into entrepreneurial activity it's salted away to the offshore tax havens. Only a comparatively small amount goes into luxury spending, and purchasing diamond encrusted wrist watches, mansions with multiplex cinemas in the basement, and tacky super yachts aren't going to stimulate economic activity anywhere near as raising wages or giving everyone direct cash payments would.

The best indicator of future behaviour is past behaviour, therefore no one should believe Truss's drivel about her tax cuts stimulating anything other than profits. It's no use saying Truss is wrong, either. Given the data available to her as a senior politician, she simply has to know her arguments are bogus - an awareness she shares with all senior Tories. What her "plan" is about is not providing jobs or raising wages or encouraging investment, it's to carry on the project her party has pursued since 1979: the uninterrupted transfer of wealth from our class to theirs.

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Sunday, 18 September 2022

The Queue

We may never see its like again. Snaking its way from Bermondsey to Westminster Hall, The Queue formed up over five miles. At its peak waiting times lasted for 14 hours, an exercise in patience and devotion hundreds of thousands of the Queen's loyal subjects greeted with sombre enthusiasm. The Queen was, apparently, with them during her long life and in death it's right and proper those she reigned over recognise her service by, uncomplainingly, standing in line for hours on end.

The Queue affirms what we already know: that millions are enthusiastic about royalty, and are drawn irresistibly to monarchical spectaculars like pilgrims to shrines, and understanding this doesn't rely on much abstraction or high theory - often it's a case of listening to people talking about their personal relationships with royalty.

As noted here many times, celebrity is at once near and distant, a juxtaposition of the familiar and the unknown. After the Church, monarchies were the first institutions to build these concrete-but-abstract relationships, and The Queue embodies this tension. In life, no British monarch has met as many of their subjects, with some estimating figures of around 15 million people. For many of those, they have a piece of the Queen that is uniquely theirs. Metres away and insensible to the flows of humanity gushing by her coffin, in death The Queue reaffirms and renews this individuated fealty. Listening to the stories, meeting the Queen when one was a school girl, the Queen as a stable background presence, the Queen as an inspiration during military service, the Queen as a symbol of a simpler past, and the Queen as a projection of what is good about our national community, The Queue is less a clearing house and more a chorus of intention, a hymn to an essentialised unity bringing together us Brits and everyone who wishes us well.

The Queue draws out the motivations for being there, arranging them in one direction and with one overriding goal - a multitude gladly shuffling along to subsume their singularity into a collective of one: a supra, semi-mystical sovereign body of duty, national community, and kindness. In the absence of other strong sources of collective knowing and feeling, the monarchy and the nation are almost the natural repository for such longing. It's therefore not surprising that the diminution of the individual before the awe many say they felt as they walked by the coffin has provoked a strange egalitarianism, albeit a negative one in which inferiority is internalised and recognised in others and affirmed by participating in this spectacular procession. The backlash against VIP queue jumpers is because they violate the spirit and disrupt the doxa these hours' long devotionals are sustaining.

Politically speaking, The Queue is a triumph. Not for Liz Truss or any political party. The Queen was above party politics, after all. But it shows that not only does the British state retain legitimacy for plenty of people, perhaps even more want it to have legitimacy. Their desire is for a higher power that will make sure everything is alright, a reassuring presence that ensures continuity and an everyday sense of security, peace, and fairness. Far from being imperilled, if the ruling class and their political satraps play their cards right their power and privilege is as secure as it ever was. The usual Tory V Labour knockabout will resume after the funeral, but the core, anti-democratic institutions of state are fine. And if they're doing okay, if the hereditary principle still has mass purchase, a challenge to the lynchpin of their power - capital, property, and the wage relation - remains a far away prospect.

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Thursday, 15 September 2022

Working Towards the Crown

Beeps on Morrison's checkouts turned down to show respect. Flights from Heathrow cancelled to show respect. Food banks shuttered to show respect. Cancer diagnosis and treatment services closed to show respect. A handful from a burgeoning catalogue of misguided, bizarre, and in some cases dangerous decisions taken to mark the passing of the dear departed.

What we've seen over the last week are examples of "working towards". This sort of thing happens around powerful people all the time, an attempt by minions at a remove from the sovereign personage to anticipate and meet their wishes. If their efforts are appreciated, that might be rewarded with promotion, favour, or they simply get to remain in a zone of non-punishment and avoiding being made an example of. At the risk of earning the ire of someone somewhere with a Hitler comparison, it is well known that he maintained a distance from his subordinates, which basically invited his lackeys to compete among themselves to catch the Fuhrer's favour. And, as the ultimate seat of authority and power in the Third Reich, the top Nazis did so with alacrity - which saw many of them convicted of war crimes charges at the Nuremberg Trials.

The Queen and the royals, however, are not dictators. They might be petty tyrants in their own households where courtiers and palace flunkies play the game of second guessing the royal wish, but ordinary folk gushing about the time they witnessed the Queen drive past or met her at the opening of a refurbished town hall aren't so motivated. There are no rewards for standing in the mother of all queues, apart from meeting the internal desires driving their ritualised devotion. Indeed, obsequiousness is its own reward for devoted, loyal subjects.

The reasons for enthusiasm for the royalty are at once complex and easily grasped, but what motivated the likes of Center Parcs, before the inevitable u-turn, to announce it was turfing out its guests for 24 hours as a mark of respect? Judging by the ludicrous nature of the proposition, this obviously came right from the top of the company because the plan wasn't killed until the backlash bit. Junior, public-facing layers of the firm would not have made such a stupid suggestion. They did roll back saying guests would be allowed to stay, but they would not be allowed outside. Truly a case study in a marketing meltdown to be studied in business classes for years to come. But again, why act so dumb in the first place?

It comes back to the aforementioned zone of non-punishment. In implicitly coercive situations, there are also powerful incentives to remain just so. At the risk of indulging a little rational choice, showing initiative runs the risk of failure and humiliation. Better to stay quietly competent, unnoticed, and going with the flow. And most of the time, it works a treat. Millions of people get through their careers dwelling entirely within its terms, and the more familiar one is with the setting the easier melting into the background becomes. But this is not available in competitive and/or uncertain environments. Businesses compete for market share, and it is received wisdom that PR faux pas costs customers. In politics, saying the wrong thing might invite press condemnation and the voters' wrath. Better be safe than sorry.

This is exacerbated even further when something abruptly changes and no one knows quite what to do. In these anomic situations, playing it safe might be the riskiest activity of all. Our Center Parcs friends, for instance, assumed that most people are either monarchists or have affection/respect for the institution and the late Queen in particular, wanted to be seen to be in tune with popular grief, and wanted to avoid attracting adverse coverage that could cost sales and profits. By making a series of seemingly rational calculations, turfing people out of their chalets to show respect for the Queen was the worst possible decision and has made them a national laughing stock. Matters get more serious when we're talking about food banks and medical services. Are food banks worried bands of enraged monarchists are going to demand their closure for helping feed the poor? That donations would dry up? Similarly for GP and hospital appointments, are practice and NHS managers afraid the press are going to splash on woke doctors and nurses who saw to their patients during the Queen's funeral service? That Tory ministers would find this another excuse to restrict funding? (Well, actually ...). In each situation, they were caught on the hop. They did not know what to do, and so the conservative strategy, of going along with official encouragement to observe the mourning, they abbreviated all common sense because common sense did not seem appropriate.

No one has to pull a lever to bring about perverse outcomes when the perception of pressure and sanction does the job more effectively. It's another occasion of where attempting to act rationally leads to irrational outcomes and invites the pain that was trying to be avoided. These are all examples of where working towards the Crown meant acting against the people. How appropriate.

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Tuesday, 13 September 2022

Lucretius For Our Times

The philosophy of the ancients is not my bag. Keeping up with modern matters theoretical is hard enough. Besides, who needs to with the Acid Horizon comrades around? In this utterly brilliant episode with Thomas Nail (author of Marx in Motion, among many other works), the theory and complicated legacy of the Roman poet/philosopher Lucretius. Seems a bit obscure? Not at all. The theory of materialism unveiled by this discussion is only now influencing radical social theory - and one that, in my opinion, holds incredible promise.

Monday, 12 September 2022

Fluffing the Energy Price Freeze

It was supposed to be the biggest event of last week. Until, in the words of BBC news reader Clive Myrie, Liz Truss's energy price plan was "insignificant now" as the news started filtering out about the Queen. If only that was the case, and her royal demise meant plummeting fuel bills and was no longer an issue. Unfortunately, they have not gone away and despite assurances Truss gave in the Commons, millions of people still fear what Winter may bring.

Recalling the time before politics got wiped out by official mourning, Truss announced a price freeze capped at a household average of £2,500/year for the next two years. The Tories are continuing with Rish! Sunak's energy bill relief. That amounts to a £400 discount on energy bills for every household, and additional support for pensioners, the disabled, and people receiving some social security payments.

On the question of paying for it, Truss skimped on the necessary detail, which has since been ably dissected, but she avoided the most obvious political pain: the suggestion users would cover corporate profits with a levy spread out over ten or twenty years on energy bills. Not even Truss is that daft, it appears. Instead, the mooted £150bn cost is going to get paid out of government borrowing. A move guaranteed to get sections of the parliamentary party a touch sweaty. But it does come with a possible flip side for the fiscally conservative.

Those who were taken with Jacob Rees-Mogg's plans to butcher the civil service now have the perfect excuse to swing the axe. Truss said little to nothing about another round of cuts during the leadership campaign, but the stacking up of even more borrowing on top of the Covid debt is just the pretext more austerity needs if Truss finds certain quarters of the public sector bothersome. 2022-24, however, is not 2008-10 and it's difficult to see that this would appeal outside the pensionable and propertied core Tory support.

Truss has avoided the most obvious bear trap, but there are two difficulties to bear in mind. Keir Starmer's reply to Truss's statement last Thursday saw his best Commons performance since becoming Labour leader. His critique, that Truss's outright refusal to tax the energy companies' surplus profits, was more about protecting payouts to shareholders than ensuring people could heat their homes was spot on. Also, credit where it's due, he understands that people are angry with gas and electricity firms for ripping them off and would like to see them punished for it. There are significant problems with Labour's price freeze policy, but it does offer a way of kicking the energy fat cats by making them cough up. Truss's preference for sticking the price freeze on the never never ham-fistedly aligns her government with deeply unpopular outfits, something she didn't have to do. If Labour has any sense, it should spend the next two years hammering away on this.

The second is how Truss presented her plan. The £2,500 price cap figure Truss announced is all millions of people are going to have seen. This compares unfavourably to Labour's £1,971. It doesn't matter that, in practice, the cap works out as £2,100 for everyone and will actually be less than that given energy prices rises aren't going to be as eye-watering as forecast come October. Truss nevertheless gave that impression, millions will still be worrying about costs, and this only increases their antipathy toward her. Something the lengthy break from politics is likely to exacerbate as Truss trails the new King around the country on his investiture tour and says nothing.

On Monday the first proper poll of Truss's reign was published, and while her coronation has produced a bounce the Tories trail Labour by seven points. She needed to knock it out the park with this one, and while not the disaster some on the government benches feared, her framing of the freeze and decision to shield profits means she starts her premiership on the back foot. Not the most auspicious of beginnings, and not one likely to get much better.

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Sunday, 11 September 2022

Royalism and Labourism

The Labour Party officially greeted news of the Queen's demise as the constitutionalist outfit it is. Keir Starmer said nice words about the recently departed, and his Twitter feed given a sombre make over as a mark of respect. None of this is surprising. Rare have been the moments when the party has found itself troubled by republicanism. But what was a bit more of a shock for some comrades was the pulling of strike action. Commenting, General Secretary Mick Lynch said "RMT joins the whole nation in paying its respects to Queen Elizabeth. The planned railway strike action on 15 and 17 September is suspended." Similarly, the CWU called off postal strikes for this weekend. You might expect tributes to the monarchy from the Labour leadership, but demobilisation by two of the most militant unions in the land? How to explain?

The immediate reasons aren't too difficult to fathom: it's a question of PR and optics. Had strike action gone ahead, the hounds of hell would have got unleashed by the press with leading trade unionists subject to the bin emptying treatment and possibly getting set up for assaults by over enthusiastic royalists. Further, RMT action on the rail might have disrupted the transportation of the Queen's body from Balmoral to London. And there's the issue of the establishment using her death as a wedge between the strike leadership and more politically conservative workers going along with action. Then there are wider concerns. During the Summer, the RMT won the public relations war against the government. They've come to the conclusion this could be jeopardised if they are seen to be "disrespectful". The downside is it interferes with the momentum and tempo of the struggle, effectively introducing a cooling off period that might impact negatively on subsequent rounds of strikes. With republican sentiment a minority position even in the labour movement, our union leaderships had to weigh up the pros and cons and, unfortunately, I think they've made the right call in this instance. Class struggle, after all, doesn't mean putting your foot on the accelerator come what may.

As some observed on social media, the death of the Queen has found the British left more British than left. Or, at the very least, its mainstream mass institutions. And they have a point, but this is a challenge to be confronted and not a moment for Dave Spart posturing. If strike action is called off because mass fealty to the royal family might be offended, we have to understand not just how monarchism is produced and reproduced, but also how it is rarely challenged within the labour movement. I'd suggest there are two historically interrelated points to this, one of which has somewhat withered on the vine. One is the push for respectability, and the other is the labour movement's integration into mainstream society.

The contradictory and self-destructive history of Labourism is well known. The earliest trade unionism in this country was less characterised by revolutionary aspirations, and more by taking our (capitalist) society for granted but securing a recognised place and a "fair share" for workers within it. In the 19th century, as the labour movement grew it understood that this could be secured by industrial action and negotiations with political elites. The original alignment between unions and the old Liberal Party was based on the view of their being more amenable to offering concessions. The Labour Party came about when most trade union leaderships became convinced, thanks to long experience, that it was not and therefore required a party of its own. When the new party took the field and began playing the constitutional game, the dominant right wing tendency of Labourist politics shifted. From subordinating industrial struggle to not upsetting cosy relationships with Liberal MPs, it became one of making sure disputes and strikes played second fiddle to the Labour Party's political needs. And this was always defined in terms of not upsetting public opinion, which itself is an imagined assemblage of establishment/press/middle class opinion. What justifies this is the belief, seldom realised in practice, that Labour governments are the only means of achieving progressive ends and meeting the aspirations of workers available. It's not much of a leap from this to believing that industrial struggle and strikes are unnecessary and, for some, completely wrong.

This preoccupation leads to a politics of respect, which is not earned by establishing and defending the interests of a constituency, status group, or class, but through the practice of supplication and capitulation to established power. If Labourism is premised on sharing out the proceeds, it never questions how these are produced in the first place. Rather than a structural feature, exploitation is a moral outrage that can be tackled through legislation or organising "partnerships" with good employers. Likewise, the state is a capitalist state, but government and legislation shows we can abolish unfairness by the law and inequality through economic policy and public spending. If the focus on wages and conditions is the bread and butter of trade unionism, an economistically-defined welfarism and fairness is the province of Labourist politics. Issues of high politics are awkward because, unless they impinge on the province proper to Labourism, they aren't really much of a concern. Or rather, to establish the goals of Labourist politics respect demands its accommodation with the status quo. An understanding that is less resisted and more embraced as generations of Labour politicians and not a few general secretaries have availed themselves to the trappings of preferment - titles, gongs, sinecures in the Lords. Becoming respectable then sanctifies Labourism, its party, and its movement with official recognition and an acknowledged place at the table.

This is the politics of royalism in the labour movement, and one that reached its height in the post-war period. The partial integration of trade unions into governance was the highest honour British capitalism could bestow, and many a union reciprocated and became disciplinary agencies of (some might say over) the working class. But it's not just a top down affair. It afforded a sense of dignity and place in the national story. Far from having no country, Britain was a workers' country too and it was great because of their efforts. Millions of workers knew their position and value in a status hierarchy atop which sat the Queen. And, as distant as she was, Elizabeth II was their Queen, her party political neutrality a reflection of the state's class neutrality Labourism wanted to and forced itself to believe.

With the post-war period long passed, since 1979 the material wellspring of the labour movement's respectable, royalist politics has diminished. It was destroyed by Thatcher's brutal deindustrialisation (compare with Harold Wilson's). This liquidated the foundation of industrial unionism, and her authoritarian ruling class politics ejected trade unions from any role in governance. The chains of office were swapped for the chains of repressive legislation. Thereby the glue that held working class monarchism together came unstuck, renderings its foundations shaky and vulnerable to slippage. The second consequence of the Thatcher years was the multiplication of individuated governance. I.e. Neoliberalism. Through institutional design, backed by blanket messaging and socialisation the isolated but entrepreneurial individual became the de facto human condition, and the only subject institutions would respond to. If you don't engage on these terms, public agencies would either ignore you or sanction you. The atomised individual was the axis of creativity and hard work, the locus of choice and responsibility. With the neoliberal subject thrown onto its own resources, it stands to reason the highest authority is the self. I.e. You live and die by your choices, and only you - not a benevolent other - can make them. This can be experienced as insecurity, and help explain why millions cling to symbols of nationhood. Or it can count toward explaining irreverence and the crisis of legitimacy institutions of state are experiencing, including the monarchy.

Without the same relationships sustaining royalism in the labour movement, it now relies on the economics/politics split practised by the unions and the economism/high politics division in the Labour Party. Political education does not take place, so constitutional issues are left a free for all. But there still remains some incentives that support the monarchical given. Right wing trade unionism and its investment in how things are. And most of Labourism, ranging from the soft left to the right for whom republicanism is at odds with respectability and avoiding wedge issues that might get in the way of building a winning voter coalition. Plenty on the left capitulate to this, including self-described Trotskyist organisations, for whom high politics are distractions from the proper struggle against cuts and job losses. And there is a legacy of the postwar period, which casts a long shadow over trade union officialdom.

This means labour movement royalism is quite thin. And it's under pressure. Not just from neoliberal cultures emphasising hard graft and individual accomplishment, but from the experience of class itself. As recounted plenty of times, the contours of class have changed, as have the "rewards" of wage labour. With millions locked out of property acquisition, career prospects non-existence, precarity standard, and little space for freedom and dignity at work, the irreverence unwittingly stoked by Thatcher is building, and building, and building. It exploded once with the Jeremy Corbyn moment. It is sustaining the movements of our time, such as Black Lives Matter and Don't Pay UK. It's now feeding into mass mobilisation in workplaces, and it's going to carry on until the polarisation of politics ends in either a decisive victory for our people, or some new compromise that allows British capitalism to carry on, albeit with a new settlement.

Ultimately, royalism's persistence is a failure of our politics because the left as a whole does not take its politics seriously. Republicanism raises the question of how we are ruled, we absolutely have to talk about it, and the issue cannot be ducked by a workers' movement that wants to win, and win permanently.

Friday, 9 September 2022

The Precarious Monarchy

The statements from Liz Truss and Keir Starmer about the Queen's death sum up establishment feeling about her. For the new Prime Minister, "Queen Elizabeth II was the rock on which modern Britain was built." For the Leader of the Opposition, "Above the clashes of politics, she stood not for what the nation fought over, but what it agreed upon. As Britain changed rapidly around her, this dedication became the still point of our turning world." Variations on a theme. The Queen was constant and forever, and her end was unimaginable because very few people now living were adults when she ascended the throne. For both party leaders, their statements were well pitched because their sentiments are shared by millions of people.

Two days' worth of coverage bears this out as journos hang around Buckingham Palace doing their vox pops. For most, she was distant but close. The Queen enjoyed a luxurious life removed from the lives of those who looked up to her, but that she stared out of the television screens, newspapers, and the occasional photo portrait hanging on the wall meant her presence was felt. And even though the Queen abided by saying and doing nothing apart from the endless round of official engagements, all the while the palace commanded the most sophisticated spinners - aided by the popular media's fawning deference - to weave a narrative of duty, conscientiousness, and loyalty about her person. Even The Crown, the Netflix drama deemed scandalous by self-appointed Royal guardians, reinforces the message. And these impressions stuck even more over the last year. We've watched the Queen become more frail as she carried on her responsibilities even after the passing of Philip. For millions of people, this is what service and dedication looks like.

Which then presents something of an anomaly. Go back 18 months, and there is arguably less state-mandated disruption than was the case following the Duke of Edinburgh's passing. There's certainly more absurdity, with everything from catalogue shops, gay porn websites, and McDonald's self-service counters paying tribute to the Queen. Think They Live, but with every screen and paper carrying Elizabeth II's image. But there are also more avenues of escape. In April 2021 the BBC cleared everything and cancelled programming. In September 2022, BBC1 and ITV1 are wall-to-wall official mourning but everything else is running almost normally. Yours truly was able to enjoy Haddaway, Take That, and Kim Wilde on the Top of the Pops 1993 reruns as scheduled. This is in marked difference to the response to the death of Princess Diana 25 years ago. Granted, her death was sudden and unexpected, but all five terrestrial channels were stuffed full of Diana coverage and tributes for over a fortnight. There was no streaming, and the internet at this point covered fewer than nine per cent of households. There was no escape via the usual means of escapism.

From the state's point of view, the death of the reigning monarch is a bigger deal. Effectively, its official corporate personality and person changes over night and with it the official pomp and apparatuses of spectacle have to be tweaked. Seldom used constitutional gears grind into action, and well rehearsed rituals get underway. But in 2022 it comes with a dollop of uncertainty. Perhaps one of the reasons why broadcast media are more restrained than 18 months ago is because of the backlash it provoked. Complaints to the BBC over the cancellation of programming was a rude reminder to the establishment that there are a lot of people out there who don't share any enthusiasm for the Royals as people and the monarchy as an institution - even it shocks them even more because the indifferent are never reflected in the coverage. Perhaps somewhere, someone has learned imposing grief is not a good idea when popular trust in state institutions is low. That said, the mass cancellation of football matches, festivals, and Southwark recycling centre's open day aren't going to help.

But the other consideration is the growing republican or, to be more precise, anti-monarchical sentiment - something that became even more evident during the Platinum jubilee celebrations. Polling puts republican views at an all-time high. Still miles behind monarchical support, but with an institution accustomed to thinking about its stability in terms of decades and centuries the trend should give royalists some pause. Because the relations that secured the monarchy in the post-war period have corroded, with many communities giving way to privatised individuation, a more atomised population requires more direct messaging to try and induce desired behaviours. Hence the enforced mourning and the multiplication of the Queen's image and the rote repeat of hard work, service, faith, duty. Because it clearly works as millions back the monarchy the solution to winning over the doubters and the haters is double down and ideologically bludgeon its real and imagined opponents.

For the last eight years, official politics has been on a roller coaster. Certainties and eternal truths were found to be nothing of the sort. Because Charles III takes up the throne without the same support or affection enjoyed by his mother, that adds to the worry that change could descend quickly here and, as if taken by a thief in the night, the institution's legitimacy vanishes in the blink of an eye. The passing of the Queen marks something. Not the end of a second glorious Elizabethan age, but the entering of a new period: one in which no amount official days of mourning can hide that with her gone, it has to meet the uncertainties ahead without its most stalwart and respected advocate.

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Wednesday, 7 September 2022

Come to The World Transformed

24th-27th September, 2022. Liverpool. Four days of discussion and debate. The World Transformed.

If you look at the programme, at 1pm on the Saturday in the Black-E Theatre you'll find me putting all those long hours of Tory leadership contest viewing to good use: a session on our new and beloved Prime Minister, Liz Truss.

This will be more of an interview with some discussion format rather than a lecture with PowerPoint - I do enough of them in the day job! Front and centre are going to be the class politics of her energy bill freeze, what else is going on with her political strategy, the internal problems she's courting, the Tories' chances of winning in 2024, and (undoubtedly) whether Labour have her measure or not. Should be fun if leftist Tory watching is your game. And there are, of course, loads of other events on. Each one of them guaranteed to be more interesting than anything official put on by Labour or the establishment outfits that lubricate its fringes.

You can grab your tickets from here. Hope to see you in Liverpool!

Tuesday, 6 September 2022

The Artless Politics of Liz Truss's Cabinet

As I write, Liz Truss is appointing a parade of horrors to her cabinet. Suella Braverman replaces Priti Patel at the Home Office. Dominic Raab is out and Therese Coffey is in as Deputy Prime Minister and Health Secretary. Nadhim Zahawi's tenure as chancellor is over as Kwasi Kwarteng swoops in, and James Cleverly takes on the Foreign Secretary brief. More jobs will be doled out in the coming days. But what's more interesting is who's out. Raab, obviously. Grant Shapps's stupid strikes plan couldn't save his neck. Johnson loyalist Steve Barclay is out, defector-from-camp-Sunak George Eustice found his turncoatery rewarded with the sack. Patel wasn't invited back, and Michael Gove - gleefully chucked by Johnson - remains a brooding menace on the backbenches. Naturally, Rish! Sunak didn't make the cut.

In the main, the defenestrated and dejected have greeted their sidelining with official politesse. Barclay wished the new Prime Minister "every success for the future" and Shapps will concentrate on being a "strong independent voice". Or should that be voices? Someone who didn't get the chummy air kisses message was Jonny Mercer. After getting fired from his bag carrying for veterans job, Mercer said he'd be concentrating on his family in a letter that read like a resignation without actually saying the magic words 'I resign'. An unwelcome inconvenience from the kind of Tory Truss could easily have kept on side. Another emerging issue is Northern Ireland. That is, no one wants it. Truss has hawked it to her fallen rival, Penny Mordaunt, but she's said no and landed Leader of the House instead. Sajid Javid is a negative too - a man accustomed to saying yes to almost anything. As no one's biting her hand off for it, that suggests her authority isn't what it might be.

And that is indeed the case. She didn't get more than half of the MPs, and won the lowest share of the shrinking membership of any Tory leader, sharing with Iain Duncan Smith the distinction of not winning the backing of an absolute majority of party members. All this could change, depending on what her energy price announcement on Thursday is going to be and whether the public buy it. But the persistent and frequently circulating rumours that immediate relief is paid for by larger bills over the next couple of decades are more likely to meet begrudging acceptance than the appreciation Sunak's Covid support schemes received. Even if everything goes swell and she's cheered to the rafters, appointing a cabinet of satraps, lackeys, and the BNP adjacent is a foolhardy gambit.

I don't know if Truss has read Thatcher's Downing Street Years. If she has, nothing has gone in. Her celebrated predecessor counselled that a cabinet has to balance the trends and factions in the party to best manage parliamentary discipline. Truss is acting as if she entered Downing Street on a litter. Even Boris Johnson at the height of his powers appointed a top team that was relatively balanced and reflected a spectrum of Brexity opinion. Truss has noted who her support was and is rewarding them to the exclusion of all else, meaning when things get sticky those backbench big beasts are going to get tricky. She has not given them a stake in the government's success, so what incentives do they have? Stay quiet for the sake of party unity? Electoral expediency? Or, if a lucrative outside opportunity knocks, what's going to stop them from causing a painful by-election? Vibes?

Liz Truss is a political clod hopper. She gaffes like Johnson, but without his faux bumbling to cover for it. And her cabinet appointees don't just show she doesn't understand politics, she has a poor handle on the party. In the now infamous Laura Kuenssberg interview last Sunday, she said she didn't like to predict the future. Perhaps not, but one doesn't need a scrying pool to see the world of pain she's striding towards.