Saturday, 22 January 2022

Understanding the Johnson Moment

Watching the Tories is an uncommon preoccupation for leftists, but it really shouldn't be. Tracking their strategies, following their debates, keeping tabs and doing the Kremlinology, knowing them and what they're doing should help guide our opposition. Constantly reacting and being surprised by latest round of bastardry is disarming and exhausting. Investigating and understanding the divisions in their ranks, and how Tory thinkers, politicians, and activists are addressing the significant challenges they face can, in its own way, be empowering. It shows that as rigged as British politics is, it remains fundamentally open too. Conservative rule is an accomplishment and a collective effort. It doesn't happen by itself, and mistakes can have calamitous consequences not just for the electoral fortunes of the Conservative Party but for their system of class rule as a whole. Indeed, the book makes the case set out many times here: they have an existential crisis brewing. This presents Labour and the labour movement a historic opening to cement itself as the hegemonic political force in this country. Whether they take it up is another matter.

Therefore, Tories reflecting on the Tories is a genre of writing that repays studying, and David Gauke is one such Tory who has reflected on the whats and wherefores of his (estranged) party. Part of the "nice chap" school of conservatism along with Rory Stewart, a fellow exile, Gauke is one of those with an attachment to the constitution, to probity in public life, and a sense of what is right. Not that any of this prevented him from nodding through acres of repressive and vindictive legislation as a backbencher and minister. But like many inhabitants of Westminster and, for that matter, the watchers of its comings and goings, Gauke believes in the rules of the place. He's a fully paid up member of the game. And, as we've long known, Johnson is anything but. How he clings on in the face of scandal that would have brought down any of his predecessors offends the spirit and the conventions of the place. How then does Gauke explain the position the Tories have got themselves into, from what he would describe as the moderate governments of Dave and Osborne and Theresa May, to the immovable blimp wedged in Downing Street?

Unfortunately, while his latest piece for the New Statesman promises to offer an explanation, like Johnson's levelling up promises it never materialises. Gauke acknowledges the oft-made take that Boris Johnson was known as feckless, lazy, and lacked integrity among Tories when they elected him their leader. He was put there to solve the Brexit logjam, and this is what he did - even if it meant bulldozing his own parliamentary party to pave the road to the famous election win. While the forces broadly aligned with remain or the second referendum were divided among themselves, Johnson united the leave vote by ostentatiously demonstrating his seriousness about putting Brexit to bed - even if it mean rhetorically thumbing his nose at the law, packing off Tory grandees, and basically having nothing to say on any other topic apart from getting it done. This most untrustworthy of politicians established trust through demonstrable seriousness and commitment - two words never associated with Johnson before. Or since, come to think of it.

Considering the political novelty of the truncated period between 2016 and 2019, Gauke suggests that for some Tories Johnson is the aberration tailor made for our aberrant times, and who can now safely be disposed of without any lessons learned nor any need to reflect much on what has happened. It's all water under the Brexit bridge. This, in Gauke's opinion, would be a mistake.
Just at the moment, this prospect is somewhat tempting for many Conservatives, but it would be a misreading of events. It ignores the causes of the Brexit impasse, it ignores the political risks that faced the Conservative Party in 2019 and it ignores the political opportunity which Johnson seized at the last general election and which the Conservatives are likely to want to replicate.
And does the Gauke uncork on these causes? Unfortunately not. Instead, he centres a particularly egregious example of Johnson's light-minded approach to governing and detail: the border issue in Northern Ireland. Gauke argues May became unstuck because her negotiations with the EU had to square an impossible Brexit circle: reinstate the Irish border and undo the Good Friday Agreement and risk two decades of progress made since the end of the Troubles, place the EU custom's barrier in the Irish Sea and compromise the UK state's sovereignty over its territory, or stay aligned to the single market with the possibility of future divergence - in other words kicking the can down the road, and potentially nullifying the point of Brexit. As a consummate ditherer, and in the best traditions of Tory statecraft she went for the last. Delegate to the future what might otherwise be done today. Readers will recall Johnson's own fanning of the backbench insurgency against May, and when he ascended to Number 10 he promptly forgot the earnest arguments about sovereignty and went with the internal border, which he has dishonestly tried unpicking - and failing to - ever since.

Not that Johnson has ever been held to account for this. While an internal border was a non-negotiable as far as May and the rightwing European Research Group were concerned, the ERG kept mum about Johnson signing it into law. Curious. Or perhaps because they had bound their fortunes to each other. Johnson adopted the Brexit ultra rhetoric while they happily gave him their blessings, and when he came up short all concerned would look stupid if there was an honest accounting of the mess. Still, that didn't wash with the Tories' erstwhile partners in the DUP, but by the time they let their displeasure about the danger Johnson's deal represented Northern Ireland's status in the UK, it was too late and the Westminster media was more consumed by their frenzied attacks on the Labour Party.

Okay, but none of this is new. Yes, the complexity of the Brexit negotiations were simplified by Johnson's insurgent populism, and it did see Jeremy Corbyn off while exorcising the Faragist spectre to the Tories' right, but what of it? This is where the essay shifts gear away from not answering "how we got into this pickle" to "what does this mean for the future of Tory politics."

For Gauke, a section of the parliamentary party is, effectively, beyond reason. They live in a world of absolutes bounded by the culture wars and beholden to their obsessions - the war on woke, against public health, and bow to sovereignty as their most sacred of shibboleths. Gauke rightly argues they see Brexit as an extension of their Thatcherite instincts ("We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them re-imposed at a European level ...", as she put it in her famous Bruges speech). And, f anything, despite the failures of Brexit and Johnson's promises to launch state-led regeneration in deindustrialised parts of the country, the Tories' wingnut wing of the vicious and the stupid will emerge from the Johnson years strengthened. Gauke doesn't spell it out, but whoever comes next, be it Rishi Sunak whose instinct is to put clear distance between him and them or Liz Truss, who is politically adjacent to the mainstream fringe, they have to be reckoned with.

The second is the seeming closure of politics to the Tories' right. The party would care not to have a UKIP/Brexit Party fright ever again. Gauke notes how Johnson doesn't so much govern but is in permanent (media) campaign mode. He doesn't spell it out, but the political advantage of this is keeping alive the right wing populism that powered Johnson's election campaign so there isn't space for a Farage to make a scene. If the Prime Minister is dumped from office, by no means a foregone conclusion, how is this to be managed in the future? As Gauke notes, the dinghies in the channel is the stuff from which anti-immigrant moral panics are made. If Tories sense there is a space opening to their right the next leader isn't filling, there will be more pressure on them from the backbenches to keep with the present politics and all that entails.

And lastly there is the realignment of British politics, which is so obvious even right wing politics profs are talking about it these days. Gauke writes,
Whereas once the economically secure voted centre right and the economically insecure voted centre-left, voting behaviour has become increasingly influenced by cultural matters. The way in which a particular constituency votes increasingly depends not on income levels but upon population density, ethnic diversity and education levels.
Cynical or ignorant empiricism when every poll shows the economics of voting remain unchanged? You decide. I suppose one should be encouraged that the Tories misrecognise the basis of their recent successes, because it locks them into a strategy that can only have diminishing returns. The old age/propensity to vote Tory is largely a consequence of asset ownership, and for as long as millions of working people remain locked out of it while the growing layer of petty landlords snap up properties unabated the Tories are unbeknownstly, if not cheerily undermining their future viability. The advantages the Tories presently enjoy here - the greater likelihood for their support to vote, their more efficient distribution of voters across constituencies, and the coming gerrymander, their refusal to do anything about this situation cannot shield them forever. Gauke suggests the Tories' present coalition rules out a return to the social liberalism of the Dave years, and yet polling shows it's Sunak, not Truss or any of the other horrors, who polls least worst in the seats won from Labour in 2019. As a result, his perspective is entirely skewed. Gauke thinks the future is bright for social conservatism, just as Tory support is collapsing among those who lent them their votes.

Writing as a liberal Tory, Gauke's insights aren't original or profound. He forecasts where Tory politics are likely to go in the immediate future, but there is no grasping of the dynamics that made Johnson possible. This is precisely why he couldn't offer an explanation of the situation. While the effects of Johnson can't be shrugged off by the post-Johnson Tories, the fact he was there in the first place wasn't an unlucky happenstance. He is the culmination of an authoritarian politics pushed by the Tories for over 40 years. His personality and prominence a product of celebrity and media overexposure, and his 2019 victory the consequence of the class - refracted through age - polarisation set in train by the 00s property boom, the crash, and a decades' worth of austerity politics and debasement of public discourse. Gauke doesn't mention it perhaps because he was a willing participant in making the Johnson moment possible, and would rather not face up to this realisation.

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Anonymous said...

"every poll shows the economics of voting remain unchanged"

Couldn't find any examples...

How did this affect the Brexit vote, and the 2019 vote in support of Brexit?

Your assertion doesn't add up - Brexit was not in the UK's economic interest, although arguably in the perceived interest of lower-income earners. The 'red wall' collapsed in support of Brexit.

Blissex said...

«Brexit was not in the UK's economic interest»

That is an imaginary thing used by propagandists to fool the gullible. In any case despite the exxxxxagggerations of both sides the impact of brexit has been quite small: trade and travel with EU countries have become a bit more complicated on the downside, blue passports on the upside.

«although arguably in the perceived interest of lower-income earners»

That would support out blogger's claim that politics is still driven largely by economic interest.

«The 'red wall' collapsed in support of Brexit.»

Largely yes, but that is a bit simplistic on two very different points:

* At least three different major groups with rather different motivations voted "Leave".

* The referendum, like EU elections or most local elections, was a "does not matter much" vote, because it did not directly affect the most important concerns of most voters, housing costs, wages, social insurance, government services, job security, tax.

People here go on and on about the "red wall", but something else was equally or more important: most "Remain" right-wing voters kept voting for the Conservatives even after May and Johnson; Tony Blair and many others (notably Umunna and Swinson) hallucinated that right-wing "Remainers" would switch to right-wing europhile parties like ChangeUK or the LibDems, but the 400 seat landslide for them did not happen. Because for right-wing "Remain" voters higher property costs and lower wage costs were more important than "Remain".

Anonymous said...

The sad act of denial that the self-styled left in this country has never admitted to itself is that large sections of the working class are racist twats. The Labour Party and union movement was against immigration and immigrants for longer than current revisionists like to make out. The Tories, always more cynical, know that the Northern monkey voting Brexit fans are deep-down racist and can be played on that card. Nationalism and greed. Those are the only buttons they need to press. 'Refracted through age'? You do know the Tory tipping point dipped below 40 for the first time in 2019? Peddling the tired old 'old people vote Tory and those fab young people vote for hot topic Labour' is changing. Keep up.

Blissex said...

«The party would care not to have a UKIP/Brexit Party fright ever again»

If the Labour wing of the New Labour instead of going back to abstaining as in 1997-2010 started voting Green that might have the same effect on New Labour. But I have some doubts that the New Labour leadership actually cares about winning elections, they care more about thatcherites rather than "trots" to win elections.

My guess is that for the economic and political interests of a New Labour MP or councillor or voter, affluent propertied upper-middle class people, the Conservatives or LibDems winning is far preferable to the socialdemocrats ("trots") winning, even if they lose career opportunities in government. Same for most LibDem MPs, councillors or voters (for all that "The Land", the georgist song, if their party's anthem).

Blissex said...

«the self-styled left in this country has never admitted to itself is that large sections of the working class are racist twats.»

English culture has been xenophobic since medieval times, and even the working class are not really racists, they are just self-interested, as to keeping the "good jobs" for themselves, for example keeping out of the "good jobs" both the irish and the coloureds, the irish with the excuse of religion and the coloureds with the excuse of race, but they were just excuses. For a thousand years the supreme value in England has been and continues to be incumbency, and many working class people (and many pensioners today) just wanted to be incumbents themselves, and to exclude from positions of incumbency everybody else they could, medieval-guild (or northern irish protestant) style, with whichever excuse they could.>
«On August 15 1966 the colour bar at Euston station and St Pancras goods station was defeated when Asquith Xavier, the West Indian guard initially refused a job, was finally allowed to start work. British Rail announced that after negotiations with local leaders of the National Union of Railwaymen (NUR) no grade would in future be closed on racial grounds anywhere in the London division. Before this, black workers had been barred from taking jobs as guards and porters at Euston Station and St. Pancras while Irish workers at Paddington were restricted to labouring roles in the goods yard. Similar restrictions applied at other stations. Asquith Xavier was 46 and had come to Britain from Dominica, the largest of the Windward Isles in the eastern Caribbean. He had started work for British Railways in 1956 as a porter, working his way up to rail guard at Marylebone station, where there was no colour bar. But as far back as June 20th, 1961 Communist Party newspaper The Daily Worker reported that the South Paddington Labour Party had requested that British Rail investigate the ban on the employment of ‘coloured’ workers at Paddington Station.»

«The Labour Party and union movement was against immigration and immigrants for longer than current revisionists like to make out.»>
«It is important to recall that for Castle and other Bevanites, like Wilson himself, the trade unions were regarded as a reactionary force. Castle perhaps still recalled their hostility after her victory at the Morecambe conference in 1952. By limiting the power of the ‘labour’ wing of the party, Castle was trying to secure steadier footing for the ‘socialist’ wing of the party, but it was not regarded this way by many. [...] The EEC was, in Castle’s view, ‘a circle of privilege’, a club of rich, white countries looking out for themselves. As Cabinet discussed joining EEC in 1967, Castle erupted: ‘Let us realise that we are deciding on the destruction of the Commonwealth: not only through the abandonment of [trade] preferences but above all as a result of the immigration priority we shall have to give to the [Europeans]’. [...] Castle asked, ‘And what kind of internationalism is it that says that henceforth this country must give priority to a Frenchman over an Indian, a German over an Australian, an Italian over a Malaysian? This isn’t the language of internationalism… It is Euro-jingoism.’»

Anonymous said...

"dipped below 40 for the first time"??

Mate, you do know Tories *won* the youth vote in the 1980s right?

KimCT said...

" not only through the abandonment of [trade] preferences but above all as a result of the immigration priority we shall have to give to the [Europeans]’. [...] Castle asked, ‘And what kind of internationalism is it that says that henceforth this country must give priority to a Frenchman over an Indian, a German over an Australian, an Italian over a Malaysian?This isn’t the language of internationalism… It is Euro-jingoism.’"
Castle was actually indulging in the language of utter ignorance and Euro-phobia. The same dishonest, counter factual argument has been repeated much more recently, too. But the facts are, and have always been that the UK, and any other EU member, had complete control of their own immigration policies, and never had to favour Europeans over anyone. The UK could have give equal or superior immigration rights to anyone in the world it chose to, from the commonwealth or anywhere else. But successive UK governments chose not to grant rights equal to EU FoM rights to other nationalities. The EU didn't force them not to. The UK chose not to.

Dialectician1 said...

“It is a myth that the largest bloc of votes that Labour lost was from ‘traditional working class’ voters who switched to the Tories. In fact there is some evidence that the single largest demographic switch away from Labour was actually among middle-aged liberal voters …… their 40s and early 50s who supported Labour in 2017, and whose votes went in large numbers to the Liberal Democrats, SNP and Greens in 2019.”

It was the centrist dads who lost it. Jeremy Gilbert Jan 2020

Blissex said...

«It was the centrist dads who lost it. Jeremy Gilbert Jan 2020»

Interesting article, and is makes arguments similar to what I have been making for a while, so I quite agree except for the "centrist dad" bit: those socially Liberal, economically Tory I think did not switch seats away from Corbyn I think, for example in 2019 Labour gained a seat in the south:
"The fresh faces include Fleur Anderson in Putney. A councillor in Wandsworth, Bedford ward, the new south London MP was selected as a firm supporter of a fresh EU referendum."

Perhaps as the author of that article says even if not many switched they were critical in some marginal constituencies, but those were won by the Conservatives, not the LibDems :-). In many urban areas large Labour majorities fell a bit and the LibDem vote increased a bit, and they have fallen more if Labour had kept the "accept the referendum" position, but they were not marginals. Overall I suspect that the "centrist dad" hypothesis is rather speculative, while the massive increase in Labour votes in 2017 when the referendum result was accepted is telling.

BCFG said...

I think the point being missed a little by the whole centrist dad idea (people do love a good marketing strap-line these days, another gift from Thatcher), is how in these times, when every party is some form of a Tory party, and there are zero fundamental differences between any of them, single issues can sway the vote.

So single issues, like Brexit, can send voters from one Tory party to another Tory party. hence the shift from Tory Labour to Tory Liberal.

The fact that every party is pretty much identical and is offering exactly the same solutions, makes me believe that the debate about how labour lost the election, or about lets get rid of Boris Johnson, is all a complete waste of time and effort.

I find it fascinating how Tory Labour supporters, like Philbc, are so obsessive about which Tory party is in power, especially when they claim to be some sort of socialist. It is utterly baffling, it is as if these people still think its the 1890's or something.