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Conservatism is the Problem
Boris Johnson is the convenient scapegoat for the worm at the Conservatives core.
In the run-up to the U.S. 2020 election, it was interesting to see different themes develop on how to interpret the 4-year Trump presidency. In the liberal press, a common theme was to portray the 2016-2020 period as an aberration; a bad dream that America would wake up from. Over the subsequent tumultuous transition period, and the ongoing embrace of insanity by the Republican Party, this theme now appears to have been merely a manifestation of wishful thinking.
It was an understandable temptation, both for convenience and absolution, and for the historical amnesia which the 4-year presidential cycle attracts in U.S. politics. The issue is the misdiagnosis. Trump was never really the problem. The post-Watergate, revived GOP was always the problem. Trump was never possible without the Republicans; no character like him would ever have been given an opportunity to exist in political life without the GOP cartel. They put him in the game, turned their well-oiled machine on to get him into office, and sat back and acquiesced to every abuse of power and position, every act and omission, of his term.
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Trump, the individual and character, became the convenient diagnosis for the malaise in American politics and democracy. Even within “small ‘c’ conservative” circles, for a brief period over 2020 into 2021 there were commentators - and indeed the rare handful of individuals in the GOP like Liz Cheney willing to show some basic integrity - who framed themselves as ‘Republicans against Trump’. True to conservative U.S. doctrines, they harked backed to Reagan as some benchmark of Republican decency. True to convenient historical amnesia, this rose-tinted hindsight beget the reality of what the GOP became over that period.
From the late 1970’s onwards, the likes of Newt Gingrich et al. worked tirelessly to create the post-Watergate GOP in substance and strategy. Gingrich orchestrated the birth of the modern Republican cartel, committed to partisan politics, willing to frustrate the legitimate operation of government to achieve its aims, embracing and indulging the inclinations of the previously niche far-Right elements within what was, in the 1970’s, a moderate party committed to bipartisan government. Throughout the 1980’s, and cemented during the George W. Bush 8-year reign of neocon lunacy, the once-moderate party metamorphosed into a smear-campaigning, Christian fundamentalist, anti-science cartel, bent on power at all costs. And almost everyone in the GOP aided or acquiesced in this crusade for power.
In the past week, we've seen the same theme emerge in the British liberal press. A theme that singles out Boris Johnson as both the antecedent and driver in one of the most tumultuous periods in the history of Britain's parliamentary democracy. The reality is that, like Trump and the Republicans, only the modern British Conservative Party could have produced a Boris Johnson, an emanation of the Tories' deepest pathologies. Like Trump, Boris Johnson was never the problem in isolation; he merely gave British conservatism a presentation of its most feral, base self to the world. Conservatism is the problem. Johnson leaving office provides no absolution, and more importantly, no remedies, to the malignancy that is Conservative Party politics and policies.
Like the response of American “small ‘c’ conservatives” to Trump, the talk of their British counterparts in response to the incoherence of the past three years is of a return to some imaginary bygone glory age of conservatism. Scrutinise this rhetoric slightly closer and what is in fact being glorified is Thatcherism, akin to the deification of Reagan among American conservatives. And frankly, this is a frightening mix of historical amnesia and wilful ignorance. Thatcherism was not just the economic ideologies of deregulation, privatisation, removing responsibility from financial enterprise, crushing organised labour, and shredding the State (except when using it to crush organised Labour, of course). The Irony Lady herself stated that:
“Economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul.”
It represented a radical social ideology, departing from the post-War social contract of the role of the State in the guardianship of a basic minimum standard of living for society. Boris Johnson may be a convenient scapegoat now for the calamitous conduct of Tory policy, but in reality, like Trump, he was spat forth by a party that has had no discernible moral compass or social conscience since the 1980's. Lacking moral fibre or social principles, it can hardly be any wonder that the Conservative Party has mutated into a movement devoid of any ethical standards. Johnson is a product of such a party, not the cause of its abandonment of ethical values. Look around at the constellation of incompetent imbeciles that comprise the parliamentary Conservative Party, and behold a party devoid of morals, ethics, or social conscience.
Just like American conservatism embraced the noxious mix of reality-denial, religious insanity, and market fundamentalism, so the Tories became intoxicated on imperial revisionism, neo-Thatcherism, and swallowed a shot of UKIP to wash it all down. Having no personal ideology other than himself, Johnson was free to indulge in the worst excesses of this combination, beholden to the Right-wing nuthouse of backbenchers shovelled into MP seats in 2019 out of the sheer frustration of a population fighting demons unleashed on the them by David Cameron. There is no Boris Johnson without Cameron, and there is no folly of Cameron without the imperialist revisionism harboured within the Tory party going back half-a-century.
Boris Johnson is not the reason that the life expectancy difference between richest and poorest within the same London Borough of Chelsea and Kensington is 22-years; Tory policy is, hardly helped by the brief 12-year hiatus known as New Labour. The problem is that modern British conservatism is so beholden to the ideology of Thatcherism that it creates a recurring malignancy in its conduct in power. This is why it doesn't matter whether Johnson is, or is not, leader of the Conservatives, because any number of automatons are waiting in the wings ready to regurgitate the same stale pieties and failed theories of how to run a country that people have been fed since 1979. See the climate-change denialist and free market fundamentalist Tory MP, Steve Baker, stating last week that the issues facing the country can only be solved with Conservative solutions.
What are those solutions, exactly? Those same stale pieties and failed theories: “cut taxes”, “deregulate”, “the rising tide raises all boats”, “roll back the State”. As if these policies have not been the status quo since the Thatcherite revolution. This is British Conservatism in 2022; out of ideas, devoid of intellectual rigour, its core tenets and theories rendered redundant and falsified by one lurching crisis and recession after another. This is why Boris Johnson was the perfect emanation of this pathological political party; a rudderless and unprincipled ignoramus bereft of ideas save for the feral instinct to preserve its time in power at the expense of parliamentary decorum, and the public in whose name they are supposed to serve.
Johnson's lies and deceit are not unique to him; they are prerequisites for membership of the Conservatives. Only with extraordinary self-deception can one stand astride the festering calamity produced by 31 years of Tory policies since 1979 and be utterly convinced that whatever problems exist, it couldn't have been them. Any wonder that the mantra of Johnson was not originally his, but the creed of the Conservatives: “mistakes were made, but not by us.” And only liars can stand before the public and say that the solution is more of the constellation of failed theories that comprises Tory socio-political ideology. That these ideas just haven't quite been tried hard enough yet, which is the intellectual high watermark that constitutes neo-Thatcherism.
Thus, not only devoid of intellectual rigour and incapable of self-reflection, British conservatism is also now devoid of basic honesty in examining its own record and concluding that, perhaps, there may be need for an ideological rethink. The qualities of lies and deceit attributed to Johnson are, in fact, qualities of the Conservatives necessary to simultaneously believe that the very policies that stand as the cause of societal discontents are also somehow the remedy for those consequences. Of course such a party produced someone as incoherent and deceitful as Boris Johnson.
Just like the removal of Trump was not the end of Trumpism, but accelerated the descent of the Republican cartel further into madness and disconnect from reality, so the removal of Johnson will not achieve remission from the malignancy of the Conservatives. Britain can at least take consolation from the fact that its institutions of parliamentary democracy and separation of powers are far more robust than the house of cards of U.S. plutocracy. Despite the battering the Tories have inflicted on parliamentary norms and the legislative onslaught of anti-democratic bills, the system has largely withstood an unprecedented stress test. It won't survive another. The risk is that, in reality, Britain has largely been a one-party state for the better part of a century. The only chance to turn the tide for society, to restore human dignity to policy and honesty to politics, won't be removing Johnson; it will require keeping the Conservatives out of power for the better part of a generation. Unfortunately, the historical voting record on this island suggest there is little chance of that happening.
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