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Unchain Britannia to Behold a Naked Emperor
Truss's Conservatives represent the endgame of market fundamentalism.
You shouldn’t be surprised. Like any political movement that sees itself as revolutionary, all that is about to happen was foretold. The wannabe-revolutionaries wrote it down for us all to see: they hid nothing. In 2012, Liz Truss, Kwasi Kwarteng, Priti Patel, Dominic Raab, and Chris Skidmore, co-authored the manifesto of the conservative ideology that triumphed in the recent Tory leadership race: ‘Britannia Unchained’. That class of 2010 of Tory MP's are now all grown up; Truss is Prime Minister, Kwarteng the new Chancellor of the Exchequer. The disloyal have been discarded; Raab backed the wrong horse. Only the ideologically pure remain.
Two big myths feed modern British conservatism, both of which are encapsulated within the rhetoric of “unchaining”. The first holds that a dynamic nation, deserving of a role as a global power, is prevented from achieving its full potential by Brussel’s bureaucracy; the second is that the problem with Britain’s economy is that Thatcherism just wasn't implemented hard enough, and that the ‘third-generation Thatcherites’ need to finish the job.
Coming as it did four years before Brexit, and two years into the latest epoch of Conservative Party rule, Britannia Unchained comprised an ideological spew of reconstituted neo-Thatcherite dogmas, with market fundamentalism and hyper-individualism as the guiding economic and social forces. It heralded an announcement from the junior ministerial ranks at the time of a new conservatism within the Tories, dubbed the ‘New New Right’ (NNR) by political scientist Matthew Lakin. The historic New Right emerged with the election of Thatcher in 1979, defined by a rejection of the post-war model of social democracy, in particular the role of the State as a guarantor of a minimum standard of living, and an emphasis on supply-side economics characterised by deregulation, low taxes, and the primacy of markets.
As Lakin has detailed, the NNR emerged as a distinct response to the 2008 Global Financial Crisis (GFC), characterised by three core ideological tenets:
Opposition to the “de-neoliberalisation” of policy and society;
Market fundamentalism and anti-socialisation;
A thin conception of social rights and opposition to identity politics.
The NNR saw the Cameron-led Tories as “de-neoliberalising” Conservative Party policies in response to the 2008 Global Financial Crisis. They view the cause of the 2008 GFC not as market failure, but as a state failure resulting from too much regulation. Consequently, if too much regulation was the problem, then market fundamentalism is the solution, and deregulation needs to be pushed even further than it was before 2008. Such is the bizarre self-deception of this brand of Tory conservatism that renders them pathologically incapable of seeing reality past ideology.
The NNR also decry what Truss called “anti-market socialisation”, i.e., any policies that are aimed at controlling or rolling back the free market economy. Any policies targeting social cohesion or economic inclusion are anathema to the NNR, who advocate instead for “free market anti-socialisation”, e.g., that policies in education should demote certain subjects (i.e., the humanities) because they don’t enhance the market economy, or that policies regarding poverty should not focus on social causes over ‘choice’ and ‘responsibility’.
Finally, a driving force within the NNR was the perception articulated by Kwarteng that the Conservative Party had been “captured by the Left”. The NNR conceive that the government should oppose any extension of the social state as it relates to individual rights; any issues that arise in the social sphere are viewed as having economic solutions. The NNR are vehemently opposed to identity politics, which by definition places its conceptions of the social world as paramount, and is defined by a “thick conception of social rights”. Thus, the NNR are anti-collectivist and see the emphasis on groups defined by characteristics as counter to the individualism they so prize.
And now they have ascended to power, unelected and with no mandate for their manifesto save for the ~180,000 ideologues that constitute the Tory membership. While the Conservatives have been in power for all but 12-years since 1979, this has not been an ideological monolith. The evolution from the New Right, to Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ conservative centrism, to the NNR, has not necessarily been an inevitability, but driven by the interaction with antecedent factors; the labour struggles and oil crisis of the late 1970’s, the 2008 GFC, and Covid-19, have all influenced the ultimate outcomes. The NNR sounded its horns before Brexit, but under Truss is now fully battle-clad and ready to wage its ideological crusade on the nation “unchained” by internal or external political opposition, by economic reality, by common sense, or by any discernible ethical standard.
Nevertheless, it may be this most recent ideological incarnation of the Tories that culminates in the final act, because they will be presiding over both party and nation when the curtains fall on the two great myths sustaining British conservatism. The first is the shackling of the great nation by Brussels bureaucrats; Brexit has brought the curtains down on that. For all the emphasis on populist aspects of the referemdum vote, Brexit at its core was the first step in the Tory neo-Thatcherite revolution, a prerequisite to the “bonfire” of EU protections for workers, the environment, and the economy, that would truly usher in the most deregulated clusterfuck of market fundamentalism anywhere in the world.
Currently, however, there remain a number of other scapegoats available to the Right-wing press to continue to mask the true economic impacts of Brexit on ordinary citizens, notably Covid-19 and the war for Ukraine. But soon, with an open goal to dismantle core aspects of worker protections such as the Working Time Directive, people will be under little illusion of the source of their misery. The real “Brexit dividend” isn't just to banker's bonuses, but the ability to achieve the five core aims of “unchained” neoliberalism; reduce salaries, disembowel benefits, lower pensions, increase working hours and reduce employment stability. These measures are not undertaken blindly; they are a deliberate attempt to create a precarious employment landscape, a 21st Century Serfdom where a penury workforce exist to serve the feudal Lords of the private sector.
That landscape will bring the curtain down on the second myth; that, with Brexit achieved and Britannia “unchained”, the full Thatcherite program can be implemented to finally Take Back Control and put the Great back in Britain. This program views society itself as an obstacle, to be dismantled and replaced with a self-governing market as the omnipotent, omnipresent guiding force. This ideology has always been about more than economics; it has always been a crusade to eradicate society, with economics as the weapon of mass destruction. Yet, that it will fail is a foregone conclusion; this economic ideology being the second most monumental failure of the 20th Century socio-economic ideologies behind only Communism. It may boom for a period, but as night follows day it will combust into ashes. And when it collapses, it will once again lay evident the great self-defeating lie of “small State” rhetoric, and the veneration of free markets as omnipotent; that the State is required to intervene in the economy when the wheels come off the rickety Friedman-manufactured wagon.
And when the curtain falls on both of these myths, as fall it must, there will be nowhere left to hide for British conservatism, and indeed for Right-wing economic orthodoxy in general. There will be nothing, no one, left to blame. Not Brussels. Not “the Woke”. Not “the Left”. Not “snowflakes”. Not the poor. Not brown people. Not New Labour, Covid, nor Ukraine. They’ve asked to be “unchained” by Brexit, and received it. They’ve sought a bonfire of Brussels “bureaucracy”, and Jacob Rees-Mogg now has the honour of lighting it. They’ve felt that Thatcherism didn’t go far enough in its anti-collectivist promotion of “free market anti-socialisation”, and are on now poised to implement the full '“re-neoliberalising”, complete deregulation of economic policy.
This is a 40-year experiment in society that is nearing its cataclysmic final act. Act I saw the initial Thatcherite revolution smash organised labour, offshore industries, deregulate finance, and cripple the welfare state. Act II saw New Labour subtly extend the Thatcher program, their cult of business suits and vacuous entrepreneurialism in its desperate attempts to reconstitute Clintonite globalisation in British form. Now cometh Act III, when the basest form of Conservatism in the 31-year epoch of their relatively constant reign is thrust upon an "impoverished, dangerously divided, viscerally confused country." The curtain will close on a grim stage.
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