The deal the Conservative Party struck with the Democratic Unionists to retain their Commons majority raised some interesting issues about the Neo-Conservative project. Moreover, viewed in the context of their election campaign confusion over tax cuts the deep Tory fault lines are laid bare.
In earlier blogs I described the abrupt change in the nature and direction of the Conservatives since the accession to the leadership of Theresa May. In these blogs I pointed to a close meshing of ideologies between Donald Trump in the United States and Theresa May. You can read these posts here and here but the essence of my argument is the Conservative abandonment of the pursuit of neo-Libertarianism to a largely Neo-Conservative outlook.
Although the situation is a complex one the difference hinges on the size of the Government. Neo-Libertarians want to shrink the State and cut taxes, with the austerity policies of David Cameron and George Osborne providing a perfect cover. Neo-Conservatives, however, favour a much larger state (though not at the citizen level) with higher taxes to support it. Like the Neo-Libertarians they want the state withdrawn from the business of extendeing personal rights and protections (the Welfare State) and see a big project (Brexit for example) as the best way of mobilising patriotism, maintaining social cohesion and justifying the destruction of those rights.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this
What went wrong? In my posts I pointed to an influential figure in American right wing politics, David Brooks. A central plank of his idea ifs that you cannot rely on consensus or inclusive politics to drive through a neo-Conservative programme, but instead it must be spearheaded by a closr-knit family (the Trumps) or a strong (and stable!!) individual (supposedly, Theresa May). To the disappointment of the neo-Cons, in the US Trump is proving too incoherent, unpredictable and ill-disciplined to really make an effective impact. As we have seen in our UK election, Theresa Mat has proven to be uninspiring, uncharismatic and incompetent. Any similarity between May and a Boudicca/Britannia figure evaporated very swiftly during the campaign and she proved to possess almost no talent to persuade anyone to follow her in a bonfire of rights in exchange for national greatness.
Over the past few months we have become accustomed to Donald Trump using the tactic of making wild, often unsubstantiated accusations about his political opponents, the judiciary and the media. Such tactics are also familiar to us in the UK by the actions of a virulent corporate owned media.
Without doubt there have been times in the past when the Prime Minister of the day has joined in such activity, but political expediency, advisors or civil servants have eventually stepped in to provide wiser council. Now, however, it appears that Theresa May has decided (assuming it is a conscious activity) that this behaviour is the new norm, implying that everyone from the European Union to Parliamentarians to the Trade Unions and beyond are conspiring to undermine her and thereby subvert the nation.
Along with the accusations come demagogic attacks on her opponents, attempting to stain their character as a dangerous saboteur or unpatriotic. So what are the outcomes of such an approach? Importantly, in keeping with the neo-Conservative mantra of a strong (and stable!!) leader driving through dramatic, damaging and possibly irreversible change to the fabric of society she can present herself as some sort of modern day Boudicca figure, holding back the hoards of hostile forces.
Whether by design or an unconscious feeling of powerlessness in the face of an unimaginably complex Brexit strategy, May is recasting disagreement as deviance, opposition as disruption, debate as subversion. Although more complex in its manifestation (at least until now) the phenomenon of McCarthyism in 1950s America shares many of these characteristics, with the original UnAmerican Activiities becoming UnBritish Activities; likewise, Senator McCarthy’s Soviet Bloc is replaced in May’s world by the European Union. During the ’50s the main effect was to close down debate and usher in a climate of fear and suspicion of your neighbour. The effects were felt way beyond politics in art, science and culture.
The rules of a democratic open society is disagreement in a dialogic manner. May is trying to substitute new rules of Government by fiat and authoritarianism. The consequences are unpredictable, terrifying and the likely loss of treasured liberties
At this moment radical politics is flat on its back having been hit with a devastatingly effective neo-Conservative programme. Donald Trump in the United States and Theresa May in the UK are following an aggressive reactionary programme and in mainland Europe the hope is that Centre Right politicians can hold out against Far Right and Neo-Fascist politicians. But the scale of the victory is no fluke, a kind of lucky break by reactionary politics. The Neo-Conservatives have thoroughly prepared for this moment and their success is down to making a very specific political philosophy acceptable to a great many people. The road forward for radical politics is rocky and long. I want to briefly explain why, using a classic example from an earlier post.
In that previous blog I pointed to the work of David Brooks back in the 1990s. Very briefly, here is what he proposed. The pursuit of national greatness is all-imporant and is the fundamental pillar of the project. All else depends upon its successful articulation. How to do this? Here are just some of the ways and how they are being given real world form by the UK Government:
- Firstly associate yourself with a golden age of the past. This may mean building physical objects. So in the UK promoting Empire 2.0 may be useful but not nearly as effective as, say, building a new Royal Yacht!
- There must be great programmes for government to pusue. Brexit! A perfect opportunity seized upon with glee by Theresa May giving the Government a heaven sent opportunity to use the rhetoric of independence and national exceptionalism. But if not Brexit then something else would have been adopted.
- Explicitly tie naked ambition and willpower into the programme. Hence the insistence on Grammar schools, despite Justine Greening vainly attempting to promote them as engines of social mobility!
- Persuade a poplulation bouyed up by the pursuit of greatness that a strong government has better things to do than strengthen comminities and individual liberties. Note that Conservatives have quiety dropped the rhetoric of smaller Government. So trash the laws and programmes which support services. But quietly forget about ‘balancing the budget’.
- Promote an iron discipline to achieve the greatness. In the UK if this means putting up with falling wages and living standards, then the price is worth paying!
Brooks was interviewed recently, The expectation was that he would be ecstatic, with Trump scoring a devastating victory for his ideology. But not so. Apparently what he envisaged was someone more focussed and disciplined to implement the programme than the erratic and vainglorious Trump!
It is important to note that this is not a purely political issue. The scale of the problem is huge with highly influential cultural vehicles such as newspapers (the Daily Mail, Express, etc), TV news and reality programmes (see my post on this from a Neo-Liberal perspective) mobilised in the promotion of the neo-Conservative line. Add to this, of course, Banks and Multinational Corporations. Radical and progressive politics can and will recover but it will take time to develop from new foundations. Political philosophies of equal potency do exist but we must not be afraid of adopting them and translating them into a programme. But remember the neo-Conservatives spent decades achieving their hegemony here so the sooner we start the better!