What kind of government is this? You can almost see the puzzlement on pundits’ faces as they try to work it out. Is it the technocratic dictatorship of Jeremy Hunt, or the banal nastiness of pound-shop mafioso Gavin Williamson? Is it Rishi Sunak bro-hugging Emmanuel Macron, or Suella Braverman banging up “invaders”? Is this the administration of smooth-cheeked, spreadsheet-speaking sensibles they long for at the Times, or the gleeful barbarians the Daily Mail ordered?
It depends on how you look at the shape British politics has taken since 2010. Of the party that has run the country since then, a simple story is usually told. It goes thus: from 2010 to 2016, the Conservatives were a well-spoken and professionally run centrists’ club. True, there was some unpleasantness over spending cuts – but don’t forget gay marriage, the huskies and hoodies and London’s Olympics!
Then came Brexit, which made the Tories mad, bad and utterly cack-handed. They became hard-right Trumpettes, waging inane culture wars and peddling blatant lies. In the 12 years between David Cameron and Boris Johnson, they went from Davos-man centrists to broken-brained Brexiteers. And so to Sunak, who has become the man many in the political classes hope will mark a return to Grownup Government.
A nice tale, you must admit. It’s just a shame it isn’t true. Let us overlook the breathless commentary that Sunak’s anointment was a Big Moment for race politics in the UK. Well, Braverman’s war on migrants is also a Big Moment, but it doesn’t get half the column inches. From Priti Patel to Kemi Badenoch, diversity on the blue team is always hymned by the newspapers – even as they ignore how black and brown ministers are regularly used to front up attacks on black and brown people.
Never mind, either, how much has remained constant. Many of the faces, from Liz Truss to Michael Gove, have stayed the same over the last decade, as has much policy. Kwasi Kwarteng’s supposedly radical plan for growth took up George Osborne’s ideas of corporation tax cuts and ditching the top rate of income tax. He merely deployed them at breakneck speed, as if setting all the coalition budgets to the Benny Hill theme tune.
Indeed, the greatest element missing from this supposed tale of two Tory halves is economics – in particular, the kind of austerity economics that will be imposed on the country in next Thursday’s budget. That is when Hunt will try to suck £50bn to £60bn out of the economy, the bulk of that money coming from our public services. It will be not the second but the third wave of austerity since 2010 (many forget the cuts made by Sunak at No 11 as the pandemic eased). Each has been about disciplining poor people and protecting the rich, and each has come with a fresh wave of authoritarianism. Just look at what they introduced this year in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, banning protests and locking up those who take part in them for a year.
First they stole our money, then they robbed our right to protest. And now they are taking away our right to strike too. The very same prime minister who just days ago stood on the steps of Downing Street and promised “integrity and accountability” is pressing ahead with two separate legal attacks on the rights of workers to take industrial action – even allowing drafted-in agency staff to break strikes.
Do not be fooled that there is a pre-Brexit nice, liberal Toryism trying to get out from underneath the pulverising post-2016 draconian monster. Sunak, who as chancellor made an annual £1,000 cut to universal credit just as the cost of living emergency took grip, is cut from the very same cloth as Braverman, who wants to clamp down on “tofu-eating wokerati” climate protesters for something as trivial as making too much noise. They are not different breeds of Conservative, let alone rival ideologues. They both protect the interests of the wealthy, the company bosses and mega asset-owners against the rest of us. Picture brutal metal studs embedded in the sole of a shiny black Oxford brogue: that is the form of government we face now.
Let us call it authoritarian austerity, for it is an ideology with a long and terrible history. In a new book titled The Capital Order: How Economists Invented Austerity and Paved the Way to Fascism, the economic historian Clara E Mattei reminds us that the greatest austerity the UK ever faced was not under Osborne or Margaret Thatcher but in the early 1920s, when Whitehall slashed spending in short order by 20%. Wages cratered, while the economy was crippled for most of the decade. The technocrats at the Bank of England acknowledged: “The process of deflation of prices … must necessarily be a painful one to some classes of the community”, which at least is more honest than declaring, as Cameron did, that “we’re all in this together”.
The working classes in Britain emerged from the massacre of the Great War demanding universal healthcare and public housing. Forced impoverishment saw off those demands and tamed the radicals. It was not just that the government clamped down on the right to protest; as Mattei writes, austerity “foreclosed alternatives to capitalism”. It shut down the public’s political imagination.
Mattei points to the fact that Mussolini posed as an austerity politician when he took power. “Thrift, work, discipline … the budget has to be balanced as soon as possible,” he declared in his first speech in parliament. His ministers were inspired by the spending-cut politics practised in the UK – talk that was lapped up by the Times and the Economist. At the Bank of England, an extraordinary memo went round, which has been unearthed by Mattei. Titled Fascist Italy – Fascist Methods, it argued: “The Italian people are the descendants of Roman slaves … Mussolini and his Fascists seized power and restored order … and the people are reduced to the servitude which had been their lot for a score of centuries.”
Austerity is a one-sided class war, conducted in numbers and defended by economists’ jargon. And when that fails to do the trick, dissenters can be silenced. Already, you can see the forces of law and order mustering. Theresa May’s former right-hand man, Nick Timothy, rails in the Telegraph against the “weak policing” at our borders and at protests while the deputy prime minister, Dominic Raab, wants our human rights laws to be ripped up entirely.