Tuesday, 9 October 2012

The Cult of Boris

When a political party starts to lose it sense of common purpose, attention shifts to sectional interests and various social policy hobby-horses, plus the cult of personality is indulged. I think we can see this happening with the Conservative party today. From the 1970s onwards, the party remodelled itself along neoliberal lines as the champion of enterprise against corporatism. "Choice" may have been the ideological lodestone, underpinning council house sales, utility privatisation and the bias towards deregulation, but the sub-text was always that Britain Plc would flourish once government stepped back and the private sector was allowed the whip-hand.

In the event, the first Thatcher administration led to a 30% reduction in productive capacity through the creative destruction of monetarism, and it was only the strategic errors of General Galtieri (and the SDP Gang of Four) that allowed the Tories to stay in power. The Lawson boom of the late 80s saw output increase, but from the perspective of today we can see that this was over-dependent on burgeoning financial services and North Sea oil exports, with too much capital being diverted to property instead of industry. By the time of the 1992 election victory under Major, growth had been marginally better than other European nations but public expenditure and tax revenues had barely changed since 1979 - i.e. spending cuts were offset by higher unemployment costs, and income tax cuts were offset by VAT rises. The "tax bombshell" charge against Labour took some chutzpah.

From the late 80s, the Tories were increasingly diverted by sectional interests, notably on Europe, and mad schemes, notably the Poll Tax. The cult of personality was already over-ripe when Heseltine did a von Stauffenberg over Westland in 1986. If John Major was the antidote to that, he was also fortunate in fighting the 1992 election on the back of another successful conflict (the First Gulf War) and before Black Wednesday and the ERM debacle showed up the party's economic incompetence. Major's "back to basics" initiative was both ephemeral and quickly undermined by sleaze, while Europe became a festering sore. Though leaving the ERM helped the economy, the coming Blair/Brown boom owed as much to the global spurt in productivity brought about by new technology, the first waves of globalisation, and the opening up of trade following the collapse of the Soviet system and Deng Xiaoping's reforms in China.

The Conservative Party's return to power in 2010 owed everything to the premise that they could manage the economy better. You didn't have to believe that the fiscal deficit was the result of Labour profligacy, rather than bailing out the banks, to think that the Tories might make a better fist of stimulating growth through enterprise. However, what has been obvious over the last two years is their timidity and complete lack of imagination when it comes both to stimulus and expenditure cuts. I'm not advocating that they should be cutting what they are, or cutting more, but the criticism from the right that it's happening too slowly is not without foundation. This is a long drawn out process of strangulation. The charge that Osborne is on work experience is funny because it rings true: blaming the Eurozone crisis for extending the deficit target is like claiming the dog ate your homework. In contrast, demonising families on benefits for having an extra child is just cowardly. It won't save much, it further frays social cohesion, and it sounds hypocritical to penalise childbirth and simultaneously advocate making abortion more difficult. A brave neoliberal would encourage abortion: you keep more young women in the labour market, and you lessen the eventual burden on the state as late abortions tend to involve foetuses with abnormalities or incapable mothers. The fact that the Tories aren't pushing that line shows the degree to which they are once more in thrall to sectional interests such as the anti-abortion lobby.

The best George Osborne was able to manage in the way of stimulus this week is a capital gains tax avoidance scheme. This is dressed up for public consumption as the bizarre hybrid of "owner-employee", with shares in exchange for surrendered employment rights (nothing makes you feel more like an owner than knowing you could be sacked at the drop of a hat). It is also being spun, for the feral right, as a makeover of Adrian Beecroft's bonkers plan to trash employment legislation across the board. Again, this will affect a tiny number of people. The average worker will hear no more about it, while private equity firms will be working out how they can organise shell businesses to take maximum advantage. Meanwhile Michael Gove and Eric Pickles indulge in union-bashing, Chris Grayling advocates rights for vigilantes, and David Cameron tries to put the European ferret back in its sack. It is at this point that the cult of personality rears its hirsute head in the form of Boris Johnson, who pledges loyalty on everything bar an extra runway at Heathrow, and perhaps the top rate of tax, and who thinks the government should do more for well-off families, and ought to bash the unions even more vigorously. That's how loyalty works: united they stand.

Johnson (I refuse to get chummy and call him Boris) has long modelled himself on that other great opportunist, Winston Churchill. In recent years, this has approached the level of a tribute act. Consider the self-aggrandising journalism and cavalier attitude to the truth (e.g. Hillsborough), the media-whore compulsions (Johnson coat-tailing drug busts is just the modern version of Churchill turning up at the siege of Sidney Street), the self-indulgent oratory and schoolboy wit (which usually serves to distract from his policy incoherence), the close relations with newspaper owners (from Beaverbrook to Murdoch), the economic pliability (Johnson is the City’s man, as Churchill was – disastrously – over the gold standard) etc.

Churchill's period "in the wilderness" in the 1930s is retrospectively cast as public service in the form of warnings about the rise of Nazism and the need for rearmament, but initially he was louder in his denunciations of Indian independence, when not praising Mussolini as a bulwark against communism. For Johnson, the London mayoralty has fulfilled much the same function. The job, essentially that of a combined transport and police commissioner, is clearly of little interest to him. The real value is the media platform it provides, much like that which Beaverbrook and Rothermere gave Churchill, which includes claiming credit for the ideas of others (the bike scheme, the Olympics) and indulging in daily photo opportunities. Not being Vladimir Putin, he is happy to act the buffoon and dangle from a zip-wire, rather than wrestle a drugged tiger. There's no such thing as bad publicity.

Johnson's flagship cause, the grandiose and irresponsible scheme for an airport in the Thames Estuary, is just a modern-day Dardanelles campaign, though hopefully without that unfortunate business at Gallipoli. As has been recently confirmed, the additional infrastructure costs would be enormous, which means the project would only be viable if Heathrow was closed down, crippling the economy of West London and much of the Thames Valley. Johnson doesn't give a shit because he knows the scheme won't, to coin a phrase, get off the ground. He has achieved his goal, which was to get it branded as "Boris Island" and be acclaimed as the author of a plan that has been on (and failed to get off) the drawing board since the 1940s.

As he prepares his inevitable bid for leadership of the Tory party, Johnson is now keen to position himself marginally to the right of Cameron and press a few hot buttons among the faithful. Having a pop at the unions has clear echoes of Churchill’s belligerence in relation to the Tonypandy riots and later the General Strike. The irony is that Churchill advanced the cause of trade unionism with his support for the Trade Disputes Act 1906, and later through his support for war socialism. He was also notoriously amenable to meeting union demands in his final stint as PM in 1951-55, just as London's mayor was happy to buy off the RMT for the Olympics. Like all opportunists, Johnson is nothing if not pragmatic. He believes in a flexible labour market, particularly for one job.

1 comment:

  1. David,

    I think much of the list of incoherent policies you have listed here can also be explained by the fact that the Tories got elected on the basis of right-wing populism, and now as they become less popular, they are seeking to use right-wing populism even more, as well as to shore up the core support.

    Its not that pro- or anti abortion positions has or doesn't have a Neo-Liberal logic, for instance, its that it appeals to a particular, reactionary section of Tory support. Attacks on Benefits may have little real benefit for capital, and may cause social division, but not only is it a means of securing core support, its also unfortunately popular with a large section of the population. The same is even more true with Immigration, which even business says, is beneficial.

    The same with the bash a burglar stuff. According to newsnight, only 7 people were prosecuted for it in the last 10 years, so its meaningless, and they have made the same kind of proposal for the last few conferences.