I’ve been thinking recently about the various themes that I’ve written about since starting this regular column for Freedom in 2016. I try really hard not to repeat myself too much but history has a way of making that pretty tough. These are the themes I think will recur time and again in 2022.
David Cameron was prime minister when I started this column. Lots of us spent the early part of the last decade campaigning against austerity on the basis that it was nasty and killing people. We can also add that it was incompetent and ideological. It was a neoliberal policy he probably would have put into operation anyway but it was trailed as a response to a banking crisis. This was astonishing incompetence. The idea that you solve an international banking crisis by slashing public services is just ludicrous.
I once thought that Theresa May would go down in history as the worst prime minister the UK had ever had. The problem with such pronouncements is that: a) there is no agreed definition of what makes a prime minister wretched, and b) someone could always come along and do a worse job. Looking back, May’s biggest mistake was calling for an election in 2017; an election which she lost but in which she just clung onto power. Well, for two years at least. Enter, Boris Johnson.
Johnson is not one for detail. He is also not one for scrutiny. Handling the detail and handling the scrutiny that comes with the role are obvious key skills. The fact that he doesn’t have these skills often works in his favour but his lacking in them will ultimately make his fall from power spectacular. The two skills dovetail. Being on top of the detail means that you can handle the scrutiny. The reason this doesn’t always matter is because most of the time, the general population doesn’t care what is going on in politics. How much did the PM pay on his Downing Street wallpaper? Whose money was it? These are questions that many people couldn’t give a monkey’s about.
There are times that the public really start to get interested in the things government are doing. At the end of 2021 the idea that people in government were doing things during lockdown which they weren’t allowed to do really struck a nerve. People unable to say goodbye to dying relatives in hospitals, while Johnson and others quaffed wine at parties, against the Covid rules, really cuts through to people. These moments, caused by Johnson’s incompetence are also compounded by it via the ridiculous explanations and decisions emanating from his office.
This isn’t going to end because Johnson isn’t going to change. He’s going to continue to make the most astonishingly entitled decisions and act like it doesn’t matter. I think we can predict that he already has done things that will come to light in the next year that will keep this being a continuing theme. Labour will be hoping he stays in post now that they have a poll lead. I’m not convinced that the Tories will have a vote of confidence in him or a leadership election in the next year. Their problem is that the longer they leave it, the more likely they will have him as leader at the next election. Their second problem is who could possibly take over?
A lack of heavyweights
When I was growing up, British politics seemed to contain colossal figures. They were powerful because they were intelligent. The last handful of prime ministers and their cabinets do not convey the same qualities. There is a link here to competence but I think it is separate and distinct to consider whether our politicians are deep thinkers. David Cameron used the global banking crisis to his advantage in beating Gordon Brown. He then instigated ideological austerity policies he probably desired anyway. This showed a lack of understanding on economics. He moved by ideological instinct, rather than deeply held principles and understanding of events. His instincts told him that the NHS was badly managed because it was centralised. His government duly decentralised the institution, breaking lines of command (and vitally, communication) mere years before a global pandemic struck. His NHS reforms are now having to be altered because of the damage they have done. The fact that they’re being amended by another incompetent government doesn’t make it any better.
Cameron’s successor, Theresa May, never got out of the Brexit quagmire set up by her predecessor. At the time she was widely seen as a prime minister with a sense of duty but without a parliamentary majority to force her ideas through. For all the fine talk about helping the ‘just about managing’ and dealing with inequality regarding gender and race, she achieved little. She was replaced by the vacuous Johnson, who promptly purged those in the parliamentary Tory party getting in his way over Brexit. Johnson is a powerful figure at times. But it is bluster. It isn’t intelligence. Once again, ideology has come to the fore: part Brexit, part Thatcherite, part pure Johnson. His clownish ways are indicative of what a section of the public will vote for after a decade of austerity and the nonsense of Brexit. The result is a powerful clown who hates any form of dissent. We’ve seen what he is willing to do to his own party just to get his own way: no one should be surprised at what he plans for the rest of us.
Extending government power
The Johnson cabinet is united on wanting more power for the executive (in other words themselves). More power in relation to the courts, power to shut down protests, power over the border. I’ve never known a more dangerous government in the UK. In the coming year we are going to see it claw more power. One of the only meaningful checks on power could be the press, if only it wasn’t largely owned and operated by Tory supporters. If we add constituency boundary changes into the mix, we may just be entering the second decade of a several decades long government.
Scandal after scandal
The political class of the United Kingdom excels at corruption. In recent years there have been scandal after scandal involving politicians of all parties. From expenses to tax havens little has been done. Then there are the scandals directly affecting people across the country, such as Windrush and Grenfell (including the ongoing cladding issues). I am convinced there will be more. I am convinced that with each one we will be told ‘never again’ and we will be assured that the rules will be changed for the future. Then there will be another scandal and we’ll be told it all again. How the public react will be the key to what actually gets done.
What of anarchism?
Déjà vu. In some ways the threats of British politics are the same as ever: attacks on rights, increased inequality, centralisation of power etc etc. However, it feels as though British anarchism has changed since I started this column in 2016. Maybe it’s a perception, but did we lose people to Labour when Corbyn came along as leader? Have they flocked back now as that party has shifted? It feels like we are treading water a little.
That isn’t to say that there is no activity at all. There have been some really encouraging happenings, like the Mutual Aid that sprung up at the start of the pandemic. There is always anarchists beavering away at some local project, not seeking mass recognition but changing lives for the better in low key ways. Widespread anarchist activity can be cyclical. There will be periods of decline and stagnation. There will be periods of advancements. What we do in 2022 and beyond will prepare and propel the movement forward. There is so much in British politics that anarchism should be concerned with. The state is extending its power and it isn’t hyperbolic to suppose that democracy itself is under threat. Whilst we might not believe in a liberal democracy, we must be at the forefront to prevent its successor from emerging.
I suspect that these thoughts on British politics, and our place within it, will recur throughout another tumultuous year.