Freedom News

Fourteen years of suffering

The state might be a horrendous way to organise society, but that doesn’t mean its chief administrators have to do terrible things. As this Tory government comes to an end, it should be remembered for the torment it has caused.

After the prime minister’s sodden announcement that there will be a general election on July 4th, top Tories headed to a campaign launch event at the Excel Centre in east London. Rishi Sunak again set out his (poor) record at running the country, only this time he had the cabinet behind him. None of them looked consistently pleased to be there and ready for an election. Defence Secretary, Grant Shapps, resembled Eeyore at times. Gillian Keegan and Victoria Atkins, the Secretaries of State for Education and Health and Social Care respectively, grinned often, with Atkins doing her normal guffawing at the slightest provocation from Sunak. At least they seemed happy, although it wasn’t clear why. My eyes were drawn to the Foreign Secretary, though. David Cameron looked washed up, having flown in from business abroad.

The story of this government begins with him. He started it and he set the tone for the last 14 years. We can argue about which Tory was the worst, but it isn’t a competition. The state might be an horrendous way to organise society, but that doesn’t mean its chief adminstrators have to do terrible things. If this government is about to come to an end, it should be remembered for close to a decade and a half of torment that it has caused, in the name of the market and in pursuit of power.

Along with his chancellor, George Osborne, Cameron instigated austerity policies as soon as they came to power in 2010. They presented it then as a necessary response to the 2008 financial crash, which they blamed on Labour prime minister, Gordon Brown. Not that anyone would expect them to talk about structural causes. But even if the crash had not happened, I have no doubt they would have pursued austerity policies regardless, given the chance. It was pure Thatcherism. Cameron always claimed he was a one-nation Tory and used his Big Society gimmick to claim he was focused on governing in the interests of everyone. This Big Society gambit was a failed attempt to get charities and other organisations to plug the gap in services caused by austerity. It didn’t work, and services like libraries and other local council infrastructure simply closed. We are still living with the consequences, and some councils have effectively gone bankrupt trying to keep vital services going.

With the help of their Liberal Democrat coalition partners, the Tories made it harder for young people to survive financially and get a decent education. The result was student riots and widespread inner city riots in England across 2010 and 2011. The 2011 riots were a long weekend of trouble, kick-started by the Metropolitan Police killing Mark Duggan. They were also about the financial situation many young people in Britain found themselves in. The resulting backlash from the state saw hefty penalties and prison sentences for looting (including one case of someone stealing just a bottle of water). This excused a further step in the long crackdown on protest by the State, coupled with a disdain for the young.

Austerity kills

The first part of the 14 year Tory rule included an audacious attack on the welfare system. Austerity extended everywhere and people on benefits were deliberately targeted. Forcing people to work and reducing their payments was the main tactic. There were examples of people being declared fit to work, only to die days or weeks later. There were also examples of people taking their own lives because of the stress of financial hardship that the millionaires in government had forced on them. We still see Cameron mentioned in the press as a centrist, but he was an ideologue who cared little for those less fortunate than himself. Other people were dying from austerity. Cuts in healthcare meant professionals were not picking up on life threatening illnesses as quickly as before. Reactions were dulled, treatments slowed, deaths followed. 330,000 excess deaths can be linked to budget cuts in services and welfare provision.

I started to write for Freedom around the end of Cameron’s time in Downing Street. Everything seemed normal. Politics was often quite dull, with pockets of excitement. And then, with a fresh election win under his belt, he decided he would settle an argument that had been raging in right wing politics for decades. It had been brewing for as long at the European Union started to get interested in social policy. This divide over EU membership had grown in the Tory Party throughout the 1990’s and beyond. He thought he would settle it, in favour of remaining, by raking us all into the debate. It became known as Brexit and the resulting referendum would split the UK down the middle. On the say of 52% of the voters, which can only be considered a very small majority, the UK was set to leave the EU. His gamble had failed. The strangely popular Boris Johnson had campaigned to leave, causing the campaign to remain great difficulties. As Cameron resigned, it looked likely that Johnson would take over.

In the end, Theresa May emerged as prime minister in June 2016. She elevated Johnson to Foreign Secretary in an effort to unite her still-divided party. She insisted on delivering Brexit despite being against it herself, and in the knowledge that MPs in parliament from all parties were overwhelmingly against leaving the EU. In an effort to gain a larger majority of Brexit supporting MPs, she held a general election and managed to lose her majority. She clung to power with the help of the right wing Northern Ireland party, the DUP. During her term in office, it emerged that the Home Office had not kept suitable records regarding people allowed to stay in the country after arriving from the Caribbean from 1948 onwards. The Home Office had been mistreating those people and their descendants for decades, deporting many. The Windrush scandal (named after the ship that brought many people to the UK in 1948) is ongoing as those affected continue to fight for justice. From 2010, May had been Home Secretary and instigated what she called a “hostile environment” to immigrants. Having to fight against the various injustices of the Tories’ time in office is an ongoing theme.

May lasted around two years in office, without securing Brexit. Her plans would have been a softer Brexit than what her replacement, Boris Johnson, finally achieved. His approach to government was the same as his approach to life. He did what he wanted, said what he liked at any given moment, and didn’t expect anyone to hold him accountable. He seemed to want to be prime minister because the post existed. He’s a lover of hierarchy, particularly if he’s at the top of it: the very definition of a libertoryan. That’s the word I use for people who talk freedom but really only want it for just their kind of people.

Libertoryan

While we all suffer higher prices for goods and services thanks to his Brexit deal, Johnson’s levelling up policies were a fine example of libertoryanism in action. The idea seemed nice on paper. Government money to improve places that are struggling. It’s only when you see the money going to areas with a Tory MP or council in charge that you realise it’s a classic libertoryan policy. It speaks freedom but solidifies the power of Tories at a local level, giving them plenty to boast about at election time.

Johnson will be remembered by many as the disgraced prime minister who ordered a lockdown but didn’t obey the rules himself. But what he should be remembered for is the suffering he caused during the Covid 19 pandemic. The UK response, under his watch, was catastrophic. The Covid 19 virus enjoyed liberty much more than the rest of us. It was allowed to rip with abandon through the social care system and hospitals. First, they talked of herd immunity. Then they reluctantly tried to peg the virus back with lockdown. Then Johnson and his chancellor, Rishi Sunak, decided to set it free again with the Eat Out to Help Out scheme. The result was another spike in cases and related deaths. A few months later they were refusing to vote to provide kids with free school meals. This kind of contempt for the people really skews your mind. It leaves kids hungry but it provides deadly viruses with free travel to infect as many people as it can.

Johnson was finally deposed by his own cabinet for lying to them about one of the many Tory MPs accused of sexual misconduct. Like the lockdown parties, this showed him falling afoul of a secret political force that rarely gets mentioned but is normally at the heart of all British politics. It is the notion of “fairness”. The British public have a sense of fairness which is often manipulated to gain results. We see it always being used in the debate on migration. The focus is nearly always on whether policies are fair to the main body of the public, rather than whether they are fair to migrants. People have been manipulated into believing that helping those who flee persecution comes at the expense of helping people born in the UK. It’s easy to do, considering austerity and the ongoing problems in public services. Nothing works, but people seem to think they should get their fair share of that nothing first. If they see others getting something, they get annoyed. Although I’m not sure people really want to be first in the line to live in a container at RAF Scampton.

With Johnson gone, the Conservative party embarked on a summer-long drama to find a replacement. Liz Truss beat Sunak to the post, but her time in office was brief. She had just enough time to make economic decisions that sent mortgage rates soaring, with the knock-on effect of dramatically increasing rents. We are all still suffering from her few weeks in power. Once again the drama of Tory leadership occurred and this time Sunak emerged as the only candidate. The current prime minister has barely put a foot right in his 18 months of power. He inherited a “stop the boats” policy and an accompanying desire to remove asylum seekers to Rwanda. This scheme labels some of the most vulnerable people in the country as “illegal migrants” and strips them of their right to claim asylum in the UK. It is vindictiveness presented as fairness.

One thing is consistent about these five prime ministers: a desire to stop people from having a chance to oppose the suffering they cause. The last 14 years of hardship have been accompanied by an approach to law and order that comes close to tipping the UK away from being a liberal democracy. After last week’s outrageous proposals to curb protest rights, the next step would be to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights (an idea Theresa May floated in 2016) and replace it with some watered down Bill of Rights. As anarchists we don’t agree with the existence of the state or capitalism, but I would be surprised if there are many anarchists who would not prefer a liberal democracy over a consevative one. While the erosion of protest rights has been ongoing for decades, the slope to authoritarianism is becoming more slippery every day.

We have to hope that on July 5th Sunak is not returned to Downing Street. If he is, the suffering and authoritarian creep will no doubt continue and it will be further entrenched in the system. If he isn’t, Labour and Kier Starmer will have a go for a while. No doubt there will be much to complain about with them too. Either way, these last 14 years will reverberate through history as a time of terrible pain for many for us.

~ Jon Bigger

Photo: Paul de Gregorio

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