The spectre of revolution is returning to British politics. Both major parties are out of their depth in the face of multiple national crises. The Reform Party is rising in the polls in a way that has not been seen since the Ukip-mania of 2014. The reality of national decline has penetrated the collective consciousness, while public discourse is once more becoming cantankerous and divided. And all of this is somehow lost on the British establishment, which is convinced that Labour’s likely return to power next year heralds the final end of the 2016 populist movement and the restoration of the old centrist regime.
Everywhere one looks, history appears to be repeating itself. Like the Tory government pre-2016, our bright but blinkered PM seems to think he has the meticulous masterplan that will just about hold things together without the need for radical or fundamental change. Although Rishi Sunak has many positive attributes and is underestimated by the Tory Right, he still ultimately does not like to rock the boat.
On the face of it, there is some narrow logic to his conviction that he can bring the country back from the brink without doing anything too dramatic. Even though he won’t take on the economic groupthink that has inflicted such damage on the UK economy, the PM may soon be able to partially deliver on his promise to restore the economy to some semblance of health. An increase in the UK’s fiscal “headroom” means that the Chancellor can start stimulating a little growth through modest tax cuts.
Sunak may also be vindicated in his belief that he can get flights to Rwanda off the ground without having to leave or even selectively disapply the European Convention on Human Rights. If his big idea is to stay in the Convention and ignore rulings by its court, then he will be following a trend set by other European countries. The court has a poor track record of punishing rulebreakers. Greece is alleged to have pursued a policy of naval pushbacks of illegal migrants. European officials justify their salaries merely by firing off chiding press statements.
But does anyone really think that some minor tax cuts and deporting a few hundred migrants to Rwanda will go anywhere near to meeting the scale of the crises Britain now faces? Across the West, liberal orthodoxies are imploding on multiple fronts – from migration and welfare and economic growth. Some Conservatives appear to recognise this. But despite having been in power for 13 years, they have failed to establish a new political consensus that would allow for necessary change or to challenge the parameters of establishment thinking.
Even now as they face wipeout at the next general election, few Tories are willing to point out the obvious: that the current international refugee system is fundamentally obsolete. A 1940s throwback, the regime was crafted at a time when Western countries thought they might have to accept a handful of dissidents escaping from behind the Iron Curtain. It is totally inadequate for a world in which most refugees are not really fleeing political persecution but rather states racked by vicious cycles of brain drain and disorder. (Vicious cycles which the West’s neo-colonial, mass migration policies are helping to fuel.)
Indeed, there is a similar refusal to confront the reality that the legal immigration system is totally broken. While some Conservatives mouth platitudes about the need to crack down on record arrival numbers, or the costs of mass migration, they are terrified to break from the establishment consensus that the economy would collapse without importing labour from abroad. In their world, fiddling with the salary thresholds for migrant visas is counted as a major breakthrough.
The Tories are equally petrified to point out that the British economy has been brought to its knees, not ultimately due to austerity and Brexit, but because the model of propping up an ever-expanding welfare state through cheap debt has fallen apart – and the Plan B of falling back on ever-higher taxation can only end in disaster. Again, the party flirts with minor measures to rectify this. But the Government has done none of the intellectual or political groundwork necessary to engineer a major shift away from profligate welfare spending. The scale of the “pro-growth” tax cuts it can offer can therefore only be small.
The Tories’ unwillingness to take on basic establishment orthodoxies is dangerous for two reasons. Firstly, it is becoming increasingly apparent that fixing Britain will not be possible without effectively levelling the old system and starting from scratch. In the case of illegal migration, the Rwanda policy will do little to deter Channel crossings unless it is combined with other much tougher measures – including deals with other countries and using the Navy to turn back the boats. Sooner or later, Britain must choose between suffering a major hit to its soft power by permanently operating outside international human rights law or working with other countries facing similar crises to build a refugee system fit for purpose.
Similarly, a smattering of tax cuts is hardly going to prevent the British economy from falling off into a permanent debt slump. If anything, a refusal to take on economic orthodoxies is getting us into an even deeper hole. The Bank of England’s aggressive dumping of bonds following its QE spree may be one the biggest monetary scandals since Gordon Brown sold off the country’s gold. A reluctance to take tough decisions on trimming the welfare state – even as debt servicing eclipses public spending on transport and policing – has become suicidal.
The second reason is that nothing can possibly change in this country unless the elites can be convinced that such change is necessary. In the 1980s, Thatcherites successfully convinced the British elite that the latter’s attempt to build a rationally planned new Jerusalem was doomed. It is the task of today’s politicians to persuade the Blob that pursuing a liberal utopia without limits on migration and funded by dangerous debt accumulation is equally destined to fail.
Can the Tories do that? Many readers will be justifiably sceptical. Which is why the likelihood that a second populist wave and a new Right-wing party – one actually prepared to take on the establishment – will supplant the Conservatives only grows by the day.