The febrile state of UK politics in recent days and weeks is of a scale never seen before – with economic and political turmoil, government U-turns announced within days of the original policy, and a UK Prime Minister who is clearly not up to the job.
Liz Truss is finished barely before she got started. Six weeks into her now doomed Premiership, she now looks certain to become the shortest serving Premier in UK history. The current record holder is George Canning with 119 days in 1827 – which Truss needs to get to 4 January to surpass. Maybe a more accurate milestone is the legendary short-reigns of Brian Clough (1974) and Jock Stein (1978) at Leeds United – who both lasted 44 days.
The meaning and importance of this fundamental and long-lasting crisis will cause ripples well after Liz Truss is a minor historical footnote. It destroys the Tory Party's self-serving belief in its divine right to rule, that it acts in 'the national interest' and that it has an economic competence and reputation for sound money.
All of these characteristics have become weaker and questionable as a result of the past 12 years of Tory rule: the constant changing of personnel, the zig-zagging in policy, the impact of Brexit, Covid and the war in Ukraine.
Yet the short reign of Liz Truss, and even shorter so-called 'Trussonomics', has major consequences. This period has arisen from various factors, specifically the mythological Tory take (and false memory syndrome) of the 1980s, Thatcher and Thatcherism, when things were much more complex. The Tory Party worship at the altar of Thatcher has reached Churchillian levels and become an elixir, illusion and a magical past when in their eyes villains were villains: Scargill, Galtieri, the Labour Party and local government.
Alongside this a toxic uber-Thatcherite economic take has taken shape, aided by the Institute of Economic Affairs and the Taxpayer's Alliance: the former of which used to be a serious think tank, and which are both now corporate lobbying organisations. Their solution is simple: slash government, cut taxes, embrace personal responsibility and never mind the pain, discomfort and dislocation. This is what Naomi Klein described as 'shock therapy' which around the world has brought brutal economic medicine to countries such as Chile and Argentina in the 1970s and 1980s at huge human cost.
Another dimension to the crisis concerns framing, memory and how the past is interpreted. In the recent UK past, 'the winter of discontent' of 1978-79 became a key reference point in the media and politics for all that was wrong about Britain in the 1970s: UK economic decline, the supposed power of the unions, and the UK as 'the sick man of Europe'. As Tory peer and commentator Danny Finkelstein observed, the potency of 'the winter of discontent' became then a central pillar of Tory propaganda over the next couple of decades, lasting well into the era of Tony Blair and New Labour in office.
Writing this weekend, he noted that 'the winter of discontent brought to an end years of argument, fatally undermining the case for corporatism. Twenty years later, the Tories were still using pictures of uncollected rubbish and warning about the unions'.
This looks and feels like such a similar watershed that will have influence and impact in the years ahead. Finkelstein takes the view that: 'In a decade, Labour will still be talking about what happened. It will take years for the Conservative Party to be able to deploy the argument that it alone is fiscally prudent'.
This is different from such crises as the 1949, 1967 and 1992 devaluations – all of which diminished governments and Prime Ministers of the time but did not challenge the economic tenets and assumptions of each period.
The more relevant comparison is with the seismic economic turmoil and crises of the 1970s – the 1976 IMF crisis, loan and humiliation of the UK and then UK Labour Government of Jim Callaghan and Denis Healey, which paved the way for 'the winter of discontent'. All of which wrecked the assumptions of the previous 30 years about full employment, inflation and the role of trade unions. One leading social democratic thinker and Labour minister, Tony Crosland, recognised that 'the party is over', and in the subsequent 1979 election, Callaghan observed that 'a sea change in politics' had occurred in the political mood, deeper than in any single election result.
Alongside this is the psychological impact of government U-turns – and their lasting effect. In Tory circles, the notion of administrations doing a U-turn on a central plank of policy is rooted in how Ted Heath's 1970-74 government is seen. Elected on a platform to not bail out 'lame ducks', as unemployment rose and the economic storm clouds darkened, they abandoned this policy for one of state intervention and corporatism – most famously at Rolls Royce and Upper Clyde Shipbuilders.
The Tory reaction to Heath's U-turns led to Margaret Thatcher and Keith Joseph critiquing the entire post-war consensus, seeing it as a 'rachet' to socialism and collectivism, and posing a right-wing alternative, first around monetarism, then what became known as 'Thatcherism'. The original Thatcher phrase – 'The lady's not for turning' – was said at the 1980 Tory Conference as she faced mounting internal party and public opposition. Its genesis referenced the earlier Tory experience of Heath's U-turns and a determination not to do the same again: remarks that echo down through the years to Liz Truss adopting the Thatcherite mantle before embarking on this complete and humiliating set of U-turns.
Despite everything, in the past few weeks the Tory sense of self-interest and entitlement remains. Underneath this, Conservative Governments have stood for all sorts of different positions over the past 12 years, with the only underlying thread being an over-riding sense of self-importance and of Toryism as a self-preservation society keeping themselves in office and believing in their innate superiority compared to opponents.
This Tory self-belief was always there, but has come more to the fore in recent decades, aided by their dominance over the past 40 years, the past 12 years of Tory Government, and the divisive factors of Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn's period as Labour leader.
There now seems to be a major chance of a Keir Starmer-led Labour Government winning the next election and significantly defeating the Tories. Yet Labour have a steep electoral mountain to climb. They have to win without being the leading party of Scotland, and have to take 124 seats on existing boundaries to have the most slender parliamentary majority.
Added to this is the difficult economic climate, the international situation and the nature of British and global capitalism – all of which will restrain and restrict a future Labour Government as much as the present Truss Administration, and in many cases more so.
Beyond this, the political weather is dramatically changing in the UK and across the West. Economic and social assumptions with their roots in the global crises of the 1970s have run their course and been revealed as threadbare and lacking. The forces of neoliberalism have little now to offer beyond burning down the last remnants of a stretched social contract between government and citizens, which used to be one of the central credos of most developed capitalist societies.
This does not mean that stability and competent government will return anytime soon in the UK or elsewhere. What it does mean is that illusions and delusions which have shaped the parameters of politics in the past 40 years have been shorn of any remaining credibility and shown as the corporate vested and special interests they are, spinning an insider class capitalism which worked for a tiny elite but has hurt and harmed most of the population in the UK and other countries.
Politics across the West including the UK and Scotland will have to put together a new economic model, remake the social contract, redefine government and state, reshape and renew democracy – and do so in the face of seismic global inequalities and the climate crisis.
That will not be easy but Liz Truss has finally blown apart the last tenets of blind faith in 'trickle-down economics', pandering to the uber-rich and punishing the poor. How we put back a better version of society, economy and government – one which acts with compassion, care, empathy and solidarity – will not be easy. But there is now a distinct opportunity for Labour and egalitarian democrats here in the UK and similar forces of progressive politics the world over.