On Friday past, the UK Chancellor Jeremy Hunt and the richest Cabinet minister after Rishi Sunak made what was billed as a 'keynote speech' on the government's economic agenda. This vacuous but revealing address clung to the sacred totems of tax cuts without a word to say about the widespread public sector strikes. It had one central theme: taking on 'the declinist' perspective of Britain, which says its best days are over.
Hunt claimed that too many are unfairly talking Britain down. This, he asserted, was true across the political spectrum: 'Just this month, columnists from both left and right have talked about an existential crisis, Britain teetering on the edge; and that all we can hope for is that things don't get worse'. This was not, he argued, the mindset of forward-focused, optimistic Tories like himself who clearly have chosen to forget that Tories have utilised such a 'declinist' account in the past to validate their argument that Britain was going in the wrong direction.
In the 1970s, leading Thatcherite Tories made the consistent claim that the UK was in irrevocable decline, becoming poorer and less competitive, primarily because of the assumptions which had dominated UK government and politics since 1945. Thatcher, Keith Joseph and right-wing thinkers such as Correlli Barnett said this was due to the state, public spending, regulation and trade union power becoming too oppressive and crowding out risk and economic growth. This was a straight-out unapologetic 'declinist' narrative of the UK and one which set the direction of the UK to the present day.
The UK is
in decline: economically, socially, governmentally and in international reputation. The UK has had a consistently low growth rate since the banking crash of 2008 brought into the public domain the limitations of growth fuelled by turbo-charged finance capitalism and debt. Since the Tories came to office in 2010, living standards have not just stalled but declined, while the wages and rewards to those in the top 0.1% have gone through the roof. UK teachers, according to The Economist,
earn 15% less than in 2010; nurses 14% – the explicit backdrop to widespread discontent and strike action in the public sector.
Mostly uncommented upon, UK economic growth has been on a slower path since the Tory 'declinist' argument of the 1970s. They said then that the assumptions of 'the post-war consensus' were locking the UK into a downward spiral, which only their 'tough love' medicine could challenge. The reality has been very different. The average economic growth rate for the three decades of 1945-79 was significantly higher than the four decades from the election of the Thatcher Government in 1979: a period dominated electorally by the Tories and politically by Thatcherism.
Despite this, the right-wing narrative pumped out daily in parts of the press, think-tanks and commentariat is that the past 40 years are anchored in some kind of British renaissance founded upon 'the British economic miracle' of the 1980s, when the Tories 'put the great back into Britain'.
This is the deception peddled by the Daily Telegraph
every single day, but it is also one bought into by New Labour when in office and which Keir Starmer's present day Labour do not feel confident enough to challenge.
Without an understanding that the much vaunted 'British economic miracle' of the past four decades is nothing but a mirage, the political and economic analysis and imperative to change will be somewhat lacking. This can be seen with the Tories still spellbound by the Thatcherite elixir of tax cuts – the only argument between Sunak and Hunt and the Trussonomic apologists being over timing – and for all Labour's undoubted good intentions, it is in this slipstream that they still follow.
The British economic model of capitalism, economy and society is bust. The reasons for this go past the present Tories, and even Thatcherism. They lie in the long-term nature of capitalism; the power of finance capitalism and short-term speculation and lack of innovation, investment and research and development, alongside the absence of long-term support from government, public agencies and financial sources.
The present state of Britain is not just about what has happened since 2010 or 1979, but the patterns of capitalist development across the 19th and 20th centuries. It is these deep roots which reflect the dysfunctional nature of the UK today.
Tory MP and former party chairman Jake Berry stated last week that: 'The income disparity between the poorest parts of the North of England and the richest parts of the South East are greater today than between East and West Germany before the Berlin Wall fell'. That is a damning indictment, not just of Tory governments but about the actions of governments for decades.
Faced with such an indefensible situation, much of Tory and right-wing politics is about either evasion or diversion, to try desperately not to be held accountable for this dire state of affairs. UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly last weekend, when forced to defend the tawdry tax avoidance of then Tory chair Nadhim Zahawi, claimed he had not had time to look into the detail before going on TV because: 'I spent the whole of last week in the US and in Canada… before having a rest and doing some shopping'.
Take former Tory minister and unrepentant Boris Johnson apologist Lord Stephen Greenhalgh, who is often trundled out to explain away the latest Tory excess. At the weekend, after telling the BBC that Johnson was 'a natural impresario' who would return as Prime Minister, he offered the following grim prediction.
Politics, he said, used to allow Prime Ministers to return for a second chance: Wilson and Churchill in the 20th century, Disraeli and Gladstone in the 19th. This offered the road map, he believed, for the UK in the 21st century, to return to the norms of the 18th and 19th centuries. By which he meant pre-democratic, corrupt, court politics: government by a tiny elite in the interests of a tiny elite.
This is the contemptuous Tory view of democracy, government and public duty and accountability laid bare. All of these hinder the elite from doing what they do best: looking after their own self-interests and treating government and public bodies as institutions which aid themselves and people of privilege. This is politics and public affairs returning to pre-democratic norms and almost a kind of feudalism or neo-feudalism.
The Nadhim Zahawi scandal should not be seen as a one-off. Rather, it throws a searchlight on the actions and behaviour of the Tory plutocratic class who are so ultra-rich that it is beyond the imagination and reach of the vast majority of the population. Zahawi was engaged in systematic tax avoidance which saw him investigated by the HMRC and made to pay a penalty of over £1m and a tax bill of £5m.
Yet Zahawi felt so above the laws that apply to all of us that, as the HMRC were looking into his tax affairs that he was denying, he thought himself appropriate to stand for the Tory leadership and prime ministership of this country in the contest after Boris Johnson was forced from office last summer.
There is no shame, no insight, no self-awareness in this multi-millionaire class. Zahawi, after he was finally sacked by Sunak on Sunday, showed in his letter back to the PM that he had no contrition and no understanding that his behaviour was unacceptable. Equally as damning, he saw his downfall as due to enquiries from the press, not his own actions, stating: 'I am concerned, however, about the conduct from some of the fourth estate in recent weeks'.
If you think this is an isolated sentiment, remember former Health Secretary Matt Hancock who, after receiving £320,000 from I'm a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here
, pocketed the vast majority and gave away a mere £10,000, split between two charities, which amounts to 3.1% of his fee. This after he promised before the TV series to give to charities the equivalent of his MP's salary which is £84,144 per annum. And then there is always the shocking example of former Tory peer Michelle Mone and what happened to at least £29m in public funds for PPE.
The UK is in serious decline and it is not alarmist or declinist to point this out. It is so far gone that this decline is not just economic but moral – and can be seen in the debased behaviour of not just Tory politicians, but their attitude to due process, the rule of law and respected institutions the length and breadth of the country.
We have not even mentioned Richard Sharp who, after putting Boris Johnson in contact with distant relative Sam Blyth, became BBC chair only weeks later. He did so without declaring to anyone the potential conflicts of interests. And Sam Blyth was, according to the Sunday Times,
in the running to become chief executive of the British Council – which he did not get.
Nothing to be concerned about here said Boris Johnson in typical cavalier style: 'Richard Sharp is a good and a wise man, but he knows absolutely nothing about my personal finances – I can tell you that for 100% ding dang sure'.
The UK's decline is much more serious and endemic than in the 1960s and 1970s, when the debate about the UK as 'the sick man of Europe' reached a peak in that Thatcherite critique.
The country aided by Brexit and decades of self-delusion is now smaller, much more bitter and divided. It is poorer relative to its neighbours, and the people of the UK minus the 0.1% are less wealthy and prosperous than they were when the Tories came to office in 2010.
This state of affairs looks and feels terminal, and unless there is a desire in politics, media and public life to wake up and try to bring the UK out of what looks like a deep-seated spiral of decline, then this might be irreversible.
Tory politicians have an obvious self-interest in telling us that the current state of affairs is the way things have to be. But do the rest of us have to go along with this charade? Could we not have the courage and ambition to point out that Britain's economy and society is broken and does not work for anyone but the cossetted 0.1%?