Nick Cohen

Britain is changing and conservatives are failing to keep up

Britain is changing and conservatives are failing to keep up
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Conservatism would be an admirable idea if only its adherents followed it. Fear of change, or at least a wariness about its capacity to lead to unintended suffering, is by no means an irrational emotion. If your society is just about managing, to coin a phrase, it is not reactionary to worry that meddling could take it from bad to worse.

Even those of us who have never voted Conservative can see the wisdom in the conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott’s description of politics:

‘Men sail a boundless and bottomless sea. There is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination. The enterprise is to keep afloat on an even keel.’

Even now if you read the remarkably self-congratulatory Tory press, conservatives still talk as if they are cautious and sensible men and women who know there is much to fear when you lose your even keel. Consider how frightened of a trip across the bottomless sea modern Britain should make them.

A scan of the horizon should take in the first far-left leader in the Labour party’s history doing well enough in the polls, and ready to take power if the government collapses. As Labour has no viable economic policy that can begin to please its supporters, it is reasonable to imagine it will degenerate into a vicious and paranoid government that delights in lashing out at real and imagined enemies once in power. You only have to look at Labour in opposition or the Trump movement in America, which so resembles it, to guess what is to come.

Meanwhile this government is doing its best to lose. It is so decrepit, the only humane course appears to find a High Court judge willing to grant it the right to die. Writers for the Spectator might rage against Theresa May’s lack of imagination, and her failure to follow this bold course or that new initiative. They ought to consider the possibility that this government’s enterprise would be hopeless even if she had a majority. As we warned you at the time, the big lie of Brexit was not that it would deliver £350 million a week to the NHS – staggering though that lie was. Whether it was Michael Gove and Boris Johnson promising there would be ‘change to the Irish border’ or David Davis once again demonstrating the unbearable lightness of his being by breezily predicting we could bypass Brussels and ‘strike a deal’ with  Berlin, the big lie was that Brexit would be easy and then we could move on.

Who knows, the Tory right might even have believed it. As it is, this government can do nothing else apart from Brexit, and can’t even do that well. Britain faces problems which would challenge any administration: health care for the elderly, a housing crisis, the end of the era of cheap money, and the collapse in productivity. Not one of these is addressed, let alone tackled, by Brexit. Instead, by pushing us into economic stagnation Brexit will make all of them harder to solve.

Consider how angry people are and how much angrier they might become. Britain’s households are in the middle of what is projected to be a 17-year pay squeeze, with earnings not set to return to their 2008 levels until 2025. As the Resolution Foundation doggedly demonstrates, pay growth and economic growth bear a scant relation to each other. Even when we are close to full employment, labour is so weak and capital is so powerful, workers can no longer take advantage of a sellers’ market. Before the crisis unemployment below 5 per cent was associated with pay growth of 4 to 5 per cent. Today we have unemployment near 4 per cent, but pay growth refuses to rise above 3 per cent.

People can put up with falling real wages and cuts in public services as long as there is hope for a better future. But when stagnation becomes a war without end – all there is and all there can be – they start to crack. It is too simplistic to blame Nigel Farage, the Brexit vote or the rise of Corbyn on economic distress, but, come now, you can’t pretend it doesn’t matter when nothing improves for the majority of the population even though we officially got out of the Great Recession at the end of 2009.

We have yet to come to terms with what happens when interest rates rise and the ‘emergency measures’ of quantitative easing and cheap money comes to an end – an emergency that has lasted nigh on a decade. No one knows how the British state will cope when the next recession comes. It can’t slash interest rates when they are already so low. And Brexit will make trading our way out of trouble all the harder.

I am not a Tory and don’t get into panics about reds under beds and pre-revolutionary situations but Conservatives are meant to be paranoid: it’s what keeps them on their toes. Instead of worrying about the future they would rather tear each other apart over equally unworkable post-EU customs schemes, than compromise, or address pressing problems to try to win over a few wavering voters to their bleeding cause.

I am writing this before the local election results, which will doubtless be analysed in terms of how each of the parties fare. But party labels are trivialities when set against the changes Britain is going through. Conservatives whether of the large and small ‘c’ variety should look at them and worry about them. Yet so blinded are they by Brexit, they cannot see that the boat is low in the water and no one would have the right to be surprised if it capsized.

Written byNick Cohen

Nick Cohen is a columnist for the Observer and author of What's Left and You Can't Read This Book.

Topics in this articlePoliticsuk politics