Britain’s constitutional crisis has now lasted twelve years. Were we a weaker country, a collapse of stable governance on this scale would have triggered much debate over whether foreign intervention could fix our institutions, or whether we were simply beyond help.
Our political system is designed with one purpose: to produce overwhelming majority governments. It has done nothing of the sort for over a decade. We’ve lurched through two coalitions (one dependent on the craven liars of the Liberal Democrats and the other on Ulster Unionist terrorist sympathizers), six years and counting of slow-burn Brexit obsession, three party leaders removed in palace coups, and three elections in four years. Then we got a leader who presided over one of the world’s worst pandemic death tolls before managing the genuinely impressive achievement of reaching moral standards low enough to be impeached by the Conservative Party.
Elected by party members on Monday, Britain’s newest prime minister, Liz Truss, is simply the latest detritus thrown up by this crisis. As she takes office, inflation rages out of control while people’s wages lie stagnant; absurd price hikes in energy, food, and rent are pushing an already fragile economy off a cliff, and trust in politics is (rightly) at an all-time low. The morning her victory was announced, a flagship TV show was busy turning the energy-poverty crisis into a grim gameshow, offering viewers the chance to have their bills paid. Truss may be comically out of her depth — but so is all of Britain’s political and media class.
Three Liz Trusses
Liz Truss is more a symptom than a cause of our deep malaise — or more accurately, three symptoms manifesting as three Liz Trusses. The first one drivels on about pork markets and the need to boost the consumption of British cheese, or dogs barking at drug drones, or claiming that only capitalism could enable her to listen to Whitney Houston. In her appalling mediocrity, she inherits this fundamental — and deliberate — unseriousness from her predecessor. The first Truss puts personal caprice before political depth — when comedian Joe Lycett mocked the incoming PM on a TV show, an “incandescent” Team Truss appear to have put significant time at a critical moment into attacking the channel that aired it. (These are, of course, people who usually enjoy complaining about “cancel culture.”)
The second Truss, however, is an ideologue. She ardently defends abstract capitalism in a way that Conservatives these days tend not to. She’s authored numerous right-wing attacks on public goods from the humanities to health care, unafraid of electoral unpopularity. Her long and often opaque relationship with the hard-right Institute of Economic Affairs think tank has garnered much critique. Such ideological commitment is in large part why the Conservative right picked an (ex-)Remainer like her over a Leaver like Rishi Sunak. But the third Truss is more expedient. After a youthful spell in the Liberal Democrats, she has switched parties, switched positions on the Brexit referendum, and switched from market fundamentalism to state interventionism. This deep unseriousness combined with hard-line ideological roots is enabled by ruthless and chronic inconsistency — in short, a remarkably coherent incoherence. It’s what defines Truss and her party.
Truss’ career has wound through the environment, justice, trade, and, most recently, foreign ministry. There’s much to criticize — like the lifting of an export ban on arms to Saudi Arabia in the heat of the Yemen war. But as a minister who largely toed party lines, it is difficult to get much insight from her career into how she will govern. Her leadership campaign told us little more about what she would do in power. Leadership campaigns rarely do — but while, in 2020, Truss’s opposite number, Keir Starmer, made promises to Labour members before merrily dropping them once he had taken control of the party, Truss didn’t even get that far. Her “vision” is intentionally platitudinous. She’s taken up the baton of obsessing over culture-war issues rather than ideas. The choice to say as little as possible may have been tactically sound. But as an incoming leader in a country in chaos, and in an apparent democracy where she has been elected by only a tiny number of party members, such silence has been a shocking disservice to the country she now leads.
None of this is new. Her predecessor, Boris Johnson, emerged in 2019 to decapitate then Conservative PM Theresa May and cast himself as the savior of Brexit, surrounding himself with the party’s hard right. He was hailed as the returning soul of conservatism by supporters and as the death of reason by opponents. He was termed — and was happy to be termed — a “populist,” that fundamentally meaningless term applied to all those who criticize prevailing political establishments. The term’s hollowness suited him; he got to talk as an insurgent while running a project essentially identical to that of “establishment” May — a half-baked Brexit deal, some weak regional economic intervention to back a rhetorical shift toward a more blue-collar conservatism, skepticism of foreign capital, and brutal policies to deport undocumented immigrants to Rwanda. But he did a better job, building an expanded electoral coalition and attempting to maintain it with a combination of culture wars and hard cash.
The hard-cash part was a genuine break. Neoliberal orthodoxy has been in crisis for some time now, and the Johnson government helped kill it. No one talks about austerity anymore. The current government was committed to spending more than Labour at the time of the 2008 crash, even before its mooted £100 billion energy announcement. It has started public fights over removing EU restrictions on spending and subsidizing inside the economy, and taken sharper control than ever over the Treasury. Military spending of £80 billion was mooted as a way to revive industry and boost growth in deprived regions, a sort of imperialist answer to the Green New Deal. Johnson is probably more associated in many voters’ heads with spending in left-behind regions than Labour. It is difficult to say if this has built more goodwill with voters, especially since, while significant in Conservative Party terms, there has been nowhere near enough intervention of substance to meaningfully impact enough lives. As a result, the Truss ascendancy is now being read in two conflicting ways — as an extension of the Johnson project and a repudiation of it that returns to Cameron-era fiscal hawkishness.
Out of Ideas
To talk of a Conservative shift toward either the right or the center is oversimplifying. To be sure, Truss has packed her campaign operation with weird right-wing libertarians and eschewed party loyalty to appoint a cabinet composed almost entirely of loyalists. We can expect (possibly ineffective) attempts at further centralizing governments, tax cuts, and a war on unions. She’s even hinted at clipping the wings of the independent Bank of England (perhaps no bad thing). But the thinking of economists around her is more candid. To summarize the approach discussed in this surprisingly serious piece by the Spectator’s Kate Andrews, it is easier for the Right to run high spending deficits because the markets will trust that the government will act in the long-term interest of capitalist profits — meaning Truss has the latitude to increase strategic spending and cut taxes, financed by borrowing, to embark on major kickstart growth. Schemes like her likely energy-bill freeze will mollify cash-strapped consumers while continuing to deliver huge sums to energy bosses and avoid nationalization. But the strategy of a short- to medium-term splurge to address the social crisis in a limited way while subsidizing wealth is guided by the belief this is a short-term blip. The Right is bullish about, for instance, inflation soon stabilizing. If they were serious, even about managing capitalism, they wouldn’t be so sure. All the talk of growth and disruption covers the simple reality that they are out of ideas.
The trouble with “one more reset” is that we’ve already gone through multiple resets, the time between each growing shorter. In the last few decades, we went from postwar welfare capitalism to Thatcherism to New Labour neoliberalism; in the postcrash years we have gone from “shrink the state” to “do Brexit” to whatever exactly “Build Back Better” or “Levelling Up” was supposed to be. All these resets have failed to address any of the structural reasons behind our long period of decline. At the end of them, we retain low wages reinforced by low working rights, overdependence on highly volatile sectors such as finance, and a state with shrinking internal capacity at the mercy of various useless contracting giants. We are left with millions using food banks, hundreds of thousands pushed into insolvency every year, personal debt growing 1.5 times faster than wages long before the current energy crisis, and overall the longest sustained fall in living standards since the years following the Napoleonic Wars.
The other major problem for Truss is that our current social crisis is not domestic in origin. You wouldn’t guess this from the coverage of the leadership campaign, bar the odd question regarding Ukraine. British establishment commentators have two contradictory traits: one a routine denial of the role of human agency due to the belief that all must bend to the natural law of “the markets,” and second, alongside this, the belief that the personal characters and decisions of people in Westminster define everything. Relentless talk about interest rates does little to address the reality of an economic emergency that cannot be divorced from a political one.
We should give little credence to the idea that rising energy prices in Britain are a necessary price to pay to undermine Russian aggression. Very little of our gas comes from relevant sources anyway, and energy bosses are busily announcing windfall profits. But the impact of the war on broader supply systems goes without repeating. Meanwhile, public spending across the West is now being diverted to rearmament in preparation for a new order of hostilities. It’s unsurprising that Truss has not deviated from the imperial reenactment foreign-policy school of her predecessor. But it is striking that, among all the hawkish rhetoric, there seems to be little planning for a world in which reconfigured interstate competition and hostility shape the economic order.
Fiddling While Rome Burns
Meanwhile, wildfires have swept through Europe all summer. The Rhine and the Loire are nearly dry. Italy is suffering its worst drought in decades. This is generating both direct human misery and broader consequences — the paralysis of inland shipping and the soaring prices of rice and cooking oil, for instance. In the rest of the world it is far worse. India’s drought-driven rationing of grain exports has been a major contributor to the current inflationary crisis. Two-thirds of neighboring Pakistan is underwater. And the structure of our economy is geared toward solving the problems generated with yet more environmental destruction. Next to all this, Britain’s latest rearrangement of political deckchairs is trite and paltry. So, too, is the opposition — Keir Starmer’s Labour looks set to continue attacking Truss on supposed fiscal discipline while getting outflanked on both sides. No one, anywhere in politics, is engaging with any degree of seriousness with the scale, nature, and depth of where we are.
There have been two defining features of our long-run crisis. The first is that things keep getting worse. The second is that nothing goes anywhere, despite all the energy; mass public discontent has festered while the same party just keeps winning. Two-thirds of Britain’s people have little or no confidence in Liz Truss’s ability to address the current emergency, recent polling has suggested. But a distrust in the government is not an automatic pipeline to a better alternative. What does provide a little more hope is the movement of a new force — direct, large-scale intervention from those at the sharp end of the current emergency.
Seven years ago, the hope emerged that radical social democrats could lead a recovery from the 2008 crisis across the West and drastically rebalance power in the interests of the majority of us who were losing out, before the next and more severe round of challenges began to strike. In both Europe and the United States, that project struck some valiant blows but ultimately fell short. The hope now is less in prevention than in cure, and in how we collectively respond to a period of multiplying emergencies. In the face of mass immiseration driven by bosses pushing the costs of the crisis onto workers, we have seen the most inspiring strike wave in recent years across Britain. Railworkers, teachers, nurses, civil servants, lawyers — a dizzying array of professions and grades — are saying that enough is enough. Leaders like the RMT rail union’s Mick Lynch are acquiring mass audiences and public support in a way not seen in decades. Outside the labor movement, people are getting ready to defend their neighbors against bailiffs, to reactivate the mutual-aid networks built during the pandemic to keep people warm and fed, and to refuse to pay bills. It’s a politics defined by how people respond together when the lights go out and the power goes down.
There is a gaping hole at the heart of power in Britain, and a crisis of politics that extends way beyond its latest poster figure in the form of Liz Truss. Her maiden speech was insistent that we can “ride out the storm.” Many of us can’t. It’s up to us to ensure that her project doesn’t either.