When Liz Truss came to power six weeks ago, many understood that she would lead Britain deeper into decline. Few could have predicted just how quickly and how fundamentally she would achieve this.
Despite all the deep tectonic shifts that have helped produce this latest earthquake, it is hard to exaggerate the caprice, incompetence, and obtuse senselessness that have got us here.
The Failed Experiment
In September, Liz Truss inherited a parlous situation. Her party was divided and shaken by the summer crisis that brought down former prime minister Boris Johnson, a figure difficult to replace whatever one thinks of him. An already shaken country was staring down the barrel of energy shocks and inflationary pressures, and the sense of looming uncertainty had been compounded by the death of Britain’s era-defining monarch. Liz Truss decided that the best thing to do with this delicate house of cards was to gleefully shoot a flamethrower at it.
The Truss project was an experiment only in the sense that a troupe of baboons smashing test tubes around a chemistry lab might be called such. But they certainly believed they could put the market-fundamentalist ideas they had spent years drip-feeding around Westminster into practice, and do what would have been years of work for Margaret Thatcher in a matter of weeks.
Her gamble was rooted in a far-too-political analysis of British capitalism: that the captains of industry would allow her fiscal flexibility because they would understand the work she was trying to do on their behalf. In reality, what the markets saw, however, was a huge pile of unfunded tax cuts developed by an administration comedically out of its depth, and the pound quickly went into free fall.
Markets should not dictate public policy; one doesn’t have to have much sympathy for Truss to see that this is the same process that happens when poorer countries close their doors to predatory multinationals, or when left-wing governments pursue social welfare at the expense of corporate profits. And yet there is more than a little schadenfreude in seeing Truss and her evangelists for capitalism so quickly derailed by actually existing capitalism.
Team Truss’s crisis management was even worse. Faced with setbacks, one can take immediate action to reverse course and stabilize. Alternatively, one can press doggedly on. What works less is taking one tack and then the other in the space of a week. After looking both arrogant and desperate as she clung to power, Truss finally threw her chancellor to the wolves as he returned from a trip to the United States. But it was too late. Conservative MPs came for her like soldier ants dispatching sick members of a colony, and after a night of humiliation, she resigned, becoming Britain’s shortest-serving prime minister.
Her most likely legacy is as a bit of pub quiz trivia for the next generation of politics nerds. Or perhaps just a meme. Based on a line from an Economist article about Truss being in power for less time than a head of lettuce, the more plebeian Daily Star live-streamed an actual head of lettuce to see if it could outlast her. It did.
End of the Party?
The Conservative Party is not a democratic organization, or even one bound by political ideas. It is an ancient organism which prefers not to change but will adapt in pursuit of its raison d’être — holding power. Its various organs are unsentimental in their willingness to scalp leaders regardless of whether they have a mandate from party members (Truss) or the country (Theresa May and Johnson), or even if they are political royalty (Thatcher). Sometimes this is about, as one Conservative MP raged this week, “talentless people [acting for] personal interest not the national interest.” But it also serves the purpose of cutting out diseased flesh and allowing the organism to survive.
Yet whilst it retained the muscle memory to remove Truss, the whole organism now looks quite diseased. The British Conservative Party is seven years into an identity crisis. It exists to wield power specifically on behalf of Britain’s ruling elite. This is not merely paraphrasing the Marx line about politicians acting as the executive committee of the bourgeoisie — the party does not merely act in the interests of capital, but as the executive committee of a peculiarly British elite congealed by culture and institutions that start as early as the private school system.
The trouble is, Britain’s elites are less clear than ever about what they want. The Brexit process famously pitted the interests of Britain’s various capitalists against each other, reflected in a vituperative clash in the Conservative Party. The Brexit wing was willing to trample over parts of the party’s core constituency, as Johnson’s infamous “fuck business” comment alludes to. That divide seemed superficially healed by Johnson’s 2019 election victory and again when the Conservative hard-right opted for Remainer Truss over Leaver Rishi Sunak. But Britain’s departure from the EU became an end in itself, almost a cultural reference point, and very little has been done with it. And in the absence of agreement on program and purpose, infighting quickly becomes default.
Elites like the Conservative Party because it is durable, decisive, and a loyal servant of the interests of capital. All these things have now been cast into doubt.
It Can Still Get Worse
So now what? At the time of writing, there is to be a week-long contest to anoint Truss’s successor. Either there will be two candidates put to members and the party will spend more time airing its dirty laundry in front of the public, or there will be a coronation. Various figures are contending to appear as the candidate of sobriety and reassurance. But one likely outcome could be a triumphant second wind for Johnson, like Napoleon returning from Elba.
Meanwhile there’s growing consensus that Conservative rule is untenable. There are widespread demands for a general election. Having purged the party’s left and returned it to an establishment party, thereby winning the praise of the media, polling is strong for Keir Starmer.
It has become easy to frame this as a crisis of competence — because the short-lived Truss regime was so obviously incompetent. British liberalism on both the center left and center right has adduced the Truss debacle as evidence for an essentially antidemocratic case it has been making for years. Many on the Right are advocating for a return to neoliberal technocracy.
This politics produced much of why we are here in the first place. It produced austerity, botched privatizations, and the degradation of state capacity that has left us vulnerable to shocks from COVID to energy problems. It produced the hostile environment and obsession with immigration that has ended in the Conservative Party’s flagship policy being more deportations. It produced a culture of blatant lying to the public and riding roughshod over one’s core constituencies. And it produced the crisis of trust and representation that has played out in Brexit, Scotland’s long-run constitutional clashes, and a collapse of faith in public institutions.
Obviously, more serious hands on the tiller would be an improvement on the last forty-five days. The markets would probably calm, and there would be space to push for better handling of the difficult winter ahead. But the same people and ideas that would bring a new government to power would constrain its ability to solve bigger problems.
Moments like these feel both empowering and disempowering for those of us in movements demanding decisive and redistributive action to solve a living costs emergency that is out of control, as well as a long-overdue reckoning with issues from working rights to climate change. On the one hand, politics is brittle, and there are opportunities to force critical issues onto the table. On the other hand, weeks of fast-moving intrigue like this are very difficult to influence from the outside.
Meanwhile the National Health Service is setting up “war rooms” to coordinate dwindling ambulance and hospital capacity ahead of a winter crisis. As temperatures drop, the reality of skyrocketing energy prices is hitting home. The long-run meltdown of British politics shows little sign of subsiding easily. And even those observing constantly and closely have absolutely no idea what comes next.