U-Turns Galore in Tory Britain

Photograph Source: Arno Mikkor – CC BY 2.0

UK’s parliament returned from its summer recess last week.

For the Tories it has been a summer of serial blundering and fiascos.

These include the high-school concluding examinations– the A-levels, where half-a-million students who couldn’t sit the exams because of the Covid-19 lockdown were assigned grades by a computer algorithm that wasn’t up to the job, thereby scuppering the entire university admissions structure for 2020– that I wrote about recently in CounterPunch.

There is also the botched reopening of businesses and schools, especially the initial decision not to require face masks to be worn in schools that had to be rescinded almost immediately.

Rather than under-selling an objective and then over-delivering (perhaps the recommended technique in management theory for announcing a goal or objective), the Tories have done the reverse by announcing this-or-that measure as “world-beating”, only to see it flop.

A “world-beating” test-and-trace system, promised for the end of May, has still to see the light of day.

Also bigged-up in this way was a Covid testing regime of several million tests per week, or even per day, with results supposedly known in a super-fast 20 minutes– alas this marvel of marvels awaits a technology that does not exist at present.

Long-forgotten is a previously anticipated Covid-19 tracking app for mobile phones. Instead of partnering with Apple and Goggle to develop the app, the government went its own way, and ended-up with a useless prototype that was incompatible with the Apple and Goggle operating systems.

In Virginia, where I live, we have a tracking app, produced in conjunction with Apple and Google, that has been running for almost two months. Virginia’s Democratic governor, Ralph Northam, is a physician who has been praised for his handling of the pandemic. There is a visible contrast here between the buffoonish BoJo Johnson and the serious, even earnest, Northam.

Meanwhile the UK continues to have the undesirable record for having a top number of coronavirus deaths per head of population in the world, and this week’s daily number of new Covid cases is at a level not seen since mid-May.

The current death toll stands at 41,551.

The shortcomings of BoJo and his colleagues are now reflected in the opinion polls. Labour, having been 26 points behind in March, has drawn level with the Tories, and its leader, Keir Starmer, leads BoJo in the leader versus leader category.

The increasingly rattled BoJo, with growing signs that he is not up to the job of being prime minister, had little option but to divert attention from these failures.

As is the case with Trump, BoJo’s subsequent strategy, aided by the UK’s rightwing tabloid press, has been one of diversion and deflection by resorting to “hot button” issues central to the culture wars.

Brits were thus subjected to the clamour of a faux refugee crisis, when a couple of hundred refugees and asylum seekers crossed the Channel each week in what the Tories and their supporters in the media hyped-up as an “invasion”.

The hapless refugees and asylum seekers made the hazardous journey (the Channel is the busiest shipping lane in the world) in wonky dinghies, and the demagogic Tories created a media splash by threatening to have the Royal Navy intercept the “invaders”.

The “invasion” brouhaha was sufficient to incite neo-Nazi gangs to patrol beaches in search of “invaders”, and an exhausted arrival was beaten-up by a fascist thug as the former disembarked from his dinghy. The hoodlum in question was arrested and is now due for a court appearance.

Another opportunity for hot-button pressing arrived when the BBC announced that the Last Night of the Proms (a televised summer classical music concert series running nightly for 8 weeks) would not feature the singing of the patriotic anthems “Rule Britannia” and “Land of Hope and Glory”, with only the orchestral versions being played.

I used to go to the Proms frequently in the early 70s when I was a student at a university a train stop from central London, but avoided the Last Night as if it were the plague.

The music offered on that Night is light fare culminating always in the singing of “Rule Britannia”, and caters basically to a flag-waving and mostly drunk crowd. The singing is especially loud when these two lines are sung:

Rule, Britannia! Britannia, rule the waves!
Britons never, never, never shall be slaves.

“Rule Britannia” was first heard regularly in 1745, when Britain was the leading slave-trading nation in the world, but the irony in those two lines is always lost on those who sing it.

Sir Edward Elgar, who featured the opening lines of “Rule Britannia” in his 1912 choral work The Music Makers, attended a Last Night and was so horrified by what he saw that he could not bring himself to sing it.

BoJo Johnson is obviously not of the same mind as Elgar– Brits must stop “this general bout of self-recrimination and wetness” he opined, after news of the changes to the Proms emerged.

In typical hyperbolic fashion BoJo added, “they’re trying to restrain me from saying this”, but did not identify who was trying to prevent him from weighing in on this issue.

Many on social media thought this burst of patriotic enthusiasm from BoJo was a tad out of place, given that a parliamentary investigation found him to be in the pockets of several Kremlin oligarchs with ties to Putin—maybe a version of “Rule Britannia” renamed “Rouble Britannia” could be composed just for him and his fans?

Another diversion was the appointment of the gaffe-prone Tony Abbott—a failed Aussie ex-Prime Minister (2013-15) and Rupert Murdoch stooge– to be in charge of post-Brexit trade negotiations! As the Australian commentator Van Badham put it: “Brits, take it from an Aussie: If Tony Abbott is your solution, you’ve got big problems”.

The chances of striking a Brexit deal before the end of the transition period on December 31st recede with each passing day. Unemployment is expected to rise when the government’s furlough scheme ends at the end of October. A No-Deal Brexit would add many more workers to the already high unemployment total, unless of course the furlough scheme is extended.

This extension of the furlough will further subtract from the public purse, and it is already becoming apparent that something will have to give: higher taxes or else no further extension of the furlough scheme, or perhaps one with greatly reduced provision.

As more Tories go public with their anxieties over BoJo’s incompetence, Tory worries are also being expressed about tax increases.

The contemporary Tory party is factionalized, despite any appearances to the contrary.

One wing, though with diminished size and influence since the Thatcherite ascendency, consists of liberal paternalists (albeit if the term “liberal” is used loosely), who used to be known as “One Nation” Tories, the most prominent recent representative of which is held to be David Cameron, despite all his trimming and hedging.

Another wing consists of the neo-Thatcherites, always baying for low taxes and reduced public spending, and having as their signature a “hang ‘em, flog ‘em” position on Britain’s social problems.

The third wing consists of the die-hard Brexiters, banding together in the Europe Reform Group (ERG). This is a motley bunch of old Empire fantasists, open racists, anti-immigrant xenophobes, and Europhobes (the EU being too “socialist” for their taste). To the extent that they adhere to neoliberalism, they make common cause with the neo-Thatcherites.

BoJo Johnson’s problem within the party is that he is not clearly identified with any of these three groupings.

He was against Brexit when he was mayor of London, and switched sides when it became clear that, for the foreseeable future, only a Brexiter could become party leader. His zeal for Brexit is therefore tempered by the irremovable stench of opportunism.

As someone renowned for his libidinal profligacy, the constraining petty-bourgeois moral outlook of the neo-Thatcherites (apart from a few exceptions, though much hypocrisy abounds on this score) was not for BoJo with his string of mistresses, and neither was he for them.

On some appearances BoJo could have been a “One Nation” Tory, except that this brand of Toryism clings to some form of noblesse oblige, outdated of course, and BoJo, with his infinite self-regard and deep self-interest, has never been one for any kind of noblesse oblige.

BoJo, an authoritarian populist not guided by principle or scruple, is thus his own brand.

As long as he delivered electoral success, which he did in December last year when Brexit was the sole issue concerning most of the electorate, the Tories put their divisions to one side, and BoJo remained their man.

But his shambolic handling of the pandemic, and complete inertia over Brexit negotiations with the EU, have revealed the man for who he is— BoJo the unprincipled bullshitter, and little else.

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.