Professor Chris Painter sees Putin’s invasion of his neighbour as a major turning point in history, with the values of multilateralism and an activist state set to break the spell of Johnsonian politics

De-coding the ‘arc of history’ over the last 15 years, beginning with the systemic shock administered by the 2008 financial crash, is not easy without the kind of perspective that historical distance brings.

Multiple crises came in quick succession following this seminal event: economic, political, public health and now one of international security. Nonetheless, some sense of where this maze of events may anchor the UK’s future political trajectory can start to be drawn.  


A Creaking Liberal Order

The financial crisis of 2007-08 was a serious setback for the legitimacy and stability of post-1989 liberal market ideology, during which globalisation seemingly swept all before it. With causes traced back to the deregulatory excesses of the Reagan-Thatcher years, its aftermath ushered in fiscal retrenchment, combined with heavy reliance on monetary policy to keep the economy afloat.

The former dealt body blows to public services and welfare; the latter inflating asset values. The overall effect was to amplify social divisions and inequities.

In 2016, that translated into polarised politics, exploited by populists opportunistically pursuing their own personal ambitions; a cathartic year of unexpected success for Brexit and Trump’s maverick bid for the US Presidency. With nationalist rhetoric justified in the name of protecting declining industries and insecure jobs against cheaper global competition, it was all neatly encapsulated by Donald Trump’s ‘build the wall’ mantra; or Boris Johnson’s close equivalent of ‘taking back control’. 

Drivers of multilateral co-operation are again powerful forces, but with state intervention required as a complementary stabilising force.

But there was another disturbing dimension to these events – the forging of alternative-right transnational networks. These links not only crossed the Atlantic but found an ideological exemplar in Vladimir Putin’s Russian state. The ambivalence of Trump towards Russia’s Head of State and doubts over the future of the European Union following Brexit did, in retrospect, ideally suit Putin’s longer-term game-plan.  

From the moment Johnson became Prime Minister in July 2019 he began manoeuvring for an early poll. Opposition Parties obligingly took the bait. The December 2019 general election, therefore, provided the perfect platform for Johnson to consummate his newly-acquired political persona, very different from an earlier liberal-cosmopolitan mantle adopted whilst London Mayor.

His commitment to ‘get Brexit done’ resonated after three years of political stalemate over implementing an EU exit strategy, accompanied by populist policies on immigration, refugees and asylum that were to be personified in Priti Patel’s toxic stewardship of the Home Office. The icing on this cake was an ill-defined ‘levelling up’ pledge. 


Covid and Ukraine

The ethos articulated in Johnson’s election campaign took little account of what former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, in Seven Ways to Change the World, refers to as the global paradox: ‘…the power that may have the greatest potential for good is not the power we exercise OVER others, but the power we exercise WITH others’. 

From March 2020, however, Johnson found himself confronting the worst public health crisis in a century. A new insularity now took the form of ‘vaccine nationalism’. Simultaneously, this latest crisis saw unprecedented state intervention from Rishi Sunak’s Treasury to support individuals and businesses. That apparently satisfied the spirit of levelling up, albeit with makeshift procurement processes enabling Johnson’s Government to indulge in thinly-veiled crony capitalism.

The real significance of the Coronavirus pandemic, however, was to further prise open gaping inequalities in society; hence the differential impact of the disease within communities and across demographic groups.  

As pandemic support measures were phased out, so Sunak made it abundantly clear large state programmes sat uncomfortably with his values, heralding another bout of retrenchment to restore sustainability to public finances. The hard Brexit lobby were coincidentally re-asserting their demands for an uncompromising deregulatory project.

Johnson’s political vulnerability, against a background of formal investigations into his pandemic-related behaviour, incentivised him to accommodate those restless Conservative Party factions. It led, not least, to the premature removal of public health safeguards. Yet escalating energy prices were stirring opposite pressures for renewed state intervention.

Into this volatile cocktail of ideology and events came the gravest international crisis since the Second World War, with Putin’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022. As an existential threat to Europe’s security, it underlined the potential folly of those seismic events of 2016, providing a brutal reminder of the extent to which the interests of nation-states are interlocked. It was an external shock breathing new confidence into the EU as a global actor, by contrast exposing the UK’s growing diplomatic marginalisation.


Post-Johnsonian Politics

Circumstances have arisen therefore where drivers of multilateral co-operation are again powerful forces, but with state intervention required as a complementary stabilising force. A pivotal role for public agencies in catalysing and funding viable pathways to the future loomed even larger from startling evidence of the speed with which climate breakdown is reaching an irreversible tipping point. 

Yet the Conservative Party found itself in the throes of seriously contemplating a reversion to neo-Thatcherite dogmas. There are profound implications for Johnson’s 2019 electoral coalition.

A reshaping of that Party in his own image to secure support from former Labour-held constituencies, on a scale eluding his predecessors, was at serious risk of unwinding. A transformed international climate threatened, moreover, to up-end Johnson’s entire Trump-lite governing strategy. The populist Brexit politics with which he came to associate himself after 2016 now looks to be part of the problem rather than part of the solution, notwithstanding his ability to perform shameless shape-shifting acts.

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All this suggests that the proverbial arc of history is in the process of bending yet again. Liz Truss, in her capacity as Foreign Secretary, accepted that paradigmatic change was taking place following the Russian attack on Ukraine, on a par with the events of 11 September 2001. The repercussions, however, are going to have wider consequences than she envisages. 

Despite Johnson’s continuing divisive Brexit rhetoric, calculated for domestic political consumption, progress towards constructive re-engagement with the EU will occur ineluctably in this rapidly changing international environment, rather than just closer bilateral relationships with individual European states. An activist state will also be very much on the cards but imbued with the kind of values hardly prioritised by the current UK governing Party’s combustible chemistry.

Interwoven with the next – cost of living –crisis, associated dilemmas are evident from Sunak’s 2022 Spring Statement, torn as he was between ideological predispositions, leadership ambitions, fiscal orthodoxy and the exigencies of an unfolding situation.          

Chris Painter is Professor Emeritus of Public Policy and Management and formerly Head of Social Sciences at Birmingham City University

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