The Britannia Unchained GangWhy the UK’s Next Prime Minister May Well be Its Worst
Replacing a self-interested opportunist with doctrinaire ideologues will be nothing to cheer about, argues AV Deggar
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Big Dog has fallen. Now it is simply a matter of time until the erstwhile Prime Minister becomes the primo money-spinner on the after-dinner-speech circuit, seizing back a column in the right-wing press and weaving his own lost cause mythos.
With Johnson’s fait accompli, attention naturally turns towards his successor, less than three years since he delivered a 80-seat majority for his party and installed the Vote Leave machine and its apparatchiks in the heart of Whitehall.
The upcoming change of Conservative leader will leave the UK with its fourth coronated prime minister in a decade, after Gordon Brown, Theresa May and Johnson all assumed the premiership prior to winning an election. What would the next unelected administration look like?
The truth is, the contemporary Conservative Party was recast through fear by UKIP, its moderates purged for purity through Brexit, and anchored by Dominic Cummings and Lynton Crosby in a trench of wedge issues. Simply based on the physiology of the parliamentary party and its membership, any future regime will have to follow the familiar themes of the Johnson Government, but with the potential of another, more disturbing Conservative faction at the helm.
Shapeshifting and the Perma-rebels
After Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’s won the 2020 US Presidential Election, Boris Johnson his congratulations. Famously, Barack Obama’s press aide, Tommy Vietor, stole Johnson’s limelight by responding that the Prime Minister was a “shapeshifting creep”.
Morally dubious behaviour aside, it has been Johnson’s ideological shapeshifting that left a sour taste in the mouths of his fellow Conservative MPs. Despite protestations from both the right-wing media and the man himself, Boris Johnson was never the avowed libertarian that he purported to be – he is, and always has been, a political opportunist who prioritises self-preservation over public service, and donors over dogma. He twists, rather than sticks.
From the £100 billion state-sponsored furlough scheme, to months of living under varying levels of public-health restrictions, and the largest tax hikes in 70 years, Johnson’s tenure irked the low-tax, small-government sensibilities of many of his MPs. Indeed, a close reading of former Chancellor Sunak’s resignation letter shows his main grievance with Johnson was not lawbreaking or a lack of integrity, but the fact he was not fiscally conservative enough.
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A seemingly permanent “party within a party” has emerged within the Tory ranks, a cadre of 70 lockdown doubters and Brexit purists that have coalesced together from the anti-EU European Research Group and the anti-science Coronavirus Recovery Group, represented by the likes of ‘Brexit hard man’, Steve Baker, and former Conservative chief whip, Mark Harper.
It is these self-proclaimed Spartans and sceptics, the perma-rebels that constitute the de facto authoritarian wing of the Conservative Party, who will be the kingmakers crowning our next prime minister. For that reason alone, the impending leadership contest will likely be fought even further to the right of Boris Johnson and his Vote Leave cabal.
The victor will have to promise a return to the hardline fiscal conservatism and Europhobic puritanism of yesteryear, as well as continue the wedge-issue culture warfare unleashed in three years under Johnson.
If you thought Johnson’s Downing Street was an ideological wasteland, you haven’t seen anything yet.
‘The State Has Made Britons Idle’
In 2012, five Conservative MPs of the class of 2010 published a manifesto for a reinvigorated Britain.
‘Britannia Unchained: Global Lessons for Growth and Prosperity’, was co-authored by Kwasi Kwarteng, Priti Patel, Dominic Raab, Chris Skidmore and Liz Truss, three of whom have since held great offices of state under prime ministers May and Johnson.
Across its pages, the unashamedly hard-right tome bemoans the decline into decadence and degeneracy of a country blighted by a “diminished work ethic and a culture of excuses”, a union of nations that is being held back by a “bloated state, high taxes and excessive regulation” – a breeding ground for people who “prefer a lie-in to hard work”.
The authors imagine the nation is suffering from the “1970s-style pessimism that Britain is destined to decline”, a decay which can only be arrested by a return to the Thatcherite shock therapy of the 1980s, “a time when, after the industrial chaos of the 1970s, business and enterprise began to flourish once more”.
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The cult of celebrity is singled out as caustic to the British work ethic. A lust for “instant fame” has dulled the average Briton’s notion of hard graft during the 13 years of New Labour, in which “the boom of celebrity culture, reality TV, and binge drinking marked an era of indulgence and hedonism”.
In a pre-Workington Man caricature, the honest cabbie is cast as the diligent everyman, with a “professional and patriotic sense of pride” who rails against “talentless celebrities and those who live beyond their means on credit”.
Britannia Unchained is peppered with assertions like: “The state has made Britons idle” and “initiative and individual enterprise have been stifled by an obsession with rules, regulations and health and safety”.
Indeed, unshackled from the manacles of bureaucracy, the authors boast that Britannia could be the next Brazil, which “has enjoyed a decade of prosperity, and its people display a fervent patriotic spirt, underpinned by a sense of optimism”.
Incidentally, a number of states extolled by the Britannia Unchained Gang – notably Brazil, China and India – have all succumbed to varying levels of jingo and authoritarianism in the decade since their manifesto was published.
The lessons of Britannia Unchained boil down to the sentiment that nothing is impossible for a population that is optimistic, patriotic, hard-working and doesn’t have to follow rules.
Britannia Unchained is an ode to the Austrian School of economics, a requiem for von Hayek and von Mises, lauding the primacy of the omnipotent and omniscient ‘market’ and the triumph of the individual as the author of all fates.
In this system of purist capitalism, corporations should be liberated from the burdens of the rule book, and unconstrained by arbitrarily imposed standards. The hard Brexit delivered by the Johnson regime gave these libertarians the go-ahead to live the Austrian dream.
Unencumbered by EU-mandated standards on food, labour and products, an unchained Britannia could pave its own way in the world, ignoring the level-playing-field between the continent and the UK. She would be able to reap the rewards that a low-wage and low-to-no standards economy could bring the captains of industry.
Former Brexit negotiator Lord David Frost, martyred by his own petard and declared a hero by Brexit hardliners, said as much in his October 2021 Lisbon speech:
“History shows us that it is genuine competition – regulatory and commercial – between states which has typically been the most reliable driver of innovation and progress… It was the only form of Brexit that allowed us freedom to experiment and freedom to act,” he said.
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Fortunately for Frost and the Britannia Unchained Gang, ideology has met necessity in the post-Brexit scramble for trade deals. The means and the end are one and the same – the act of selling out is the only way to court favour with countries that play hardball in the commercial world. Chlorinated chicken and hormone-enhanced beef are a small price to pay for trade with the United States.
When it comes to a levelling-up agenda that is so important it requires its own department, the Britannia Unchained Gang couldn’t care less. The north-south divide is just another barrier to a low-tax, low employment-rights economy:
“We should stop indulging in irrelevant debates about sharing the pie between manufacturing and services, the north and the south, women and men. Instead, we should focus on trying to make it easier for firms to recruit people and ensuring the tax burden is less onerous,” the book states.
Taking back control was the slogan, but deregulation is the reality – levelling down domestically to stay afloat globally.
Boris Johnson lost his throne in 2022. The manner in which he was deposed, although dramatic, undignified and unparalleled, is also immaterial – the result will be a fratricidal free-for-all.
To win over the rump of Perma-rebels within the Conservative Party, his successor, whoever it may be, will have to be more Thatcherite, more pro-Brexit, more culture warrior, more lawbreaker, and more resolute in his, or her, ideological convictions.
People will cheer Johnson’s fall, but if the emergent champion is one of the Britannia Unchained Gang, or just decides to follow its central tenets in a time of political and economic upheaval, it could mean the swift and final desiccation of what is left of the United Kingdom and its most hallowed institutions.
Laugh now, but expect to cry later.