Britannia Unchained ReviewImperial Nostalgia & the Unravelling of Social Progress
Sam Bright unpicks the Truss-Kwarteng manifesto, finding a worrying obsession with Britain’s distant economic past
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It has been little more than a month since Liz Truss and her Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng jumped into the cockpit, and already the British economy has been sent into a tailspin.
Kwarteng’s mini-budget on 23 September sent the pound tumbling, reaching a low of 1.03 against the US dollar, with the market betting against the economy and in effect against the Chancellor’s plan, which involved a price cap on energy bills and tax cuts concentrated among the highest earners. A run on pension funds was only halted by emergency action by the Bank of England.
The situation was summed up by Susana Cruz, a strategist at Liberum Capital – a firm that met Kwarteng in March, when he was serving as Business Secretary. “Until the market sees a clear strategy to fund the energy cap freeze and other measures, we do not expect the pressure on UK gilts and sterling to ease, nor the pressure on equities, which is coming from persistent recession fears,” Cruz said.“The Chancellor is yet to reveal a clear strategy to finance its growth package (or planned expense cuts) so for now, his intent to reduce debt as a percentage of GDP does not seem plausible.”
It has been rumoured that the Government intends to fund its commitments through cuts to departmental spending and less generous welfare support – with the fine print now set to announced on 31 October.
This strategy was not extracted from the Treasury handbook, but rather from the dossiers of fringe libertarian thought, crystallised by Truss and Kwarteng a decade ago in Britannia Unchained: Global Lessons for Growth and Prosperity – co-authored alongside fellow Conservative MPs Dominic Raab, Priti Patel, and Chris Skidmore.
Truss declared in her Conservative Party Conference speech last week that disruption is the price of success – an idea that reverberates throughout Britannia Unchained. The status quo is unacceptable, the authors suggest, with the stagnation of the British economy characterised by “the draining of effort from our psyche, replaced by a sense of entitlement”. The book (more a pamphlet, at only 116 pages), makes the case for a new era of national vitality based on deregulation, the lowering of taxes, and the dismantling of workers’ rights.
Ultimately, as the title suggests, this is a work of nostalgia. Reading it, one can understand why the likes of Larry Summers, the former US Treasury Secretary, has described Britain under Truss as “behaving like an emerging market”. This is not an unintended outcome – it is Britannia Unchained’s central philosophy. Truss and Kwarteng view developing countries with envy, seeing economic performance purely through the lens of GDP growth, seeking to return the UK to a more primitive form of economic development.
Anyone can succeed in life, regardless of their background, the authors suggest. However, in modern Britain, hard work and innovation are being stifled by the warm embrace of the welfare state and regulation. As the book’s most infamous quote states: “Once they enter the workplace, the British are among the worst idlers in the world. We work among the lowest hours, we retire early and our productivity is poor”.
Pointing to the work ethic of cab drivers, Polish labourers and British-Asian schoolchildren, they suggest that insecurity is a necessary bed-fellow of economic dynamism. At one juncture – pushing this ethos to its most extreme – Britannia Unchained suggests that Brazil’s favelas are an example of an environment in which entrepreneurship can thrive. “As a sheer experiment in what the poorest entrepreneur can achieve, when nearly all society’s strictures are relaxed, the informal economy is pretty hard to beat,” it says.
Empire and Exploitation
Britannia Unchained is a Hunger Games manifesto, envisioning a country in which workers are subjected to precarious, low-wage employment. Only by increasing poverty can we incentivise people to climb out of the mud, it repeatedly implies.
In this worldview, which is being hastily implemented by Downing Street, Britain is an enterprise – the sole goal being to maximise profitability. Encouraging raw economic growth, concentrated in the hands of shareholders, is the only legitimate task of the state.
As Nafeez Ahmed contends, vast inequalities between the insecure masses and ‘wealth generators’ are justified in some libertarian circles by a belief in a hereditary ‘underclass’. The people at the bottom of the economic pile are simply inferior, and are thus deserving of their lowly circumstances, they say.
Britannia Unchained evidently has a confused attitude towards inherited aptitude. It chides “right-wing commentators” for arguing that “success is solely a result of destiny rather than persistence”. This is one of the reasons for Britain’s laziness, the authors claim, since people are led to believe that talent is inherited rather than earned.
However, while the authors dismiss the idea that merit is derived from “natural ability and talent”, they propose removing social safeguards for the poor – suggesting that environmental circumstances are not important in determining society’s ‘winners and losers’. This sustains the idea of an underclass – albeit one consigned to poverty due to a lack of initiative rather than brains. That poverty can itself constrain the aptitude and indeed the productivity of individuals is an argument conspicuously ignored. Making a rigidly economic argument, Britain Unchained collapses under a swarm of moral contradictions.
‘The Dark Heart of TrussonomicsThe Mainstreaming of Libertarian Theories of Social Darwinism and Apartheid’Nafeez Ahmed
Truss is keen to emphasise the separation between her ideas and those of prior Conservative regimes (this process of ideological shape-shifting the way in which the party has maintained power for the last 12 years). But the idea that cutting state support incentivises people to ‘graft’ is markedly similar to the ethos of David Cameron and George Osborne from 2010 to 2016.
Indeed, Britannia Unchained was written in 2012 and borrows from the language of Cameron’s Government. Chancellor Osborne, for example, compared “the shift-worker, leaving home in the dark hours of the early morning” with their neighbour, “sleeping off a life on benefits”.
Iain Duncan Smith, the architect of the Universal Credit benefits system, described out-of-work claimants as “languishing on welfare”. Cameron also cut the top rate of tax, along with corporation taxes – a playbook followed by our new Prime Minister.
Ironically, Britannia Unchained also imitates Cameron and Osborne on the merits of ‘balancing the books’. “Governments that lose control of their finances eventually lose control of their own destiny”, the authors argue – a mantra seemingly abandoned when Truss and Kwarteng drafted their mini budget.
More profoundly, however, the book says something about how the authors perceive Britain’s place in the world.
The industrial-imperial era was the nation’s high point, their reading of history contends, when Britain led the international rat-race. “Britain has lost confidence in itself, and what it stands for. Britain once ruled the Empire on which the sun never set… To avoid decline, Britain needs to look out to [sic] rest of the world and learn once again what it seems to have forgotten”, they say.
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In this perverse cosmology, our ‘beating’ of other countries in the era of empire is more significant than the material gains experienced by the majority of people during the post-imperial evolution of the welfare state and the institution of workers’ rights.
This imperial nostalgia is an impetus for many current Conservative leaders, who are drawn from Oxbridge and the private school system, argues Simon Kuper in Chums. A yearning for a renewed age of British superiority stems from their desire to be ‘world king’ – mirroring their forbearers, whose portraits lined their school corridors – as was Boris Johnson’s childhood ambition.
Britannia Unchained is therefore a reflection of the country that its authors would like to govern – a neo-imperial power. It is a manifesto for the sort of society that would be most enjoyable for the rulers, not the citizens they govern. It is a form of private equity politics – ruthlessly extracting as much economic output from national resources, no matter what the toll on workers.
The ethos of the book is reminiscent of American Factory, the award-winning Netflix documentary in which a Chinese firm opens a factory in an abandoned General Motors plant in Moraine, near Dayton, Ohio. The billionaire Chinese owners soon lament the lethargy of their American workers, compared to the 12-hour shifts pulled by their staff in China, as they attempt to snuff out a staff union. The American workers baulk at the demands of the factory bosses, as they attempt to impose a form of rogue, untempered capitalism on their new employees.
Britannia Unchained is an extreme neoliberal agenda; promising a new age of freedom and prosperity built on forms of hardship that Britain spent much of the 20th Century attempting to eliminate. While capitalism without controls sounds emancipating, its spirit is fundamentally repressive.