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A thematic question was posed at the 2023 Dartington Trust and Byline Festival; whether this is a 1945 moment. An intuitive response has to be in the affirmative, bearing in mind the magnitude of the challenge facing a new government. There has, however, been a transformation since in the financial, demographic, cultural, technological (and of course physical) environments, combined with a very different media/information landscape. The values embodied in the Attlee Government’s radical programme, crystallised in the post-war settlement, were those of common citizenship and collective solidarity, reflecting the deprivations and shared sacrifices of the Second World War.
Assault on the Public Domain
The main tenets of this post-1945 reconstruction were fundamentally challenged in the 1980s by the very different right-wing paradigm that became Thatcherism, the cardinal values of which were individual aspiration anchored in market freedoms. The consequence over the following decades was a hollowing out of the public realm.
Far from heralding the ‘shareholding democracy’ envisaged by Margaret Thatcher, privatisation resulted in ownership patterns not even necessarily including accountability safeguards of publicly listed companies, as in the case of utilities finding their way into the hands of private equity companies, with opaque, debt-laden, financial structures. This problem is compounded by regulatory agencies with weak remits. The stock of social housing too was depleted. Paused only during the New Labour interregnum, mainstream public services suffered from under-investment and decaying physical infrastructure. Social safety nets became threadbare. Community facilities and amenities disappeared. And increasing numbers of local councils find themselves on the brink of insolvency because of repeated real-term cuts in their funding.
Where does the Sunak Premiership fit into this discourse? His trademark stance has been bureaucratic proceduralism, seeking refuge in due process even when faced by blatant ministerial and backbench transgressions, so avoiding offending any Conservative factions; allied to managerial targets, enshrined in his endlessly cited (increasingly problematic) five pledges. Any wider strategic vision for the country is hard to detect.
But Rishi Sunak’s personal values are firmly rooted in the Thatcherite mould. Faced with multiple crises since he became Chancellor in 2020, then Prime Minister in 2022, a recurring policy pattern has been too little, too late. The employment and business support schemes early on in the Covid pandemic were a rare exception. However serious a situation his default setting is as a reluctant state interventionist.
As documented in Anthony Seldon and Raymond Newell’s Johnson At 10, during a rapidly deteriorating relationship between Boris Johnson and Sunak’s Treasury, in disputed areas Sunak’s preferences were invariably more in tune with those of Conservative right-wing factions, Notwithstanding what he said outside Downing Street in October 2022, neither has he distanced himself from Johnsonian populism. His appointment of Suella Braverman as Home Secretary suggested the very opposite.
Since the mid-2010s this right-wing populism has become another layer superimposed on the Thatcherite worldview. All the signs are that Sunak is willing to further embrace those political forces as the 2024 general election comes into sharper relief, even compromising on Net Zero commitments. In so doing, he exemplifies what the Resolution Foundation’s Torsten Bell has called a ‘distracted nation’, resistant to tackling underlying economic, environmental and social problems.
A Troubling Inheritance
On top of the degradation of the public realm, virtually all mainstream economists are agreed that the inheritance of a new government will be a grim one. Real average earnings have barely increased since 2005, unprecedented since Napoleonic times. Taxes take up an increasing proportion of income through thresholds not being indexed in line with inflation. Investment has been languishing. There is an ongoing productivity crisis. And the frenetic Truss Premiership continues to haunt her successors, destroyed in no time at all by adverse market reactions to a fiscal experiment, subsequent to which interest rates continued on an upward trajectory, increasing the cost of servicing government debt and impacting everyone else’s loans.
This financial environment is very different from 1945, when there were still controls on capital movements and a regime of fixed exchange rates, underpinned by an international monetary architecture set in place at Bretton Woods in 1944.
For the Labour Party, there is the additional obstacle of lingering apprehension on the part of the electorate towards its ‘tax-and-spend’ reputation. Moreover, it can only put together a winning electoral coalition by appealing across demographic groups, large segments of which became disaffected following the 2019 general election, its worst defeat since 1935. Of course, Labour had a grim experience in the 1930s after the debacle of Ramsay MacDonald’s 1929-31 Government. But Attlee in 1945 benefitted from the political credibility of serving in the Churchill Wartime Coalition. The post-1945 Administration was also able to capitalise on the policy framing of two intellectual giants in Beveridge and Keynes.
So the difficult dilemma for Keir Starmer, highlighted not least in my article for Byline Times back in August 2002, of where to strike the balance between reassurance and boldness – or responsibility and change in his terms – persists.
Everyone will have their views on where exactly that balance should be drawn. Yet, for all the caution, political agendas dominating the next Parliament will be very different from those of the last decade: a (just) green transition; increasing economic resilience; a more interventionist, equity-driven state; and addressing monumental crises in health and social care. Those emphases will be in contrast to Tony Blair’s New Labour with its enthusiastic embrace of globalisation. As William Davies, discussing a changing political economy and ‘post-neoliberalism’ in the London Review of Books (13 July 2023), observes: “tensions with China, Covid-19 and the invasion of Ukraine have brought the happy delusions of globalisation to a shuddering halt”.
Nor should we forget the much-needed reform of political institutions. Serial abuses under Johnson’s Premiership demand rigorous enforcement of standards in public life, tightening of rules on party funding and curbs on political patronage/cronyism. However, let’s not kid ourselves either that we can ‘constitutionalise’ our way out of deep predicaments. Donald Trump drove a coach and horses through the iconic American constitution, despite all its checks and balances, the national politics of which is even more toxic than that of Brexit Britain. Ultimately this is a matter of values and how they feed through to political culture. More imminently, solutions reside in regulatory frameworks fit for purpose.
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But despite the innumerable negative legacies of Brexit, one lesson that must be heeded is how millions of UK voters felt disenfranchised primarily because of their sense of economic exclusion and social marginalisation. One of the most significant slogans yet coined by Starmer is, accordingly, the ‘class ceiling’.
Given an economic inheritance leaving all too little room for manoeuvre, his intention is to build more credibility and political capital once in office, and then be in a much better place to reshape the national narrative. Gone is the heady 1960s Kennedy/Wilson era of ‘100 dynamic days’. Governments with a real impact in recent decades started cautiously, gradually picking up traction and momentum. That was the case with both Thatcher and Blair. It is a template Starmer clearly intends to follow. The real test of his political judgement and prowess will therefore not be whether he is elected in 2024, but in his re-election thereafter.