This country is in crisis. So say the opposition parties, most of the media and, increasingly, the evidence of our own eyes. With transport chaos, seemingly out-of-control inflation, constant political scandals, a sinking currency, a fragmenting United Kingdom, worsening public finances, struggling public services and a wave of strikes that may last months, this country is no longer the stable, successful state it often claims to be.
It may not be time to panic quite yet. Proud, old countries that used to have empires – France is another – can suffer periods of decline and self-doubt while, for many people, remaining good places to live by global or past standards. Plenty of Britons will have been muttering to themselves this week about the country going to the dogs, while enjoying everyday comforts their ancestors could only have dreamed of. During this week’s tube strike, the hot streets of London were crawling with air-conditioned SUVs.
Yet the current crisis does feel significant. Not just for its effect on people’s lives, but for the way it seems to be discrediting, bit by bit, a way of running the country that has held sway for 30 of the last 43 years. To adapt the famous slogan that helped Margaret Thatcher get elected in 1979, Conservatism isn’t working.
Even in the rightwing press, which has played such a huge part in sustaining the Tory ascendancy, there is a growing sense that the country is on the wrong track. “Why is nothing working in broken Britain?” asks Josh Glancy in the Sunday Times. In the Telegraph, Sherelle Jacobs despairs that, “Mediocre Britain has resigned itself to a heartbreaking cycle of decline.” The Economist calls Britain a “stagnation nation”, “stuck in a 15-year rut”. Four-fifths of that “rut” has been dug by Tory governments.
The Economist goes on: “Britain has been here before. In 1979 aret Margaret Thatcher lamented its declining economic standing [by saying], ‘Travel abroad, and see how much better our neighbors are doing.’ ”Such comparisons between the current crisis and Britain’s crisis in the 1970s have become so automatic in the rightwing press, as everywhere else, that one obvious question they raise has hardly been considered. If Britain’s problems have barely changed since the 1970s, then what problems have all the Tory governments since then actually solved?
The last time a Tory administration got into terminal trouble, in the mid-1990s, Conservatives consoled themselves that at least they had won the big battles during their time in office, decisively weakening the trade unions and creating a dynamic free-market economy. That sense of achievement grew stronger when New Labor reversed few of Thatcher’s reforms. During the 1990s, the 2000s and for much of the 2010s, there was a British convention that to be a grownup politician of any party, or just a grownup participant in any political discussion, was to accept, if necessary through gritted teeth, that there was much the Thatcher government and its Tory successors had “got right”.
How outdated that view seems now. As the British economy she supposedly revived for good lags behind its competitors, and even the supposedly emasculated unions are still able to mount big strikes, Thatcher’s victories feel increasingly partial and distant. Even in the Conservative party, there is growing doubt about the British free-market economy it largely created, expressed through panicky plans to rescue struggling regions and capitalism’s other victims with state subsidies. Last month, the London financial newspaper City AM, an increasingly lonely champion of deregulation, asked with bleak sarcasm on its front page: “Would the last free marketeer to leave the Tory party please turn out the lights.”
A similar gloominess and frustration pervades many readers’ posts on the popular Tory website ConservativeHome. Understandably, Tory MPs are more reluctant to put their disappointment with their party’s diminishing ability to govern on the record. But the recent attack on Boris Johnson by the Hereford MP, Jesse Norman, one of the party’s more thoughtful figures, also reads like a critique of modern Conservative rule. The government “seems to lack a sense of mission”, wrote Norman, a minister from 2016 to 2021. “It has… no long-term plan.”
Many who fear the Tories think they do have a plan: to stay in office as long as possible, by any means possible, and obtain as much power as they can. Yet while this project ought to be alarming for anyone who believes in democracy, it is quite a narrow one – narrower than trying to change the country, or even just administer it competently. And when Johnson’s government does produce policies designed to alter society, they often inadvertently highlight how, despite being in office since 2010, the Tories have failed to stop many social trends they dislike, such as the spread of woke values and asylum seekers crossing the Channel . British politics has felt Tory-dominated for years. British life, not so much.
It’s possible that replacing Johnson with a better administrator, or adopting consistent free-market policies, as some Tory ministers and papers want, would turn the Conservatives into a much more effective government. But that outcome does not feel very likely. After too long in office, the party has little fresh talent, and the credibility of free-market reforms has not recovered since deregulated banking wrecked the economy in the financial crisis.
Alternatively, the Tories could continue to use scapegoats to explain their lack of progress in government: the EU, the liberal elite, uncooperative trade unionists, even the entire British workforce – “among the worst idlers in the world”, according to Britannia Unchained, a 2012 book about returning to “growth and prosperity” co-written by four of the current cabinet. Beneath the bluster and big promises, Conservative rule is often just about shifting the blame for Britain’s failures: away from the party and the interests it represents, and on to everyone else.
Yet under Johnson such fancy political footwork is now struggling to obscure an emerging truth. The great Conservative experiment since 1979 seems to have failed. If Labor is ever to be in office as often as the Tories, it needs to seize this chance.