The is the best The Handbook of Contemporary British Politics was written 13 years ago and contains Slavoj Žižek’s Marxist analysis as applied to the Disney film Wall-E. Capitalist Realism, a short and eclectic book by Mark Fisher, a left-wing cultural theorist, became an unlikely bestseller after it was published in the wake of the global financial crisis. Her main argument was that the alternative to capitalism was not only impossible, but incomprehensible. As the book’s refrain goes, it was easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.
A similar feeling grips anyone who observes British politics. Conservative realism took root in Britain. Capitalist realism created a “penetrating atmosphere,” Fisher wrote, “acting as a kind of invisible barrier that restrains thought and action.” So does his conservative cousin. The breadth of British politics stretches from one end of the Conservative manifesto to the other, and no further. The Conservatives could fight the election, potentially facing a landslide defeat. But conservative realism will continue long after the party from which it takes its name has left power.
After 12 years of Conservative rule, Britain has limited political imagination. When a government source suggested closer ties to EU, a week of bloodletting followed, anonymous briefings shut down the idea. Which a clear majority of Britons are now thinking of leaving EU there was an error, hardly affects the discussion. So both the Conservatives and the Labor Party, which promises a similarly distant relationship with Brussels, continue to argue that public opinion doesn’t matter.
The same with immigration. Holy nhs and unholy CBI require more workers. Polls show that Britons generally welcome increased immigration if necessary. However, government ministers are rejecting talk of easing immigration rules. Labor is discussing the subject with the caution of a hostage negotiator dealing with a suicidal terrorist. That certain topics, such as planning reforms, are political is prohibited driven by the constraints of conservatism, not by any law of physics.
Jeremy Hunt, the new chancellor, set out a budget on November 17 that was steeped in conservative realism. Spending cuts are not at the same level as under George Osborne, the Tory Chancellor from 2010 to 2016. But the philosophy is the same. Deep spending cuts will occur at some point in the future, while capital investment will be squeezed. Labor is moving away from the opposition but accepting the parameters set by its opponents.
In the world of conservative realism, only certain voters count. Invariably, they are immigration skeptics who vote Leave, usually in the Midlands or the North – a notoriously dominant constituency in the minds of people who rarely leave Westminster. The wishes of, say, a wealthy Liberal in Surrey, who would have happily voted Conservative in their old guise, are rejected in the same way as the wishes of a small child or a dog.
Young voters are also forgotten. “What will happen when young people are no longer capable of surprises?” Fisher asked. He pointed to a stagnant culture, despairing of pop bands that sounded like the lame 1960s. A similar problem concerns British politics: what happens when young people are unable to effect political change? The answer is economic stagnation. Where retirees are scattered across the country, making them key in every constituency, younger voters are concentrated in cities, weakening their electoral influence. Britain is run in the interests of the elderly, for whom economic growth seems an inconvenience rather than a necessity.
According to the polls, Labor has a solid lead of more than 20 points, allowing for a comfortable or even quite large majority. But this demonstrates a triumph of conservative realism, not a challenge to it. Sir Keir Starmer took the Labor leadership, promising to continue the program of Jeremy Corbyn, his left-wing predecessor. But Sir Kiir intends to win the next election on a platform of conservative realism. Unless the party changes course in office, Labor will govern within the Tory parameters of low immigration, austere spending and distant relations with EU.
The strategy is clear. Challenges to conservative realism rarely end well. Mr Corbyn’s blueprint has led Labor to its worst performance since 1935. Liz Truss, Britain’s short-lived prime minister, challenged orthodoxy from another angle. Britain must have been hellish to grow. Unfortunately, the anti-growth coalition she promised to attack was largely within her own party. Conservative realism reasserted itself; Mrs Truss was the answer in a pub quiz.
Pity poor Albion
People began to notice that things were not going well. They will get worse. The country is about to suffer its biggest drop in real incomes on record, with a 7% drop over the next two years. Taxes will rise. Incomes will fall back to 2013 levels, when Britain experienced another period of stagnation. Voters realized that conservative realism had not produced good results, even if neither party had caught up with it. Those who understand that radical change is needed are still in the minority among both the Conservatives and Labour. There is no alternative yet.
And so the conservatives hope to repeat the elections of 2010 and 2015, when the party was far from popular, but still elected. Making tough decisions now, like hitting middle-class voters with income tax hikes, will be grudgingly rewarded by voters who see economic pain as a proxy for competence, the argument goes. Fisher ended his text on a hopeful note: “The smallest event can tear a hole in the gray veil of reaction that marked the horizons of possibility.” Unfortunately for Fischer (though happily for this newspaper), capitalism did not collapse. Capitalist realism survived. His conservative cousin will, too. ■
Read more from Bagehot, our UK politics columnist:
Who’s up for the big British guy? (November 17)
The welfare state of the night watchman (November 10)
Why small boats are a big problem for Britain (November 2)
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