Johnson, Starmer and Sturgeon have spent the last year fighting to restore stability to the British state. David Jamieson argues there is reason to doubt the durability of the new order.
2021 ended badly for Boris Johnson. A stream of leaks, apparently from within his own government, has damaged his standing in the country and many in his party seem ready to move on. There are good reasons why those in ruling circles may want to do this. Johnson has performed his essential function – ending the Brexit stalemate. He is now simply a reminder of old trauma.
He represents a definite type of politician who has emerged in the UK after the period 2014-19, which saw the rise of disruptive political forces – Scottish independence, Corbynism and Brexit.
Britain’s leading political figures – Johnson, Keir Starmer and Nicola Sturgeon all share in common their success in harnessing the energy of social movements to restore the establishment, whose stability is the chief political project of all three. Johnson used Brexit (as did Starmer and the former New Labour cadres) to smash Corbynism and consolidate a significant government majority. Starmer used the residual Labour leftism organised by his predecessor to deceive his way into the leadership of his party. And Sturgeon used Scottish independence to consolidate a so far unassailable dominance in Scottish politics.
All three figures then used this new-found authority to demobilise the movements and popular impulses which gave them life. These Restorationists have acted rapidly to resolve the political conflicts of recent years in favour of the powerful. But how far have they succeeded, and will this new stability last?
Brexit Got Done
The indications that Boris Johnson saw Brexit both as a potential electoral boon and as an obstacle to be overcome appeared with his 2019 election slogan. “Get Brexit Done” was an effective line, offering very different solutions to two major constituencies. It could be interpreted by the Leave voting majority as a pledge to implement the vote, and by a substantial element of Remain voters simply fed-up of the impasse. Of course, the success of this pledge was made possible by the disastrous decision of Labour to back a ‘People’s Vote’, which predictably repulsed more voters than it attracted.
Johnson never had a firm commitment to Brexit as a political project, beyond what he thought it could achieve for himself personally. It has long been assumed that he hoped for Remain to win in 2016, leaving him in a strong position in a Conservative party where most members (but only a minority of MPs) supported Leave. The shock victory for the Leave vote meant he had to hurridley change course, causing him to fumble and lose his first bid to become PM after David Cameron’s departure. After assuming office, he really did want Brexit to be ‘done’ in the sense of having it removed from the political field, where it had become an irritant fostering division in the population, but more importantly in the Conservative parliamentary party and the capitalist class, where it had always been unpopular.
Though the pandemic has seen the Tories begin to shift the economy away from the model of recent decades, this is a limited and elitist project. Unsurprisingly, the Tories are not looking to use the Brexit departure for a more meaningful reform of the British state and economy. The pandemic has also been useful (and all of our Restorationists have been able to use it) in shifting attention away from Brexit, it’s current status and implications.
All those who predicted, and presumably hoped for, a breakdown in relations between the EU and the UK have been disappointed. There is an underlying unity of interests between the rulers of both entities, and a continued re-convergence between them seems likely.
Johnson has been aided in his shift away from Brexit by Starmer’s mirror disavowal of the whole issue. He had been one of the driving forces behind the People’s Vote campaign to undermine Corbyn within the party. Once Corbyn was gone and a public backlash had destroyed Labour’s position in significant parts of the country, it was no longer required to press on the Remain front. Elected on the basis of his phoney ten pledges to maintain the core of Corbynism, Starmer has since moved very hard and fast to the right. But his most important function has been to attack the party’s left.
Corbyn has been pilloried again and again in the press. After having the whip withdrawn on senseless charges of antisemitism, he became an enduring symbol of what had to be destroyed to restore Labour fortunes, an obsession unique to British columnists and MPs. Many of his unapologetic followers have been smeared and chased from the party. Ultimately, neither Corbyn nor others unfairly sanctioned were the primary targets. The wider effort was to humiliate and demoralise Corbyn’s supporters by flagrantly violating the rights of the most famous socialist in the country, and the man who was totemic of their entire movement. Thus, the Restoration in Labour has thoroughly consolidated its victory – not just in the structures of the party but in the very minds of would-be internal dissidents.
The implications for the strategy of Labour leftism should be obvious, though many of its adherents have declined to draw them. Labour has never had a leader as radical as Corbyn who, perhaps alone among Labour’s left MPs, broke at least partially from the platitudes of the Labourite creed – challenging the establishment not only on domestic and ‘economic’ matters, but on foreign policy as well. The limits of this radicalism were the limits of Labourism itself, and Corbyn was brought to heel on Brexit by his own party, with the collusion of much of the party left. Corbyn’s loyal party membership has been dislocated politically in the last two years, with a majority, including some in Momentum, backing Starmer in the 2020 leadership election. The route is total, and the Labour machine will now be grimly resolved to never allow a repeat of the Corbyn phenomenon.
Independence Deep Freeze
Meanwhile in Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon has deployed quite different means, but with even greater success, to demobilise the independence movement. In recent years she kept her distance, even as the broader independence movement achieved a street-level presence of a size and tenacity unique in modern Scottish history. Every eventuality, from Brexit to the pandemic, was used to defer it.
The SNP has always had an ambiguous and difficult relationship with its characteristic demand for national independence. Party leaders have often split over strategies and approaches to the question. Alex Salmond struggled with these contradictions even during the 2012 Edinburgh Agreement, when he tried to deflect a binary Yes/No vote in favour of a three option referendum that would almost certainly have resulted in some form of ‘Devo Max’.
Sturgeon has faced an even more difficult task – demobilising a mass independence movement that threatened to expose an increasingly contradictory stance on the national question. The official ‘case’ for independence simply does not exist. Sturgeon and her close circle have no answers at all on the major questions: currency, trade, borders, the EU and much else. The turbulence of the world system in recent years has changed the nature of the debate on all these matters considerably, but this has found no response from the SNP leadership.
To take just one example: the role of central banks around the world is unrecognisable from even a few years ago. The massive issue of government bonds to be bought by central banks (what amounts to a huge round of money printing) has kept economies afloat through lockdown and furlough type schemes, as well as a galaxy of other forms of state assistance and bailouts. The SNP case for independence doesn’t even give Scotland a central bank. Furlough and many other forms of state assistance would be impossible in an independent Scotland under these plans.
Under Sturgeon, the SNP’s traditional difficulty with the national question has reached maturation. It now presents the leadership with what must seem – from their favoured vantage as defenders of the existing corporate and geopolitical status quo – like simply unsolvable dilemmas. Rather than face its problems head-on, the SNP leadership has chosen to allow the whole issue to cruise along, bursting one ‘deadline’ (the latest being for a 2023 referendum for which there has been no meaningful preparation) after another and pleading special circumstances each time. One could argue that this approach is sure to come a cropper at some point, though it has proved remarkably effective so far. Sturgeon has always been able to rely on the Tories to provide a mirage of meaningful difference, including on the national question where both sides have an interest in maintaining the phony threat of Scottish independence.
Thus, all three of the major electorally-based projects which caused problems for the British establishment since 2014 have been successfully ground-down. In the last two years the lucky coincidence of the pandemic has helped to smooth this process. Demands for national solidarity and self-discipline naturally lend themselves to the smothering of political challenge.
It would be wrong to conclude that the position of the Restorationists is invincible. The personal weakness of both Johnson and US President Joe Biden (who performed similar manoeuvres in the US at a bigger scale) indicate that while the years of chaotic interregnum may be over, a new stability reminiscent of the period before 2008 will prove elusive. For a moment it was possible to imagine the Tories at the helm of a new electoral front combining their southern English, market town strongholds and Northern and Midland seats. The longer term picture is more likely to be one of continued democratic atrophy, public exhaustion with the ruling elites, and perhaps a willingness to defy the current remoulding of social conditions under cover of the pandemic.