In disarray and retreat
The budget fiasco is a perfect illustration of the contradictions at the heart of the modern Tory Party, argues Paul Demarty
It is safe to say that we have all become very used to George Osborne’s budgets and, on the face of it, this one was unexceptional.
There were to be more cuts to welfare - in this case, £1.4 billion was to be snatched from the disabled. Vintage Osborne! On top of that, tax cuts were to be handed to people in the 40p tax bracket, raising the threshold by a couple of grand. A sugar tax would be imposed on fizzy drinks. The event of the budget was, of course, repurposed to serve other political ends (and this is hardly an Osborne novelty, having been part of the stock in trade of ambitious chancellors, since David Lloyd-George used a budget to provoke a constitutional crisis that would ultimately rob the Lords of their veto) - broadsides abounded against Brexiters, Corbynistas and whoever else was available to be slapped around.
It was also vintage Osborne, in that its relationship with reality was tenuous. His own creation, the Office for Budgetary Responsibility, immediately pointed out that - insofar as he has set himself the aim of running a surplus by 2020 (and this time I mean it) - his numbers only added up on the basis of outdated assumptions and ‘creative accountancy’. No matter; the OBR has made statements of this sort many times, and the criticism has never stuck.
Jeremy Corbyn slammed the thing, in the sentimental left terms he usually employs, making the point that all the targets had been missed, and yet George was still busily engaged in doing favours for everyone with an income 50% north of the median wage. Corbyn was, predictably, decried as useless and mad by the media. What more, exactly, is expected of Her Majesty’s Opposition than strenuous and sincere opposition to the government remains a mystery - not least in the light of subsequent events.
For March 18 was the day that the quiet man roared like a lion. Iain Duncan Smith resigned as secretary of state for work and pensions, and all hell broke loose. His casus belli? That a further cut to disability benefits was the final straw, and IDS’s pursuit of a fair, socially just conservatism was no longer best served by participation on the front bench.
An alternative explanation has been put forward most energetically by anonymous briefings and by junior cronies of the David Cameron/George Osborne faction, who claimed that the disabled have very little to do with the whole thing: Duncan Smith is really concerned with undermining the government in favour of the Eurosceptic wing of the Tory Party, of which he is a prominent member. His allies have been enthusiastically briefing that he has destroyed Osborne’s leadership ambitions (if only), giving succour to those who accuse him of merely leading a fiendish plot against the prime minister, chancellor and their greasy clique.
Neither side, unsurprisingly, is telling the whole truth.
Understanding all this requires an understanding of the social role of the Conservative Party.
Contemporary society is dominated by the bourgeoisie: that is, the class of people who own the means of production and employ it to make profits through the exploitation of labour. The bourgeoisie is not the particular set of people who as individuals happen, de jure, to own a share of the means of production, however: there is a complex division of labour. Profits accrue, for example, to those in high finance, in the form of commissions and fees, even if those individuals merely shuffle other people’s money around.
In society at large, size matters. The capitalist class is small - indeed, it tends, due to the concentration of capital, to get smaller. Those it exploits form large classes - the proletariat and the petty bourgeoisie, which in many countries have won, through determined struggle, the right to vote on the government of the day. In this situation, the bourgeoisie cannot rule without some measure of consent from those subordinated to it.
The historic purpose of the Labour Party has been to weld the interests of the proletariat to those of the bourgeoisie - a difficult task, in that the bourgeoisie exploits the proletariat. Far easier, relatively speaking, is the job of the Tories: to do the same, but appealing instead to the petty bourgeoisie.
Thus the Tories must face in many directions at once. They must, of course, pursue the effective aims of the British capitalist class. In this day and age, this means adopting a position of utmost subservience to the shekel-shifters in the City. Yet they must also present this programme as advantageous to the interests (or prejudices) of the petty bourgeoisie. The story of the modern Tories is the story of this dilemma.
In the immediate post-war era, the primary concern was anti-communism, understood as anti-Sovietism. Like many other ‘natural parties of government’, the Tories were faced primarily with the need to ensure British society did not generate any great attraction among the lower orders for ‘official communism’. A great welfare state was created by a Labour government that also chose to engage in large-scale nationalisations; the Tories did not dare do more than tinker at the edges for several decades afterwards.
In the 1970s, as the oil shock and stagflation crisis hit, the capitalist world shifted away from that model, which had (for obvious reasons) never suited it. In the Tory Party, the shift was exemplified first by Edward Heath - who wanted to break the back of the unions, but was defeated by the miners - and secondly, and definitively, by Margaret Thatcher.
With Thatcher, something of the social character of modern Toryism started to shift. The post-war situation was ill-suited to full-blooded advocates of capitalism, but it had a place for a certain sort of old-fashioned Tory: he was a patrician sort of guy with good breeding; his wife ran the harvest festival collection at the local church; he had a high-minded concern for the poor. Thatcherism ripped the heart out of such people. Her pitch to the petty bourgeoisie, and to layers of the working class, was that the establishment and state bureaucracy were holding them (and ‘their families’) back as individuals.
From the 30,000-foot view favoured by Marxism, and indeed the historical perspective as such, little changed in the distribution of social and economic power, but the bearers of that power changed. The City changed, making itself a home for people with regional accents prepared to work long hours to supplant the sclerotic scions of the old establishment. As opposed to the shattered illusion of a benevolent ruling caste, the ‘new’ fiction of meritocracy became the central pillar of the Tory ideology. True to form, this shift was reflected within the party itself: after Thatcher, no Tory leader was public-school-educated until David Cameron (in striking contradistinction to the ranks of his MPs).
Rise of the quiet man
One of those humble boys who ran the shop between Maggie and Dave was IDS - elected as leader in 2001 with Thatcher’s blessing as a staunch Eurosceptic against Ken Clarke. His reign was brief and farcical, not least because at the time the media was behind Tony Blair, and for them Duncan Smith could do nothing right. Having caused endless trouble for John Major the previous decade, he got a taste of his own medicine in 2003, and was rudely defenestrated in favour of the ‘unity’ candidate, Michael Howard. He nursed his wounds by reinventing himself as an old-fashioned, patrician, ‘one-nation’ Tory, founding the bleeding-heart Centre for Social Justice think-tank, and found his way back to the front benches under Cameron.
His grand wheeze as the minister in charge of the department for work and pensions was ‘universal credit’ - an attempt to streamline the benefits system into a simple single payment, which would at the same time ensure that work always paid more than benefits alone. This policy has been a total disaster. He has missed even the generous deadlines he set for himself; and beyond the inherent complexity of the task, he has had to carry it out under circumstances where his department was basically the only one not ring-fenced against Osborne’s cuts.
On his resignation, his argument was that the latest £1.4 billion cut was the last straw - which we can believe in the very restricted sense that nobody much likes to see their own departmental budget hammered again and again, and eventually enough may turn out to be enough. He denies any connection to the issue of Europe, but we must insist that there is one, even if it is only that his enthusiasm for Brexit had definitively cut him out of the charmed circle of those who actually decide government policy: paid-up members of the new ‘project fear’.
IDS is a contradictory character - on one level, a ruthless and mercenary political operator; on the other, someone who clearly believes in something, even if the idea that the issue was his concern for the disabled, after six years of beating them about, is hardly credible. In 2001, he was the legitimate and popular choice of the Tory rank and file, because of his unashamed chauvinism and Euroscepticism. His broadside against Osborne has made that kind of hero of him once again.
Osborne, meanwhile, is a different kind of operator. Indeed, one can almost squint at him and see a pure avatar of capital standing there. He is slick, modern, yet more ruthless and mercenary, and crippled by the most vulgar short-termism. It was his ridiculous pre-election pledge to find another £12 billion of welfare cuts that led to this farce over disability benefits. It was no doubt his ‘strategic genius’ that convinced David Cameron to promise an in-out referendum on European Union membership. Neither were expected to be more than empty words, in a situation where continued coalition rule was thought to be the best possible outcome of the 2015 election.
The spat between Iain Duncan Smith and George Osborne is ultimately a demonstration of how tenuous the grip of the Tories has become on the traditional alliance of the ruling class and the petty bourgeoisie. The beautiful lies of patriotism and tradition sit ever more uneasily against the plainly corrupt and cynical operations of bourgeois politics.
In fact, this is a problem afflicting more parties than the Tories: one need only mention Donald Trump in this connection. The shakiness of the mainstream right opens the way for more radical chauvinist-reactionaries to break to the right, giving the establishment a scare. In Britain, that scare is Brexit: the second referendum on Cameron’s watch, greeted initially with glib insouciance, is now provoking a degree of panic.
Things are about to get a lot dirtier.