Cuts and cat-fights

The Conservative Party's annual conference produced a lot of empty rhetoric, a few concessions for the right and one clanger from the front benches, writes James Turley - but no surprises

As I write, commentary on the ongoing Conservative Party conference is focused not on David Cameron’s ‘can-do optimism’, not on the news that effectively the wheels have fallen off George Osborne’s economic strategy, with the estimate for UK economic growth over April-June cut to 0.1%, and not even on the impending euro zone catastrophe. No, it has been focused on a cat called Maya.

The young moggy, who would no doubt be astonished to find herself the centre of a minor spat among cabinet ministers, is owned by an anonymous Bolivian immigrant and his girlfriend; the man faced a deportation order, and fought it successfully on the basis of his human right to a family life, enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights. Part (I stress part) of the supporting evidence was that he and his girlfriend owned and looked after a pet cat.

The judge, in his summary, referred to ‘Maya the cat’ as one indicator among many that this was a serious relationship covered by article 8 of the ECHR. This was enough for The Daily Telegraph to run a story rather scurrilously headlined “Immigrant allowed to stay because of pet cat” (October 17 2009). In fact, as representatives of the judiciary were keen to point out, the case was ultimately decided on a completely different point of law, rendering the cat defence redundant.

Now, home secretary Theresa May has dredged this old myth up so as to tout yet more restrictions on illegal immigration - precisely on the point of whether one does indeed have the right to a “private and family life”, particularly when that right conflicts with the need for cynical politicians to throw a few scraps to the slavering reactionaries snapping at their heels.

The likes of The Guardian, of course, were prompt in debunking this myth, before the closed circle of their readerships at least. More embarrassing for May was the prompt response of justice secretary Kenneth Clarke. “They are British cases and British judges she is complaining about,” he pointedly commented. “I’ll have a small bet with her that nobody has ever been refused deportation on the grounds of the ownership of a cat.” May’s staff tamely hit back by selectively quoting the Telegraph article, but this must surely be chalked up as an embarrassment.

Behind ‘Catgate’

This dispute, to be sure, is not exactly going to rock the government to its very foundations. The participants will blush a little and move on. Yet it is in a sense a pretty clear example of how the Tory Party actually works, and the contradictions inherent in its purpose.

The Conservative Party is the self-styled ‘natural party of government’. It is the party most closely incorporated into the British state; apart from Tory politicians in the strict sense, the judiciary and the monarchy clearly enough have institutionally persistent Tory leanings, and the House of Lords even in its current form consists of Tories and those members of other parties who most resemble them. Its job, on one level, is to rule ‘in the national interest’ - that is, take decisions on the basis of what serves British capital in the world market and British interests in the state system.

In order to do so, any party needs a social base beyond the bourgeoisie, which - after all - is hardly a numerically large class. While the Labour Party finds this social base primarily in the labour bureaucracy and the passive consent to its hegemony in the workers’ movement, the Tories base themselves primarily on the assent of the petty bourgeoisie. It actively cultivates in this layer the most reactionary prejudices, from patriarchal ‘family values’ to little-England xenophobia; it does just enough to sustain its existence as a class, perpetually under threat from the big bourgeoisie.

Theresa May’s tirade on the immigrant’s cat is an exercise in petty bourgeois button-pushing. There are, in this case, two buttons. The first is immigration: according to the feverish imagination of the reactionary petty bourgeoisie, there is no point in recent history that we have not been swamped to breaking point with immigrants (the stubborn persistence of British society in failing thereby to collapse is rarely taken into consideration).

The second, and more substantial, factor in present circumstances is Europe. Euroscepticism rates as a substantial phenomenon among the bourgeois mainstream from the treaties of Rome and Maastricht - in other words, when closer union among the European states began to conflict in any kind of serious way with the Atlanticist commitments of the British state. This rational basis provided a shot in the arm for all manner of anti-EU irrationalisms.

Of course, now the Eurosceptics consider themselves quite vindicated. Monetary union across diffuse and unevenly developed sovereign states has led to a situation where a poor cousin like Greece could quite conceivably bring a muscular patriarch like Germany into bankruptcy with it. Disengagement from the euro will not save anyone; but the alternative - greater centralisation of political power - would seem to prove all the jeremiads of anti-EU nationalism.

In reality May launched a quite mild attack on the EU through the supposed tyranny of its ‘human rights’ law, and its conflict with good old British common sense (that is, ignorant petty bourgeois prejudice). Yet somebody had to, because appeasing the peddlers of reactionary mumbo-jumbo is quite necessary for any Tory government.

Kenneth Clarke, meanwhile, is probably best described as an old-style Tory; over the years, he has been on hand to administer the bitter medicine on Europe and now on criminal justice. His career, indeed, has suffered; his best chance at assuming Tory leadership came at a time - the five years following Blair’s election victory - when the Tories were most at the mercy of their rightwing lunatic fringe, to whom his pro-European leanings and stolid, one-nation realism were anathema.

The government, as Liam Fox made quite clear, will not join a Franco-German defence force, but there is no prospect of it calling a referendum on withdrawing from Europe, or triggering a constitutional crisis over ‘human rights’ on top of the mess already engulfing the EU, which buys 40% of British exports. Clarke has delivered a diplomatically worded attack on the demagogic raising of false expectations, because it interferes with the affairs of state that are more properly the concern of a Tory government.

Business as usual

As far as those affairs of state are concerned, then, we can expect more of the same. Dave Cameron’s “stick to it” speech, as expected, confirmed his government’s commitment to the busted strategy of austerity as the way to growth. Yet cracks are obviously appearing.

Osborne ridiculed calls from the Tory right for tax cuts as the flipside of Labour’s vague mumblings about growth. And, desperately trying to show that he has not given up on growth himself, he promised to introduce ‘credit easing’ - without hard detail. Supposedly, it involves funnelling credit to small and medium-sized businesses via various largely undetermined mechanisms, including underwriting bank loans. The treasury is quite insistent that this is not at all to be confused with ‘quantitative easing’ (that is, printing money); but it also purportedly does not involve any increase in public borrowing - which really begs the question as to where the money is supposed to come from.

The other keynote policy pushed by Osborne is rather less fraught with ambiguities. Employees will now have to be employed for two years rather than one before they can challenge employers for unfair dismissal. If you do manage to bring a case to a tribunal, you will have to pay a deposit, returnable should you win the case. The bourgeoisie is rubbing its hands with glee at this one, naturally. Reasonable people with half an eye on reality will wonder how making it easier to throw people out of work is a useful legislative contribution during a time of mass unemployment.

In some ways, the government should be in a weaker position than it actually is. Its flagship policy is very obviously failing; come conference season, the senior partner can only rehash Churchill-type clichés about “what Great Britain really means”, and Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats are restricted to impotently kicking against looming historical oblivion.

Yet - as we argued from the start, against our more wide-eyed comrades on the left - this was never a weak government. Cameron may face grumbles from the Lib Dems and cat-calls from the Tory right, but the truth is that he and his allies are in the perfect position to play each against the other. This government was never going to be blown over by the first mass protest or the first strike; it will still be in place on December 1. Left to its own devices, it will stick to this suicidal austerity programme and the masses will pay the price.

To really put the fear of god into this government and the class it represents, we need to give them at least a glimpse of their overthrow. That means providing a coherent political alternative to their programme, which fundamentally means an alternative to the continuation of capitalism. Warmed-over 1960s Keynesianism will not cut it. It also means uniting the defensive actions of the working class across Europe, even if only symbolically at first. Let us give the Eurosceptic right something worth worrying about.