A choice of dystopia: on George Osborne’s political trajectory

George & the Standard

George Osborne has taken the obvious flack for taking up the editorship of the Evening Standard.  There’s even a petition.

I expect he’s sitting back and enjoying it all enormously, confident in the knowledge that the noise about him ignoring his constituency, taking conflicting interests into parliament, or playing at journalism, all spectacularly miss the point about why he’s taken on the editorship, and massively underestimate how important that is.

This piece is about what I think he’s up to, what may develop more generally in British Convervatism, and why Labour needs to be starting to respond now, not in three years’ time (under whatever Labour leadership there is then).   Part II, as and when it appears, will put flesh on the bones of what I think Labour’s response should be.

London

I suggest that Osborne’s key ambition is not to pretend-edit the Evening Standard, but to become the Conservative candidate for the next London mayoral election and in 2020, with the backing of the capital’s most influential newspaper, win it.

London will just then be in the first deep wave of recession post-Brexit (though there may already have been waves), and he will be able to position himself as the knight in shining armour, come to rescue innocent Londoners from the fate that has befallen them.

He will win in large part because he will be able to play the extreme devolution card, pointing to his support for devolution in the Northern Cities from 2014 onwards, and to the support he received in those cities from Labour leaderships  who lapped up the promise of new powers like, well, lap dogs, happy to  critique austerity as election strategy at the same time as negotiating their own aggrandisement by building in that austerity to their own institutions for the sake of a few million quid on pet strategic projects [1].

The changing face of British Conservatism

But this will just be the tactical part of the victory, the bit most prominent on the election leaflets, perhaps.

Much more fundamental to his victory, and to his pre-eminence in British politics into the 2020s, will be that his very candidature will open up a new ideological divide in British Conservatism which, far from allowing Labour a way back towards power, will see it further squeezed from relevance, as the main dividing line becomes not left versus right, but between what I will call authoritarian conservatism and cosmopolitan liberalism,  In the wake of this new divide, aspirations to inclusive democratic socialism will start to fade into history.

This new Conservatism for the 2020s, with its two distinct strains vying more openly for power, will mark a definitive end to the shallow but, in historical terms, exceptional statecraft period we may come to know as Cameronism.

Throughout his time as Conservative leader, Cameron sought to play to both the socially liberal and old authoritarian sections of the overall Conservative movement, and did so relatively successfully until June 23rd 2016, not least because it was able to depend on its narrative of “sorting out Labour’s mess” much longer than might have been the case had Labour got its act together in around 2012.

To a significant extent, May’s tenure will be a fading continuation of Cameronian statecraft (just as Major was a faded continuity to Thatcher), with the need for party unity now enforceable by the circumstances of Brexit, but in this period the new dividing lines and power bases for the 2020s will be established, and the ideological standpoints will be firmed up on both sides.

The last great ideological divide [2] in British Conservatism was between the ‘wets’ and the ‘dries’.   This was marked by the dispute about whether the post-war settlement over the welfare state had any enduring virtue, or needed to be consigned to history.    The ideological argument was won by the ‘dries’, though it has taken another period of government (the first Osborne Supremacy) to take us past what is probably the point of no return (at least as far as the original welfare state was conceived).

While Labour (or sections of it) is still fighting this long lost battle (renamed anti-austerity), the new divide in British Conservatism will be drawn.

Authos versus Cosmos

This will not be a divide of opinion on how the post-EU, post-welfare national state should be managed in its decline. It will be about the geography of how that decline should be managed.

For Theresa May’s (or her successor’s) authoritarian wing of British Conservatism (hereafter ‘the Authos’), the ideology will be of business as usual.    Government, and the increasingly draconian measures needed to keep it stable in the face of national post-Brexit social and economic turmoil, will continue to be highly centralised, although the old Bulpittian distinction between ‘high’ politics, a matter for the great and the good, and ‘low’ politics such as health and education will emerge even more strongly, now that the management techniques of devolving responsibility without devolving resource or power are much better understood within Westminster right-wing cadres.

At one end of the scale, government under the Authos may well tip towards outright Trumpist fascism but, in any event, the main ‘othering’ needed to provide the political ballast will be of those considered internally to be the ‘enemies of the people’, with ever-heightened racism and xenophobia also driven by the need to blame Europe for not having negotiated in good faith.

That much is obvious, and the early indicators of this are already to be seen.

But George Osborne’s Evening Standard-fuelled vision of 2020s British Conservatism will be very different, and it will be very appealing to those he seeks to reach.   This vision, or offer, I will call (with due sense of irony) liberal cosmopolitanism, and its adherents ‘the Cosmos’.

Early on, the Standard’s editorial line, increasingly anti-May in the context of the ever closer Brexit economic collapse, will be seen as resulting from personal antipathy on the part of Osborne.  As noted above, this is likely to satisfy him and the white cap in his lap [3].

The real story though, over time, will be the emergence of a ‘London position’ on its relationship with the EU, ready for implementation when he wins the mayoralty, a year (or less) after Brexit.

This ‘London position’ will, I suspect, amount to something close to an application to re-join the EU on a special city status, with the four freedoms guaranteed in as far as possible.   What will be possible then will depend on the work done in the intervening period, often through intermediaries like Osborne’s Michael Bloomberg but also European ’eminences grises’ (ex-Kanzlerin Angela Merkel?) to develop some kind of legitimacy parallel to or even exceeding that of the UK nation state (Scotland may already have done of the donkey work here), and in keeping with Article 1 of Lisbon’s commitment to decision making “as close to the citizen” as possible.

In effect, the ‘Cosmos’ will be working towards a coup-by-devolution, in which London becomes some kind of city state (it has a head’s start with the City of London) of course, followed by other big economic players who want to follow the same path;  probably Oxford & Cambridge, probably Manchester, possibly Bristol.

Within these new quasi-states, a cosmopolitan liberalism will be fostered in which overt racism has no part, and free trade is fostered.   Socially liberal, (wealthy) younger person oriented, these cities will seek to regain the cosmopolitan feel that has started to desert them, and to the wider world it may look like the UK has, after a tumultuous few years, regained some of its pizazz.

As such, these renewed cities will be the opposite of what would develop under the ‘Authos’: dark, hostile places where everyone is a stranger and relief is to be found only in the countryside beyond.

But the Authos’ new England will come at a cost.   The cost will be the regions – the towns and villages that don’t fit the newly demarcated dystopian economic geography (though  of course the economic imbalances on the late 20th century has been the key driver for this new formal demarcation.

Beyond the city states, the ever more impoverished rump hinterland will be allowed to follow the ‘choice’ they made for isolation.   After all, that is what they voted for, will be the retort from the urban areas now recovering some sense of economic stability.   That’s what the American version of the ‘Cosmos’ is already doing, and you can expect Osborne’s people to refine.

The menials will be bussed into cities in the daytime, and bussed out again when they come alive at night.  Think Johannesburg, think Soweto.

Two dystopias: one under the Authos, with hints of Orwell’s 1984 and Gilliam’s Brazil, with its ‘enemies of the people’  narrative to sustain its political hegemony (guns and tanks may also be needed); and one under the Cosmos, perhaps closer to the massively and purposively unequal economic geography depicted in the Hunger Games series of novel and films.

I do not know which new strain British Conservatism will win out, though at the moment I’ back the Cosmos’, but neither looks good from where I’m standing in the Lancashire hinterland.

Labour’s response?

Currently, Labour sees nothing of this, content it seems to stand and heckle Osborne from the morally righteous sidelines.

Labour’s new National Policy Forum online consultation (deadline May 31st) asks what we should make of Brexit without giving any sense how critical it will be to have a response, not just to May’s version of it, but also to Osborne’s (it’s tucked away in the international section).    If Osborne’s Conservatism works out as he plans, this will sweep away the urban middle-class vote from Labour, including but not only in London (there’s a reason for his chairing the Northern Powerhouse Partnership) and leaving a few local administrations to oversee, until they too are swept away, the further decline of the discarded regions.

A more coherent response is, of course, possible.  Indeed, I have outlined the mechanics and legislative detail of how to start it here (and I will put flesh on the bones if this get enough attention to warrant a part 2.

But the first step, as ever, is to ‘know your enemy’.  Clue: it’s not Momentum, or Progress: it’s both wings of British Conservatism, and the fact that there are now two wings makes it especially dangerous.

[1] This is perhaps a mean-spirited interpretation of the Liverpool and Manchester City Council leadership’s  attitudes t Osborne’s devolution advances, and there is another interpretation  which holds some weight  – that the leaders were just doing what they thought best for the cities in time of crisis.  I do not think history will judge their decisions well, but I acknowledge motivations may have been mixed.

[2] The late, great EHH Green demonstrated that throughout the 20th century British Conservatism has been, beneath the veneer of a national party,  more often than not been deeply divided ideologically, from the Edwardian freedtrade/protectionism split onwards, and that the wet/dry split was only one more example.

[3] For convenience in this short piece I have preferred to caricature Osborne as an evil mastermind, and to suggest that the ‘Cosmos’ phase of British Conservatism will be his personal design, should it come to pass.   In a longer piece,  I would have argued that Osborne, like all political actors, operates within the constraints of political and social structures and that, while he does have more agency than most, these still apply.  This is, of course, why he did not seek the leadership after Cameron stepped down, and why he is re-entering the fray in this way.

 

 

 

 

Author: paulinlancs

Councillor for the Socialist Republic of Bickerstaffe. Interested in making things happen, except when there's cricket on. Sadly, there's never cricket on.

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