Photography by Sara Morris

Britain, the puerile polity

Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer are complicit in the farcical performance that debases every British election campaign. It is a mode of politics hopelessly inadequate for the challenges that we face—and the victor should break with it
June 5, 2024

The circus spirit is strong in British politics. It makes a rowdy theatre of parliament and a clown-car parade of election campaigns. Every show is different to the extent that no two candidates are the same, but convention and a fixed repertoire of plots make for a familiar experience. There must be farce (hot microphone broadcasts private conversation); slapstick (candidate hides from TV crew); audience participation (unscripted encounter with irate voter). 

Personality trumps policy. Debate is lively but parochial. The antagonism is real but also camp and cartoonish in the Punch-and-Judy tradition. Many rising political stars have promised to do things differently. All end up joining in, because it is the only show in town.

The clash of Rishi Sunak’s Conservatives and Keir Starmer’s Labour over the coming weeks will be sometimes entertaining, often irritating and rarely informative. The spotlight will be trained on the characters of the two leaders on centre stage, leaving most questions about the needs of the country in shadow.

The stakes are high, but the trivialising tide of British politics can always rise higher. This was proved by the lack of sustained focus on Brexit’s consequences during the 2016 referendum, or in either of the two subsequent general elections.

In 2024, there are strong incentives for the UK’s two main parties to avoid candour about the challenges facing the country. It is hard for Sunak to describe a mess that also happens to be the legacy he is defending, while Starmer’s clarion call to change risks being muffled by too many caveats about intractable problems and limited resources.

The fog of campaign war is also a shroud over hard subjects. The list of issues not being debated is long, but there are two overarching themes that would dominate if the election became an honest conversation about the nation’s future: what kind of economy will Britain have; and what role can it play in the world? 

Those questions arise from the decline of institutions and norms that once defined what it meant to be part of the west. They are made more urgent by Brexit—a misplaced bet that liberal globalisation would last forever and that geography was irrelevant to a nation’s economic and political security. 

Geopolitics is more dangerous now than at any time since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and more fluid than at any time since 1945. Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine marked the return of a might-is-right, imperial land-grabbing statecraft that liberal democracies had complacently assumed was made obsolete by economic interconnectedness. 

Conflict in Gaza has brought Israel and Iran, longtime antagonists by proxy, to the brink of all-out war. The apparatus of laws and treaties on which the postwar order was founded is challenged within Europe by resurgent nationalism, and beyond by the rise of China as a superpower capable of rivalling US hegemony. 

American democracy faces an existential crisis: Donald Trump possibly returning to the White House with a clearer programme for tyranny and a better understanding of how to enact it than he brought to his first term. Even if Joe Biden holds on, America’s allies have had their confidence shaken in Washington as their security underwriter. 

“Strategic autonomy” on defence and trade is the concept dominating conversations in the European Union. Protectionism is on the rise. Disputes over tariffs, technology transfers, energy supplies and raw materials will play out at the level of continental blocs, making Britain’s surrender of a seat at the top table in Brussels look increasingly unwise.

It is hard for Rishi Sunak to describe a mess that also happens to be the legacy he is defending

For decades, Britain’s axiomatic foreign policy concept was the transatlantic bridge. London was Washington’s favourite European capital and Europe’s channel to the White House. Brexit blew that up. The old relationships are not entirely lost. Britain is still a major player by European standards: a nuclear power with a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. But those assets are harder to leverage from a position of strategic dislocation, cut off from our neighbourhood alliance. The challenge is made harder by a political culture that denies there is even a problem.

That denial extends also to the question of how domestic economic policy must adapt to Brexit reality. The Leave campaign argued that Britain could quit the single market without cost. Brussels would bestow special trading favours on a former member and trade deals further afield would make up any shortfall. Reclaiming regulatory sovereignty would maximise competitive advantage at zero cost. This was nonsense.

Amid the meltdown: Liz Truss addresses reporters in London on 14th October 2022. Image credit: Carlos Jasso/Pool/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock Amid the meltdown: Liz Truss addresses reporters in London on 14th October 2022. Image credit: Carlos Jasso/Pool/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

The economic fiction was rolled into a fraudulent political bundle. Brexit snake oil was sold as the remedy to a broad spectrum of cultural and social grievances. Only one perceived ill—immigration via the free movement of labour—could plausibly be attributed to EU membership.

That strategy was necessary, because Eurosceptic economic doctrine on its own couldn’t win a majority. It always was and still is a niche libertarian proposition: contemptuous of workers’ rights as a drag on free enterprise, in favour of relaxed or even zero tariffs, with foreign competition putting domestic manufacturers and subsidy-hungry farmers out of business. For Brexit’s champions, any ensuing loss of livelihoods was necessary, invigorating even—the purgation of inefficiency by forces of creative destruction.

That prospectus has a firm hold on the Conservative imagination but not much purchase on British voters. The electoral coalition that made this dream theoretically available contained a lot of people who had not signed up for a turbo-Thatcherite Brexit. That was especially true of voters in Labour’s “red wall” strongholds of northern England and the Midlands, who went on to back Boris Johnson in the 2019 general election.

One of Johnson’s talents is the ability to assert two incompatible things with equal conviction while believing neither of them—also known as having his cake and eating it, or cakeism. He was in favour of state intervention and opposed to state meddling; a disciple of Michael Heseltine and a devotee of Margaret Thatcher; a liberal as London mayor, a nationalist for Vote Leave. He was unfazed by the contradictions intrinsic to Brexit and understood better than many Eurosceptic ideologues (and better than Rishi Sunak) that his “red wall” voters’ allegiance was shallow. They would need prompt payback for the votes they had loaned the Tories.

The answer was “levelling up”. This meant spending more in deprived areas but, by a feat of fiscal alchemy, avoiding levying the cost on affluent shires that had voted Conservative for much longer.

This egalitarian-libertarian chimera was killed by Covid. The pandemic response required stratospheric levels of public borrowing. It also triggered a chain of events that drove Johnson from office. Then war in Ukraine sent energy bills and inflation soaring. Liz Truss replaced Johnson’s ideological incoherence with a monomaniac free-market faith so fundamentalist it spooked the very markets it venerated. By the time Sunak arrived in Downing Street, there was a smouldering crater where Britain’s economic model should have stood. 

Nearly two years later, the scene is still fairly bleak. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the parliament that was  just dissolved presided over the worst material growth in living standards since comparable records began in 1961. Per capita growth in GDP has lagged behind the Eurozone average and that of the US. 

Real wages have been stagnant for most of the period that the Tories have been in power. Research by the Resolution Foundation thinktank (which shares a common ownership with Prospect), shows average earnings only recently returned to their pre-financial crisis level.

Real wages are on the rise again, the economy has emerged from a shallow recession and inflation looks under control. But that doesn’t translate into much of a feel-good factor when the public realm is so palpably decaying for want of investment. Public spending measured as a proportion of GDP is 44 per cent for the current fiscal year—higher than it was for much of the New Labour era. The tax burden is high by historical standards, but people who rely on services don’t feel they are getting much in return.

In the Punch-and-Judy version of budget debate, Tories promise tax cuts (with eye-watering spending cuts scheduled in the small print) and bash Labour for refusing to do the same. Labour curls into a defensive crouch, agreeing that taxes must not rise while promising “reform” as the magic wand that fixes services without a massive cash infusion.

Neither will confront the reality that the Treasury will need new revenue, either from taxes or borrowing, to meet even basic public expectations of what government provides for its citizens. 

An ageing population will place increasing stress on the health service and expose the woeful state of social care. At the other end of the demographic spectrum, an expanded entitlement to free childcare, promised by Labour and the Tories, is stymied by a shortage of nursery places. Schools are struggling to keep teachers. Among working-age adults, the prospect of buying a home—or affording the rent on a place sufficient to raise a family—is ever more remote without help from wealthy parents. Opportunity has become a hereditary privilege.

All of these challenges need to be managed in tandem with the demands of a transition away from carbon-intensive energy and adaptation to climate change. This will entail building new renewable power sources; adapting the national grid; replacing domestic gas boilers; insulating homes; installing far more electric vehicle charging infrastructure; and on it goes. 

And those are the knowable challenges. A tidal wave of new technology powered by artificial intelligence is cresting over society, carrying benefits and dangers of unmeasurable proportion. 

Britain is not alone in facing these issues, nor is it uniquely unprepared. Every nation has its idiosyncratic political issues. But Brexit contained special follies. It made a fetish of national sovereignty while depleting the national state’s capacity to deliver change. It was a misspent revolution that squandered what political capital was available for radical upheaval on a project that satisfied no one. It mined disaffection with politics to fuel a machine that could deliver only further disappointment.

That makes it harder for any subsequent government to make a case for collective sacrifice today in expectation of better times tomorrow. Public patience and goodwill are spent. The currency of big promises is debased. 

These problems did not suddenly appear the morning after the referendum. Archaeologists of policy error can burrow through George Osborne’s austerity budgets, to New Labour complacency in advance of the financial crisis, down to structural inequalities baked in by Thatcher-era reforms, past the squandering of North Sea oil revenues, going ever deeper, via Britain’s diagnosis as the sick man of Europe in the 1970s, all the way back to the durable observation made in 1962 by Dean Acheson, one-time US secretary of state, that this country had “lost an Empire but not yet found a role”. 

Britain’s next prime minister doesn’t need to be a historian to grasp the dimensions of the hole that his country is in. But he should be able to articulate some sense of context, some perspective beyond the two-dimensional stage scenery of a campaign roadshow.

The speech with which Sunak launched the election is instructive. The content was lost in the cacophony of jeers at the dismal spectacle of a sad-looking man in the rain without an umbrella. But it wouldn’t have been memorable if the sun had shone. It was laughably unserious, even though the prime minister was explaining how “the world is more dangerous than it has been since the end of the Cold War”. 

Sunak’s narration began with his record in delivering the furlough scheme during the pandemic (back when his personal ratings were high) and continued on to his proclaimed triumph over inflation (although it is the Bank of England that decides the pace of monetary tightening). It amounted to a plea to trust the Conservatives to stick to a plan that no one has experienced as anything other than chaotic improvisation and failure.

The shallowness of Sunak’s prospectus expresses paltry imagination applied to obsolete ideology. There is no reason to doubt the many claims by colleagues and officials that he is intelligent, but his cleverness is of the computational kind—he is good at crunching numbers and retaining detail. He isn’t interested in ideas. His speeches eschew cultural references and historical arcs, rarely sustaining an analytical argument.

One exception was the address to last year’s Tory conference, which blamed Britain’s malaise on “30 years of vested interests standing in the way of change; 30 years of rhetorical ambition which achieves little more than a short-term headline”. It was a bizarre charge when Sunak’s own party had governed for half of the period he maligned. The implication was that the last prime minister of any merit was Thatcher, and that he was the one to reignite her flame. 

He would say that, wouldn’t he. The claim to be Thatcher’s rightful heir is a mandatory boast for Tory leaders and anyone aspiring to the job. As foreign secretary, Liz Truss would pose in situations and costumes that made the government’s official press photographs look like advertisements for an end-of-the-pier Thatcher tribute act. 

The kitschy cult of the Iron Lady is symptomatic of intellectual stultification in a Conservative party that has given up trying to accommodate its beliefs to the modern world. Atrophied ideological muscle was temporarily bulked up with steroid infusions of populist rage, but the narcotic has worn off, revealing an underlying sagging unfitness for government.

The Labour counter-offer is also light on big ideas. Again, that expresses the leader’s temperament, but it is also a calculation about the public’s shrunken appetite for grandiosity. Starmer’s slow-and-steady method reflects his background as a public prosecutor and the style that he was known for deploying as a barrister. He is a methodical builder of narrowly focused cases, not a flamboyant conjuror of convictions. 

Rishi Sunak is clever, but he isn’t interested in ideas. Image credit: Carlos Jasso/Pool/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock Rishi Sunak is clever, but he isn’t interested in ideas. Image credit: Carlos Jasso/Pool/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

He and his closest advisers mistrust airy abstraction as a rarefied taste savoured by the kind of leftwing idealists who lose elections. Dogged pragmatism comes naturally to Starmer, but the absence of visionary ardour is a strategic choice. The opposition leader sticks to retail offers he thinks he has a decent chance of delivering: “6,500 new teachers”; “shorter NHS waiting times”; “a new Border Security Command”. The pitch is tailored to an ultra-cynical post-Brexit, post-Johnson political marketplace where grandiose claims about the product provoke suspicion of the salesman. 

The corollary of this calculation is that shrunken ambition looks unequal to the task at hand. Change that is overly caveated with incrementalism looks like rose-branded camouflage on more of the same.

Modesty of ambition and cautious messaging infuriate Labour’s radical tendency. They also make many moderate centre-left liberals queasy. Pro-Europeans are dismayed at the way that Starmer has moulded his electoral offer to the hard contours of Johnson’s Brexit settlement, ruling out any return to the single market and customs union. Veterans of anti-austerity campaigns despair that Rachel Reeves has signed up to suffocating spending constraints set by a Conservative chancellor who doesn’t expect to honour them himself.

But those are rational choices given the task that Starmer faced when he took over the party. Plotting a road to Downing Street through Britain’s electoral system meant winning in constituencies that had strongly endorsed Brexit. It meant recruiting support from people who had written off Labour under Jeremy Corbyn as a party of spendthrift socialist fanatics led by an unpatriotic crank. 

Reassurance and moderation were preconditions for Starmer to gain a cursory audience with his target voters, let alone audition to be prime minister (and a fair hearing is never easy when unhinged Tory press partisanship sets the tone).

From the outside, it isn’t easy to distinguish expedient compromise from an absence of principle, which is the attack on Starmer that Tories think is likeliest to dent his polling advantage. And it is echoed on the left by people who see the whole enterprise as a re-enactment of betrayals perpetrated by New Labour.

The campaign methodology is certainly Blairite, and the whiff of putrescence around Sunak’s Tories—knackered by incumbency—inevitably calls to mind John Major’s terminal decline in 1997. But the analogy doesn’t usefully go much further than that. 

New Labour surfed the peak of post-Cold War globalisation. To the extent that Starmer’s project has a defined economic doctrine, it begins with a burial of that era. Reeves read the last rites in a lecture earlier this year, arguing that a fragmenting global order, the climate crisis, energy insecurity and the rise of AI all demand an interventionist state. 

A Labour government would be more committed to activist industrial policy than any administration since the 1970s, while hoping to avoid the sinkholes of Whitehall subsidy with which that decade is unhappily associated. Reeves says her version would be nimbler, more strategically focused and privately financed. That is plausible as an account of the kind of economy Britain might need in the 21st century, but naming the destination isn’t a strategy for getting there. 

The inspiration for Reeves is Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act, which subsidises Rust Belt renewal and green investment. But the US president’s flagship programme has awesome financial heft—hundreds of billions of dollars; more than a trillion by some estimates. Britain can’t muster equivalent fiscal firepower. Labour has already flinched from a 2021 commitment to spend £28bn a year on green industry. 

Modest ambition and cautious messaging anger Labour’s radical tendency and make centre-left liberals queasy

There is also a Europe-shaped problem on the horizon for Reevonomics. In theory, Brexit makes activist industrial policy easier by ending the duty to operate within EU state aid rules. But any competitive advantage is likely to be cancelled out by the cost of exclusion from the single market and customs union. Friction in supply chains and tariffs lurking in the rules-of-origin small print of Britain’s trading arrangements will be a constant disincentive to invest in a country that isn’t Brussels-aligned. 

Exchanging single market access for regulatory sovereignty was a bad deal when the plan was the hard right-wing, deregulated utopia of Singapore-on-Thames. It won’t get any better just because Labour envisages something closer to European social democracy. A Starmer government would deal with Brussels in a more neighbourly spirit, but good vibes don’t buy concessions. Whether it is trade or security policy on the table, the EU will not grant concessions to Britain simply out of relief that it is no longer run by Tories. 

Neither of the candidates to be prime minister wants to relitigate the terms of Brexit in public. But while it is possible to talk about the many challenges facing the UK without reference to the epoch-defining decision that was made in the referendum, it is hard to do so credibly. Without that conversation, all the portentous warnings about global volatility, China’s rise, Russia’s aggression, AI, climate change and energy security sound like the revving of rhetorical engines in a strategic cul-de-sac.

There is nothing new about politics that ducks hard questions. The campaign stump has never been the place for nuanced disquisitions on geopolitical doctrine. It’s a sales pitch, not a seminar. But the trivialising idiom of British campaigns, the repertory performance of Westminster-on-the-road, feels exceptionally inappropriate to the gravity of the moment this time, and all the more demoralising because the effect is cumulative across multiple ballots.

Doubling down on a refusal to engage with the reality of Brexit in successive general elections created a parallel reality, a theatre of absurd policy where it was possible for vaudevillians such as Johnson and Truss to own the stage. 

Sunak arrived promising “professionalism, integrity and accountability”, but he lacked the courage and authority to impose those qualities on his party and lacked the judgement to choose policy priorities in keeping with the values he espoused. He shrank to the occasion.

Starmer comes across as the more substantial figure by default. But the terms on which he feels compelled to campaign require complicity in fictions that can’t be sustained for long in government. It is hard to know for sure whether another opposition leader could have broken free from those constraints. The back catalogue of Labour defeats suggests not.

But if he becomes prime minister, as polls indicate is likely, there will be an opportunity to rewrite the script from a position of power. And he will have little choice. There is no way to manage the challenges Labour would face in office without confronting the public with hard truths about the true extent of the predicament. Regime change provides a rare opportunity for that kind of reckoning. 

This election campaign will feel in many respects like a sequel, another iteration of the hackneyed set pieces and predictable storylines that are so wearily familiar. But it also contains the tantalising possibility that we are nearing the end of the season—that the show simply cannot go on; that the longest-running political pantomime will close; that on the 4th of July, the curtain will fall.