Friday 20 September 2019

Is Britain preparing for a long-overdue revolution of its own?

Recent party conferences have shown that neither Tory nor Labour are the parties they once were, writes Anne Applebaum

Theresa May. Photo: PA
Theresa May. Photo: PA

Anne Applebaum

'They have a horror of abstract thought, they feel no need for any philosophy or systematic 'world-view'. " That was George Orwell, speaking of his countrymen in a famous 1941 essay, England Your England. Writing during the Blitz, as "highly civilised human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me," Orwell listed the qualities that made the English English: their love of privacy, their almost religious respect for the law, their dislike of uniformed men barking orders.

"All the boasting and flag-wagging, the 'Rule Britannia' stuff, is done by small minorities," he wrote: "The most stirring battle poem in English is about a brigade of cavalry which charged in the wrong direction."

I thought of that essay listening to the rhetoric coming out of the British party conferences, Labour and Conservative, much of which didn't sound very English - in Orwell's definition - at all.

Certainly the Tories' transformation over the past 18 months has been nothing short of remarkable. Historically, it was derided as "the stupid party," a description it accepted as a backhanded compliment: solid, salt of the earth; practical rather than theoretical; it eschewed progressive fantasy (what Orwell called "abstract thought") in favour of sensible policies.

In the wake of the Brexit referendum, the British Conservative Party has changed. Some of the Cabinet including, it seems, the hapless prime minister, have concluded that Britain should leave the European Union slowly and stay inside the European customs union for as long as possible, to avoid tariffs, customs bureaucracy and the horror of a new "hard" border across Ireland.

But unmoored from their old Burkean suspicion of radicalism, many Tories dislike the idea of gradual change. Some still imagine sweetheart deals with the EU that will never happen: what foreign secretary Boris Johnson at first called "having our cake and eating it," and now calls "glorious Brexit".

Still others sketch out a vague vision of a buccaneering, low-tax, deregulated trading nation, the 'Singapore of the North' - a notion based on a misremembering of 19th-Century history, when Britain was a free-trading nation and also an empire.

Back then, if the British didn't like a trade agreement on offer, they could blockade the harbour or bomb the port. Alas, that's no longer true - in fact, the most important result of the party conference was that it persuaded the Federation of German Industry to prepare for a major disruption in trade, because "the British government is lacking a clear concept, despite talking a lot".

If the Tories could be replaced by realists, it might not matter. But Brexit has released the Labour Party from its previous commitments to pragmatism too. One Guardian columnist wrote, "The Tories have normalised all forms of radicalism." And the beneficiary may not be the imperial nostalgists of the right but the now far left - and more popular - Labour Party.

Only a few years ago it would have seemed remarkable for a Labour politician to declare his intention to renationalise anything. But at its conference the week before, John McDonnell, the Labour shadow chancellor of the Exchequer - the man who, if the party wins the next election, will control the British treasury - was applauded when he called for "utilities and key services" to be brought back under state control. He mentioned railways and energy companies - but some have hinted at nationalising banks as well.

Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader - who was welcomed at the conference by a very un-British three-minute ovation - has made it clear he approves of the Brexit vote because he, like others on the far left, believes the EU prevents its members carrying out radical economic changes.

What kind of radicalism does he have in mind? EU policy does not prevent any country from having nationalised health care, state-owned companies or redistributive taxes, so we must be talking about even more extreme policies. Whatever those may be, it's safe to guess they won't make Britain look like a Singapore of the North. Better to think Venezuela of the North, or perhaps East Germany Rediscovered.

Maybe all the fervour is unsurprising: Britain didn't have an 18th-century revolution like France, or a 19th-century revolution like Germany. As Orwell observed, it was unmoved by 20th-century revolutions too.

Now, in the 21st century, it could just be Britain's turn to overthrow its system. Which would be less unnerving if the revolutionary futures on offer weren't so starkly contradictory.

© Washington Post Syndication

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