When thieves fall out, they certainly know how to do it. The sight of former cabinet ministers such as Nadine Dorries slagging off the prime minister, and the home secretary – at the time of writing – plumbing the depths of extreme rightwing prejudice, shows that there are now no depths to which the Conservative party will not sink.
They are desperate, and with reason. The chickens bred during George Osborne’s austerity chancellorship, and let out of captivity by Boris Johnson’s Brexit, are finally coming home to roost.
The recent behaviour of, and damage wreaked by, this government call to mind the great put-down from the mouth of the actor Terry-Thomas in the industrial relations comedy I’m All Right Jack: they are “an absolute shower”.
Yes: for peace of mind, the state of our politics drives one to remembrance of things past. This was provided last Thursday morning by a brief Radio 4 programme in which the historian Sir David Cannadine recalled how prime minister Harold Macmillan turned a cartoonist’s ridicule of him to his advantage.
The great cartoonist Vicky jokingly portrayed Macmillan as SuperMac. This was meant to be wounding. However, Macmillan was, in several senses, a class act. He loved the idea. He played upon it. The Superman comparison did him no harm in the 1959 election, which he won handsomely.
A modern example of someone turning an insult to his advantage may have been provided by the now disgraced Johnson. The story is that the name Boris – which is actually his middle name; his first name is Alexander – was levelled at him as a jibe when fellow school pupils discovered he had Turkish ancestry; however, rather than shaking off the jibe, he adopted it. As I say, this may just be a story, but it has, as they say, been going the rounds.
Back to Macmillan, a more substantial Old Etonian prime minister. I once had the privilege of being introduced to the great man. It was about the time he had made a celebrated denunciation of the Thatcher government’s privatisation policies. The usual quote is about “selling the family silver”. The full passage was even better: “First of all the Georgian silver goes, and then all that nice furniture that used to be in the saloon. Then the Canalettos go.”
The nation is now replete with examples of the damage done by the excessive privatisation of which Macmillan warned all those years ago. In his stimulating book Fixing Broken Britain, Alun Drake of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg notes how “unlike Norway and most other European democracies, in the 1980s, the UK sold off its nationalised industries, raising billions of pounds for the exchequer but losing control of key utilities such as water, gas, electricity and telecoms. Ironically, many are now in the hands of state-owned enterprises from other countries.”
This was done by a succession of Conservative governments who, having sacrificed so much economic sovereignty, then embarked on a Brexit which was supposed to “regain control” but did no such thing. The terrible thing is that the combination of austerity and the sacrifice of 4-6% of GDP to Brexit has left us ill-prepared for the tough times which the International Monetary Fund, the Bank of England and leading thinktanks warn lie ahead.
According to the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, “the UK is set for a decade in the doldrums” unless the economy receives a significant boost to investment.
But what is the tail of the Tory party, which is in danger of wagging the dog, calling for before the autumn statement and spring budget? Why, tax cuts. Not help for public sector investment, but tax cuts.
This reminds me of when Gordon Richardson, then governor of the Bank of England, said in the early 1980s that you only had to look out of the window to see that monetary policy was too tight. These days you only have to look out of the window to see that the nation is rundown and needs a huge programme of investment, not tax cuts. Labour please note as well!
Meanwhile, the Brexit damage accumulates, but our leading politicians are reluctant to talk about what Lord Kinnock calls “the mammoth in the broom cupboard”.
The trade deals we were promised with the US and India do not seem to have amounted to anything. Yet trade with our main partner, the European Union, becomes more and more difficult, with further bureaucratic restrictions due at the end of the year.
It’s called Brexit freedom.
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