Think Johnson has had a bad week? He’s achieved what he wanted
Johnson’s political project was to destroy what trust was left in UK politics. And he’s succeeded
Boris Johnson may not feel like it, but he has already achieved what he set out to achieve. Even the past week has been a ringing success for his political project.
Rolling resignations and endless speculation made for a captivating carnival. Breathless journalists announced they’d never seen anything like it, as though they were reporting on Simone Biles’ latest flips. Seasoned practitioners harrumphed that this isn’t how it was done in their day. And voters became more angry with politics than ever.
Johnson won his election in 2019 – and, in fact, his elections to the London mayoralty in 2008 and 2012 – by playing on the strong sense across the country that politics is broken, that “they’re all the same”, that “nothing ever changes”.
In his brief time in office he has intensified this anti-politics, deepened the sense of public distrust in the system. And that does wonders for those who promoted him.
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If neoliberalism was about shifting decision-making from the relative democracy of the mid-20th century to the market – in other words, from one person-one vote to one dollar/pound/euro/yuan-one vote – then it was also about pushing politics out of our daily lives and on to our TV screens.
Privatisation not accountability
In the years of the social democratic consensus (basically, from the end of the Second World War to the late 1970s), there was a good chance that you would be employed by a nationalised company and live in council housing or a home whose rent was capped by the state. Political decisions at Westminster had a clear and direct impact on your life in fairly obvious ways. Announcements made at the dispatch box would have a direct and pretty rapid impact on the lives of millions.
After decades of privatisation, deregulation and spending cuts, the lines of accountability are tangled. Outsourcing means that, in England, if you have a health problem and call the NHS helpline 111, you reach one of a scattering of disconnected call centres run by a private US-based company called Sitel, who may well refer you to a clinic that is also run by another private company. And if something goes wrong and you want to complain, it’s not at all clear who you go to.
It’s the same in education, and elsewhere. More and more schools are run by academy chains with chief executives who have very little accountability to the local councillors you elect. Your gas and electricity bills aren’t set, as they once were, by nationalised companies, but by private businesses. You pay your train fares not to British Rail, but to one of an endlessly shifting background of brands, whose names all sound pretty similar.
If wages flatline and prices soar, driving people into poverty and the already poor into destitution, then that’s not a failure of government policy – it's an unavoidable consequence of the natural forces of the market, the result of a baffling, tangled web that only the big boys understand.
And there’s nothing you can do about it. Instead, we’re told, anything we do try to do about it – like asking for a pay rise – will make things worse.
Performance not participation
Politics has stopped being a negotiation about how we live together and has increasingly become a performance on our TVs or smartphones, a spectacle that we are supposed to watch, not take part in. Politics doesn’t happen in your daily life, but in Westminster.
The best way to ensure the public doesn’t trust political institutions is to promote people who are utterly untrustworthy
And, most importantly, it’s totally shit. The whole point is that you’re supposed to hate it, to see it as venal, as cynical, as corrupt and as nasty. Political institutions are the only places capable of regulating the markets and the super-rich, so the less you trust them, the better it is for the markets and the super-rich.
The best way to ensure the public doesn’t trust political institutions is to promote people who are utterly untrustworthy. If you want people to see politics as corrupt, then corrupt it. If you want people to see it as venal, drive venal people to the top.
In Britain, this is a particular problem, and trust in our politics is particularly low, because our system hasn’t been corrupted at some point by a ruling class. It was designed by and for that class in the first place. We didn’t have some glorious historic revolution, only centuries of tweaks to a feudal system of lords and ladies, kings and queens, and commoners.
An end to this twisted state
In the next few weeks and months, both Labour and the Tories under a new leader will present themselves as the best managers of this system, the people best placed to restore faith in this twisted state.
But it’s not faith in the British state we need. We shouldn’t try to restore trust in an inherently untrustworthy system. The reason the vast majority of people in the country don’t trust our political system is that they aren’t stupid. What we need is a new political system, built not on abstract trust in our governing class, but on genuine democracy.
Johnson’s political project was to destroy what trust was left in our politics, so that the market could hollow out what remains of our democracy and leave behind only a gameshow. Our job must be to ensure that what actually comes next is something much better.
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