by Toby Gill
‘The most dangerous time for a bad government is when it begins to reform itself.’ – Alexis de Toqueville.
Give people an inch, and they will take a mile. This is what de Toqueville hinted at in his Ancien Regime et la Revolution, his celebrated account of the French Revolution. It was just as Louis XVI’s regime began to reform that the masses could take no more. Just as the promise of real change was made, the guillotine fell.
Louis XVI lost control of the narrative – perhaps the most dangerous thing a ruler can do. In planting the seeds of change, he acknowledged that the principles which justified his rule were not sacrosanct. He demolished the dam which restrained an unrelenting torrent of criticism. Today, nothing has changed. So much of modern politics is about narratives, whether they are coherent and persuasive, and who controls them. As the last year demonstrated, it doesn’t even matter how close that narrative is to reality.
What mattered was that his face, his voice, his message, was absolutely everywhere.
Trump’s bewildering public statements may have dragged ‘post-truth’ kicking and screaming into the dictionary, however, they are also indicative of a deeper political truth. In the months leading up to the election, it seemed you genuinely could not escape Trump’s media presence. Yes, almost every outlet was ridiculing or correcting something outlandish he had said. But this didn’t matter. What mattered was that his face, his voice, his message, was absolutely everywhere. So much time was spent discussing Trump’s latest misogynistic remark that most people would have been hard pressed to name a single one of Hillary Clinton’s policies.With all this air time, Trump presented the world with a compelling and appealing narrative – that a corrupt Washington elite had unjustly used globalisation to sap wealth from white blue collar workers, and that only an outsider could ‘drain the swamp’. Once again, the accuracy of this account did not matter – what mattered was its ideological purity. Against this backdrop, Hillary was left in the awkward situation of semi-defending Obama’s legacy while semi-advocating change. It simply was not a powerful enough story to overcome the simple clarity of Trump’s account, and its potent emotional appeal. Once again the same message was being demonstrated: the key to success is to construct and control a dominant narrative.
Fast-forward to 2017 (and sidle slightly to the right across the Atlantic) to Theresa May’s Britain. This week, the Tories shied away from a vote on Universal Credit
Fast-forward to 2017 (and sidle slightly to the right across the Atlantic) to Theresa May’s Britain. This week, the Tories shied away from a vote on Universal Credit – an abstention which led to a 299-0 vote without consequence. Theresa May has also backed down over a 55p per minute charge on a DWP helpline for claimants, and Tory MPs are running rings around their party whips.
These embarrassments take place against a backdrop of long-term change in Tory party discourse, especially on Theresa May’s part. Her inaugural speech as PM shocked the world with the passage:
“That means [us] fighting against the burning injustice that if you’re born poor you will die on average nine years earlier than others. If you’re black, you’re treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than if you’re white. If you’re a white, working class boy, you’re less likely than anybody else in Britain to go to university. If you’re at a state school, you’re less likely to reach the top professions than if you’re educated privately. If you’re a woman, you will earn less than a man. If you suffer from mental health problems, there’s not enough help to hand. If you’re young, you’ll find it harder than ever before to own your own home.”
Honestly, it’s like something straight out of Corbyn’s playbook.
May followed this up with a conference speech which, amidst the excruciatingly embarrassing cock-ups, featured gems like “it’s about sweeping away injustice – the barriers that mean for some the British Dream is increasingly out of reach. About saying what matters is not where you are from or who your parents are. The colour of your skin. Whether you’re a man or a woman, rich or poor.”The Tories then acknowledged that the market has not produced fair energy prices, and introduced a cap on charges. Next, they publicly recognised the injustices dividing young from old, freezing tuition fees and proposing tax breaks for the youth.
Theresa May is doing the most dangerous thing a ruler can. She is sweeping away the principles which have held her party in power. The economic principles of ‘Osbournism’, forged in the harshest crucibles of free-market neoliberalism, set out a clear narrative: to recover the economy, welfare had to be cut, the deficit had to be reduced, tax had to be lowered, and the private sector had to be left alone by the state. As I said, it mattered little how close this narrative resembled material reality – what mattered was its internal consistency, and the dogged determination of the ruling elite in sticking to it.
Theresa May is pulling at this narrative like a rug beneath her own feet.
Theresa May is pulling at this narrative like a rug beneath her own feet. By making such frank and sweeping calls for change, she surrenders the principles which have justified Tory power. She has shunned the ideological purity of the free market, but, so far, has found nothing to replace it with. With no compelling narrative to call her own, she will be left alone to compete with the compelling criticisms of neoliberal doctrine mounted by Corbyn.
The most dangerous time for a bad regime is when it begins to reform itself. Much like Louis XVI, Theresa May has lost control of the dominant narrative, and soon her head will roll.
Featured image: Wikipedia, House of Commons 2017
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