Earlier this week, towards the end of the Conservative party conference in Birmingham, the current Foreign Secretary James Cleverly – one of the inner circle of Liz Truss’s government – decided to offer us his thoughts on the Prime Minister’s economic policy. It was, he said, an example of a “bitter-tasting medicine that people might not like”, but that would – he assured us – do us all good in the end.
James Cleverly, it should be said, is just 53, and his career in politics dates back only 15 years; so he is perhaps too young, in political terms, to realise just how familiar – not to say stale – this line of vaguely sadistic rhetoric is, in recent British politics.
Some of us, though, are old enough to remember John Major intoning back in 1989 that “if it isn’t hurting, it isn’t working”; and Margaret Thatcher’s own withering rhetoric about the need to shrink the state certainly encouraged British voters to feel, during her premiership, that they were enjoying the smack of firm government.
It’s a line of argument, of course, that still has an enduring appeal to some sections of the British public, who at the slightest hint of declining living standards or failing services, will immediately invoke the blitz spirit, often declaring that bit of hardship will do us good; and it meshes perfectly with the myth that the national finances are just like a big household budget, where we’ve all been “overspending” on luxuries such as decent disability benefits, and now need to “tighten our belts”.
“There is no magic money tree”, politicians like Theresa May declare; only to be exposed as fibbers and fantasists, the very next time the government finds some magic money to fund a new war that it considers important.
So before James Cleverly ventures again into the realms of political metaphor, he might pause to consider at least some of the reasons why this “bitter medicine” rhetoric, applied by powerful politicians to those they govern, is finally being rejected by increasing numbers of voters for the offensive nonsense it is.
In the first place, it is always and everywhere a profoundly inegalitarian line of thought, which seeks to apply to the wider population – and particularly to those most vulnerable, and most dependent on public services – levels of privation that successful politicians would never dream of imposing on themselves, or on anyone they personally know.
In the second place, the idea that punitive economic policies will ultimately do the economy good, by freeing up the private money of the wealthy, is increasingly rejected by almost every significant economic authority on the planet.
In particular, many experts are concerned that applying strict “sound money” principles to economies shattered by the pandemic – in Britain’s case also by Brexit, and in many cases still trapped in stagnation since the financial crisis of 2008-09 – will actually prove ruinous, plunging us into deep recession.
What is needed now is rather a complete reversal of recent Tory policy, and immediate investment of any available funds in the ordinary British people who need it most; that is, in those who are dependent on benefits, and in those in the lower-earning half of the population who are currently facing soaring living costs.
The problem, though – in the third place – is that for those immersed in the dominant culture of the current Tory leadership, policies like those just smack too much of niceness, and of meeting real human need, to be entirely acceptable.
It’s not for nothing that the neoliberal cult to which all recent Tory governments have subscribed is often known as “sado-monetarism”; it represents a dedication to sound money, and to protecting its value above all other priorities, that prides itself at best on being “cruel to be kind”, and at worst on simply being cruel, an attitude which it frames as a demonstration of intelligence and strength, beyond the comprehension of the sentimental masses.
And of course, it is finally not too difficult to see where all of this leads, if it is not stopped; for once a cult of cruelty takes root in economic life, those attitudes inevitably begin to have wider impacts.
Hence the repellent and indeed proto-fascistic comments at Birmingham of Home Secretary Suella Braverman, who – among other things – drooled over the prospect of packing innocent asylum seekers off by plane to Rwanda, and said that it was “her dream”.
This is pure performative cruelty directed against the vulnerable, as dysfunctional as it is dangerous; and anyone with a passing knowledge of 20th century history should understand the need to be extremely wary of it, when it is expressed so vehemently by those in positions of power.
So what is the remedy? Well, in the first place, Scotland as a polity can walk away from this clapped-out national psychodrama of economic submission and bullying, and seek to make a new start, not only for itself, but for the whole political atmosphere of these islands.
In essence, ordinary people across the UK need to stop deferring to a failed boss class and their economic mantras; and start organising and campaigning to protect themselves and their communities from any further asset-stripping and impoverishment, by those whose only aim is to defend the interests of the wealthy.
Come the next UK general election, any political party that is willing to treat ordinary people with respect, and to advance that long campaign for a return to a more egalitarian culture and economy, will be worth voting for; and in the meantime, the people of Britain need to learn fast to stop listening to the clapped-out economic lectures of James Cleverly and his ideological bedfellows, and to start treating them, at last, with the contempt that they so richly deserve.