January 13, 2022

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The inability to organise a piss-up in a brewery is the definition of uselessness; however, Boris Johnson’s government seems determined to break new ground. 

Back in the spring of 2020, with the whole country under lockdown, it was vitally important that Downing Street did not organise a piss-up. But they screwed up. Around a hundred people were invited, by a senior civil servant, to bring a bottle to a party at the heart of Whitehall. Brilliant.

Now that this has come to light, the media narrative is dominated by charges of hypocrisy. In Prime Minister’s Questions this week, Keir Starmer picked up the point and rammed it home with merciless efficiency. Johnson could do nothing but accept “full responsibility”, which is Westminster-speak for “please don’t sack me”.

But hypocrisy isn’t the biggest problem here. Rather, it’s incompetence — and not only the Prime Minister’s. How could the system allow, let alone enable, this needless act of self-destruction? Voters expect their leaders to bend the rules, even to break them occasionally. Within reasonable limits, it needn’t prove fatal. What does kill a government’s authority, however, is it’s failure to get a grip — especially on itself.

It’s hard to say how much longer Boris can hang on, but that’s not the main question anymore. What should really concern the political establishment is what emerges from the chaos. 

For this is an age of upheavals. Political failure is punished with previously unimaginable consequences. There was the rise of Jeremy Corbyn in 2015; the Leave victory in 2016; the fall of the Red Wall in 2019. I don’t think we’ve seen the last of it. If voters don’t get what they want from Boris, then the result could be another almighty shock to the system.

So what do voters want? Well, they’ve already told us — they want to “take back control”. Unfortunately, this message has been misinterpreted, above all by the Right-wing free marketeers who claim to speak for Brexit Britain. When the country voted for change in 2016 and 2019, it wasn’t a vote for personal freedom, it was a vote by people who want a government — a British government — with the strength to exercise control on their behalf. 

Indeed, for all the talk of human rights on the Left or “ancient British liberties” on the Right, the dirty little secret of British politics is that the typical British voter is an authoritarian, not a libertarian. We do need to be careful about terminology here. By authoritarian I don’t mean fascist. What I do mean is a “predisposition toward social conformity and security at the expense of individual autonomy and diversity”, as Erik Tillman defines it. 

If you had any doubts about the strength of that predisposition among British voters, you only have to look at the opinion polling on Covid matters. Consider, for instance, the issues raised by Novak Djokovic controversy. According to YouGov, six in ten Britons say that “sportspeople should have received two doses (19%) or three doses (42%) of the coronavirus vaccine to be able to play in sports events”. Only 22% said that sports people should be able to compete regardless of vaccination status.

Compulsory vaccination is another example. Vaccine mandates are coming into force across much of continental Europe, but would the British people — those doughty defenders of liberty — wish to go down the same road? You bet! According to the Deltapoll end-of-year survey, 56% of us support vaccine mandates against 32% who oppose them. There’s strong support for vaccine passports too (65%) and even for making people wear masks in outdoor public spaces (63%).

Could it be that Covid policy is an exception to a broader pattern? Well, let’s look at some authoritarian policies that have nothing to do with Covid: CCTV in all public spaces; compulsory ID cards; keeping a record of everyone’s fingerprints; and keeping a record of everyone’s DNA. YouGov polling shows that a majority of Britons support all four of these measures. When the question is appended with the words “to tackle crime” or “to combat terrorism” the level of support goes even higher.

Or take the issue of illegal immigration across the Channel. When YouGov asked the public what should be done about it, there was 47% support for the offshore processing of asylum seekers, with 33% opposed. Intercepting boats and pushing them back to France received 61% support; while refusing applications from individuals who could have claimed asylum in another country got 68% backing.  

There are many things that Boris Johnson’s government can be accused of, but dragging an unwilling population into a “police state” is not one of them. Ministers have consistently run behind public opinion in the authoritarianism of the decisions they have made. The policies offered by Keir Starmer aren’t much different. In the hope of getting ahead of the Government, Labour have shown more enthusiasm for lockdowns, but they’ve also shied away from the hardline stuff such as compulsory vaccination. 

What about the populist alternative to the Westminster establishment? Doesn’t the Brexiteer vanguard have something more radical to say? It does indeed — but in completely the opposite direction. Nigel Farage, Richard Tice, Laurence Fox and what’s left of Ukip have all taken a libertarian position on Covid policy — condemning the Government for unjustly depriving us of our freedoms.

The last two years have challenged the false equivalence between populism and authoritarianism. In this country, at least, the most prominent of our populist politicians have demonstrated anti-authoritarian instincts. Perhaps they thought there might be some votes in it — a new cause to take the place of Brexit. But, if so, they’ve miscalculated. As Sunder Katwala points out, there’s an awkward mismatch between the stance that Farage has taken on Covid policy and the sort of people who used to vote for him. Support for hardline measures such as compulsory vaccination is somewhat higher among Leavers than Remainers, and much higher among the old than the young.

What this leaves us with is a rather uncomfortable and potentially dangerous fact: the most under-represented element in the British electorate is the authoritarian tendency. You don’t need to like this to see that it’s true. Indeed, it’s the liberal establishment — which has the most to lose — that most needs to sit up and take notice. There’s a gap in the political market and sooner-or-later someone is going to fill it. The only uncertainty is who.

It is possible that one of the Brexity populist politicians is going to break loose from the pack and make an overtly authoritarian pitch to the voters. But I doubt it. A populist movement that exists outside (and in opposition to) the establishment lacks credibility as a party of government.

It’s more likely that a disruptive offer will arise from within the system. After all, it’s happened before — when Tony Blair hijacked the Labour Party in 1994. Then, as now, there was a gap in the political market, which Blair filled with New Labour.  This was, for its time, an authoritarian programme of government. It combined a massive expansion of state funding for schools and hospitals with tough language on law and order. Military intervention became the cornerstone of foreign policy; and, on the home front, plans were made for compulsory ID cards and the extension of detention without charge. 

For a while, it was wildly successful. The opposition was reduced to a rump and Tony Blair achieved scarily high levels of personal popularity. It all came to grief in the end, but not before we’d been led into a disastrous foreign war and a financial crisis from which we’ve never fully recovered. 

Could something similar happen again? It depends on the desperation of the main parties. It might be Labour who get tired of losing and turn to a new Tony Blair. But thanks to Boris Johnson, it could be the Tories who snap first and yield to the smack of firm government. After all, what’s the point of winning if you can’t get anything done?