In the space of four years, the institutions of British liberalism suffered a triple-whammy which may ultimately turn out to be fatal. The 2016 referendum was a full-on assault on the democratic credentials and constitutional pre-eminence of parliament. The resulting wreckage produced the conditions for the Johnson leadership, that would have been scarcely thinkable under any different circumstances. Then, almost as if the Gods wished to teach Britain some brutal lesson about the consequences of sacrificing competence for entertainment, a pandemic arrived.
To grasp how much has changed in this short historical window, consider it as follows. A core driver of that 2016 rupture was a profound, and in many ways understandable, alienation from the democratic and bureaucratic institutions that make up the British state, though this was cynically reframed by the right-wing press and prominent Brexiteers as a cultural failing of specific ‘elites’. Either way, it is now clear (and should have been much earlier) that large swathes of British, and especially English, society felt unrepresented and lied to.
A little over four years later, however, and the problem is quite different. A mentality of suspicion and disillusionment, that once would have been witnessed amongst those furthest from power, is now being expressed by the ‘liberal elites’ themselves. The worry that the ‘official’ version of events conceals something else altogether is no longer the preserve of the disenfranchised or the conspiracy theorist, but is spreading amongst those in positions of influence and cultural privilege. The infamous tweet that appeared briefly on the official civil service account in May, asking “can you imagine working with these truth twisters?” spoke of how the crisis of credibility was now internal to the machinery of government, rather than external.
Permanent Secretaries have departed their posts, as it becomes clear that their political independence is no longer accepted. City Mayors and MPs have been aghast to discover that lockdown plans for the regions they represent are disseminated anonymously to journalists, before being discussed with political representatives. Anecdotally, I’ve been struck by how many people – who would never entertain typical conspiracy theories – refuse to download the NHS COVID-19 app, on the basis that it isn’t all that it seems. The way the NHS brand is being instrumentalised (a tactic that Vote Leave pioneered with impunity) is indicative of how people’s trust and solidarity is being used against them. This isn’t a process that can be simply reversed.
For the many people, on both the left and the right, who never felt duped by the integrity of liberalism in the first place, these developments might appear like a healthy disillusionment. What, after all, are people really trusting when they place trust in ‘the state’? The pandemic has cast a fresh and unforgiving light on Britain’s vast and lucrative out-sourcing industry, but the reach of Serco et al is far from new. It was back in the early 1990s that many social scientists proposed that ‘the state’ was merely a metaphor or effect, that concealed a web of interlocking contracts and providers. One of the leading scholars in this regard was political scientist Rod Rhodes, author of a 1996 paper with the prescient subtitle, “governing without government”.
Be that as it may, the mass confidence that there is such a thing as a ‘nation state’, with generally recognised legitimacy, is a powerful illusion that allows us to be governed as we do. Antonio Gramsci’s notion of ‘hegemony’ implies that the modern state will seek to govern via consent as much as possible, which is established with the aid of the media, civil society and a socially acceptable form of economic regulation. What we’re witnessing in Britain today is the disintegration of ‘the state’ as we previously imagined it (not least, in a geographic sense, as policies splinter region by region) and a crumbling of the conditions of any possible hegemony. For better or worse (and many of us fear the latter), this will alter how power works.
How has the Brexit, Boris, Covid triple-whammy combined to achieve this? When Rhodes and others were analysing decentralised networks of ‘governance’ in the 1990s, this coincided with the surge of public sector marketization that was built on the foundations laid by Margaret Thatcher. PFI, outsourcing and targets permeated the public sector with a logic of efficiency and return on investment. The ideology known as ‘neoliberalism’ sees politics (its rhetoric, modes of judgement, rituals and so on) ousted by economics. But in its ecstatic refusal of any economic rationality, Brexit punctured the credibility of this programme.
With the addition of the Johnson-Cummings leadership, government is now just as reliant on the private sector as it ever was, only now without that veneer of economic rationality or justification. It is almost as if, following thirty years of rampant de-politicisation of public service delivery, we are now seeing a sudden jolt of re-politicisation, but with the requisite politics being fidelity to Brexit and Downing Street. As the neoliberal mantra of ‘transparency’ (typically meaning value for money assessments) collapses, we increasingly fall back on our own personal suspicions, especially those of us who are paying close attention.
Then take the extraordinary political challenge presented by the coronavirus itself, which is one vast collective action problem. Nation states can be understood as solutions to such problems, to the extent that they achieve peace within their borders and mobilise people en masse towards war. To the great surprise of many behaviorists advising the government, this residual power of state enforcement and national mobilisation was witnessed over the spring, as people dutifully put their lives on hold for weeks on end. The state ‘effect’ had one last hurrah.
But as details have emerged regarding individual restrictions and policy measures, suspicions have flourished. Where exactly is the evidence for why certain parts of the country are suffering stricter rules than others? What does it mean, that certain cultural pass-times or venues are rescued, while others are abandoned or forced to close? What has been the public benefit of all the money thrown at Nightingale Hospitals, PPE and ventilator contracts and data analysis? Johnson is left making half-hearted appeals to a spirit of national solidarity, while being one of the major reasons collective action is breaking down.
Unable to govern via consent, Johnson will inevitably become more reliant on force and secretive decision-making instead. But perhaps the biggest factor in that relates back to Johnson’s lifelong weakness: the lure of tomorrow’s newspaper headline. The thread running through this generalised crisis of trust is a political coterie that believes all problems can be solved by storytelling and distraction, regardless of consistency. Rather than using the media to manufacture consent (as the title of the famous Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky book had it), Johnson uses it to manufacture confusion – an effective way of getting through the day, but a disastrous way of getting through the winter.
Thatcherism has long been accused of weakening the bonds of society through shrinking the state. Johnsonism could produced further fragmentation, but via different means. It’s not the size of the state that is shrinking (certainly not as a proportion of GDP), but its integrity and credibility in the eyes of the public. And a state that no longer appears like a single unified entity, but rather a set of private contractors, anonymous briefings and political strategies, is no longer an effective modern state at all.
Originally drafted 16th October 2020