Karl Marx said that everything in history happens twice, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. So what do we say about the third time and the fourth time?
The third time, in the revolving door of British prime ministers since 2016, was the Boris Johnson 24-hour nonstop vaudeville. The fourth was the Liz Truss demolition derby, a thrilling spectacle of crash-bang-wallop that does not last long and leaves the field strewn with wreckage.
Liz Truss claimed to have ‘set out a vision for a low-tax, high-growth economy that would take advantage of the freedoms of Brexit’. This idea of ‘freedom’ as an oligarch’s wet dream was all that remained of the great English revolution of 2016
Johnson turned British politics into a form of entertainment. In that, at least, Truss was a worthy successor: she made quite a show of herself and of her country.
“The alleged aptitude of the English for self-government,” Bernard Shaw wrote in his preface to Androcles and the Lion, “is contradicted by every chapter of their history.” Well, it sure is contradicted by the chapter that opened with the Brexit vote in June 2016.
It is bitterly ironic that the keynote of that revolution was taking back control. At the literal level, the British are about to get, in a matter of months, a second prime minister for whom they did not get to vote.
Meanwhile, the promise of control has been flushed away in a bout of political incontinence with few precedents in any supposedly established democracy. British government has become a multiball pinball game played by a hyperactive idiot on speed.
The bad joke is that, having imagined itself as an oppressed colony breaking away from an evil empire, Britain has ended up like a pantomime version of one of the countries it left so badly prepared for independence
The bad joke is that, having imagined itself as an oppressed colony breaking away from an evil empire — the European Union — Britain has ended up like a pantomime version of one of the countries it left so badly prepared for independence. It looks like a country that was not ready for self-government.
The weirdness of Truss’s fall is that it was both unprecedented and entirely predictable. For a prime minister to resign after just 45 days is breathtaking — except that in her case it was so easy to see it coming.
On September 5th, when Truss was declared the winner of the Tory Party’s leadership contest, I wrote here that she would make Johnson seem a political genius, May a mistress of empathy, David Cameron a beacon of sincerity.
But this was not blinding insight. Everyone knew it — including the fawning newspaper editors who urged their readers to see her as the reincarnation of Margaret Thatcher.
Truss has the personality, and the intellectual acuity, of a fence post. There was no possibility that she would be anything other than an industrial-scale disaster.
So why did she get to be prime minister? Because there was nowhere else for the Brexit project to go. Truss was its necessary death rattle.
In her resignation speech on Thursday, Truss claimed to have “set out a vision for a low-tax, high-growth economy that would take advantage of the freedoms of Brexit”. This idea of “freedom” as an oligarch’s wet dream was all that remained of the great English revolution of 2016.
Brexit created an unlikely coalition, bringing together under one banner disaffected working-class voters, sick of austerity and stagnant living standards, with the hedge-fund elites. It fused the disaffected with the merely affected, the disadvantaged with the highly advantaged, the undereducated with the slick Eton-and-Oxford media grandees.
This was a potent combination, and for a while it seemed to have permanently realigned English politics. But it could not last. The gulf in interests between its two sides was simply too wide to be bridged forever by vapid nationalist sloganeering.
Boris Johnson, for all his flippancy, understood that his blather about a new golden age was not going to keep its grip on red wall voters if they were not seeing real improvements in their own lives and their own communities
Johnson, for all his flippancy, understood that his blather about a new golden age was not going to keep its grip on red wall voters — those traditional Labour supporters, mainly in the northern half of England, who instead backed Johnson’s Conservative Party from 2019 onwards — if they were not seeing real improvements in their own lives and their own communities.
He was too incompetent to make his “levelling up” agenda real, but he did at least grasp that a high-tax, big-state approach was the only way to make Brexit credible on the ground.
All successful right-wing reactionary projects create some kind of economic base among working- and lower-middle-class people. Brexit had to do the same.
When the air went out of the Johnson balloon, that populist energy went with it. No one else could hold the Brexit coalition together.
The Truss ship was all pirate sails and no ballast. Its support base was confined to hedge funds, casino capitalists, right-wing think tanks and the standing army of Tory editors and columnists. It was always going to topple over and sink
All that remained was to ditch the proles and deliver “the freedoms of Brexit” for the rich. Make freedom from the iron grip of Brussels what, in truth, it was always going to be: freedom for the elites to pay less tax and cut labour and environmental standards.
The problem was that, to use another Marxist term, this was a superstructure without a base. There was never any evidence that the working-class voters who delivered Brexit in 2016 and Johnson’s whopping majority in 2019 thought they were voting to give more money to the rich, slash public services and make their own working and natural environments worse.
Neither was there ever much evidence that international capitalism supports the Brexit project. It’s a niche product, beloved of disaster capitalists who make money from chaos.
But for serious long-term investors, it presents only instability and unpredictability. These translate into risk, and risk translates into higher borrowing costs.
It’s over but not over. Brexit is a zombie project. All the political life has been sucked out of it, but it goes on and on, like the walking dead
The Truss ship was thus all pirate sails and no ballast. Its actual support base was confined to hedge funds, casino capitalists, right-wing think tanks and the standing army of Tory editors and columnists. It was always going to topple over and sink.
But not without trace. For Truss has achieved one thing in her 45 days. She has decisively unravelled the realignment of English politics along Brexit lines.
That show can’t go on. It has torn up its leftish-sounding levelling-up script. Its alternative, ultra-neoliberal burlesque was booed off the stage by the very markets the neoliberals purport to adore.
It’s over but not over. Brexit is a zombie project. All the political life has been sucked out of it, but it goes on and on, like the walking dead.
Truss, when she was elected in July, tweeted that she was ‘ready to hit the ground from day one’, before editing this to insert ‘running’. Her first thought was obviously the right one
Until the Tories are ousted, English politics will be just all three episodes of the Hangover franchise playing on a constant loop, with maybe a fourth and a fifth movie to keep it going.
But no one can live forever on Hangover Square. For now Britain is all rueful comedown from the imagined highs of 2016. And it has, indeed, come down a very long way — the falling off is too painful to be funny any more. The search for greatness has ended in humiliation.
Truss, when she was elected in July, tweeted that she was “ready to hit the ground from day one”, before editing this to insert “running”. Her first thought was obviously the right one.
Perhaps that is the consolation for Britain. It has hit the ground with a splat, but at least alongside the pain and shame, there is the feel of solid earth beneath its feet.
There can be no more illusions about the insanity of self-harm, the incompetence of puffed-up fantasists, the wilful ignorance of ideological zealots, the cynicism of amoral opportunists and the unsustainability of an archaic polity in which sclerosis alternates with fits of convulsion.
The reality may be hard to take, but it is now unavoidable. Britain has been entertaining itself to death. If it wants to survive, it has to become, under a Labour government, a serious country again.