The Conservative Party conference was always going to be a festival of bad ideas. Consumed by Brexit, nobody expected anything new or innovative from the Tories. But rather than stick to the usual tired talking points, they seem to have hit upon a new plan: Resurrecting ideas that died decades ago.
Boris Johnson furnishes the usual apposite example. On the fringe of the conference, Johnson gave a Red-baiting speech that would have made Ronald Reagan proud. He even name checked Arthur Laffer, Reagan’s favourite economist. Johnson talked about ‘job creators’ and worried aloud about the threat from a Labour government.
The former foreign secretary got in his usual erudite references, even recruiting the Arab historian Ibn Khaldun for trickle down economics. In Johnson’s expansive reading, it’s a pity he didn’t read Joseph Stiglitz’s recent article on income inequality. If he had, he may have reconsidered his stalwart commitment to Laffer’s discredited theories. He may have learned that demand, not rich people at the top, creates jobs. And he just might have realised that Theresa May’s post-Brexit economic policies will only make inequality worse.
While Johnson stopped short of denouncing Labour as Bolsheviks, the government he once served has just endorsed policies that would make Karl Marx baulk. Theresa May wants the UK to have the lowest corporation tax in the G20 after Brexit, with ‘smart regulations’. What she means is deregulation. This desperate appeal to multinational corporations will now be coupled with the end of free movement. As Stiglitz points out, free movement of capital without free movement of labour tends to lead to lower wages, more deregulation and less union bargaining power. If getting a deal with the EU is hard, wait until the British economy depends on corporate executives with an acute case of short-termism.
In this new Gilded Age of the tech barons, May wants to turn the UK into a corporate bordello. But the regression doesn’t stop there.. The first minister of Northern Ireland, Arlene Foster, whose government hasn’t sat for 20 months, suggested this week that the Good Friday Agreement could be changed to accommodate Brexit. This comes as Chancellor Philip Hammond said the UK will enforce the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland in the event of no deal. The cries of ‘Perfidious Albion’ are starting to grow louder.
Foster’s Democratic Unionist Party is propping up May’s government and it’s no surprise that she’s so cavalier about the peace process and the border. The DUP has never fully accepted the settlement and their unwillingness to negotiate a return to government shows their disregard for the institutions created by it. But the Irish (and the Europeans and the world) thought the British government knew better than to wave hard borders around. British personnel on the border, whether customs agents or troops, would be a step backwards and endanger the fragile peace that exists on the island.
For many of observers looking in from the outside, the Tories seem to be revisiting their greatest hits – all those songs from the 1980s that most people had forgotten. Boris Johnson’s embrace of voodoo economics, Hammond’s oblique threats of British troops on the Irish border, Northern Irish Unionists blithely undermining the peace process, prominent Tories regurgitating Cold War rhetoric about Labour socialism threatening national security and so on and so on and so on. Eighteen years into the 21st century and the Tories are acting like it’s 1983.
It’s easy to joke about the exaggerated rhetoric coming from the modern Conservative Party and we can laugh when a Tory minister makes a ludicrous reference to the USSR, but this is part of a broader trend. This is the Conservative Party that voted with Hungary’s government in the European parliament – a government that has spread anti-Semitic conspiracies, closed newspapers and gutted democratic institutions. This is the Conservative Party that sits with Poland’s Law and Justice Party, which has tried to undermine the independent judiciary. And this is the Conservative Party that refuses to hold a second referendum on Brexit, despite the lies and spending violations that occurred during the first campaign.
When someone shows you who they are, believe them. The Conservatives are showing themselves to be reactionaries who form alliances with those working to undermine democracy. From economic policy to accountability to international relations, the Conservatives are dragging the country backwards.