The 80-strong Tory majority in Parliament looks formidable. But at the heart of this government is an insurmountable contradiction. The Tories were historically the far-sighted political representatives of the British ruling class. But the 2019 election has completed the transformation of the Tory party into a short-sighted, petty-bourgeois, ultra-reactionary outfit.
Such a party is not completely under the control of big business and the strategists of capital. Boris Johnson is still considered an unreliable maverick and opportunist by the establishment. A clash is coming between the ruling class and its supposed political representatives. The repercussions of this will put all previous Tory crises in the shade.
There are four indicators of the coming collision between the Tories and the capitalist class. The first is the so-called ‘One Nation Conservatism’ that Johnson is attempting to adopt to shore up his newly won support in the north. The second is the composition of the Tory MPs who make up his majority. The third is the little Englander nationalism that saturates the party. And the fourth is the reactionary social views of many Tory MPs.
The transformation of the Conservative Party
For decades the Tory party was the most stable bourgeois party in Europe. The success of the Tories reflected the power and confidence of Britain’s ruling class, ruling over a quarter of the globe through the Empire. They planned out the future of British capitalism in terms of decades and continents, so far-sighted were the establishment and its political representatives.
The economic and political legacy of this imperial power lasted into the middle of the 20th Century. However, by the 1970s, in the face of economic crisis and the growing threat of the labour movement, short-sightedness and panic gripped the ruling class.
The election Thatcher - the shopkeeper’s daughter - as Tory leader gave expression to this. Long-term investment and strategy was thrown out the window, replaced by an explosion of parasitic financial speculation, accompanied by a vicious assault on the working class.
Thus began a shift to the hard right in the Tories. It was initiated to reflect the needs of the ruling class at one particular moment, but inevitably took on a life of its own.
Accompanying this was a move away from Tory leaders being selected by the upper-class ‘men in grey suits’. Instead, leaders were elected - first by Tory MPs, and later by giving the membership a say as well. This further shifted control of the party away from the ruling class.
Conflict within the party has simmered ever since the rise of Thatcher - most often expressing itself over the question of the European Union.
David Cameron called the EU referendum in 2016 in an attempt to settle this conflict in favour of the openly bourgeois, liberal establishment wing of the party. But this turned out to be an enormous gamble - one that backfired enormously, as Leave voters delivered the PM and the Westminster elite a giant kick in the teeth.
This historic defeat was followed by the disastrous leadership of Theresa May, whose premiership was characterised by paralysis between the pro- and anti-establishment factions of the party. After suffering a devastating blow in the 2017 election, the Tory leader went on to record a series of humiliating defeats in Parliament over her ill-fated Brexit deal, before eventually falling on her sword.
Boris Johnson swooped in and opportunistically seized the leadership of the anti-establishment faction of the party. During the 2016 referendum campaign, his response to big business’ fears about Brexit was: “Fuck business”. These were not the words of a reliable representative of British capitalism. Instead, Johnson was propelled to the leadership of the party thanks to the support of its reactionary grassroots.
Once installed there, he soon removed the whip from 21 Tory MPs - including nine former cabinet ministers - who were part of the ‘moderate’ wing of the party. All of his cabinet ministers had to agree to his ‘putting no deal on the table’ negotiating strategy, which terrified the British ruling class. With his prorogation of Parliament, even the Financial Times - normally a sober-minded mouthpiece of the capitalist class - was forced to call for Johnson’s Tory government to be brought down.
As a result of this ruthlessness, every new Tory MP elected in 2019 campaigned under the slogan ‘Get Brexit Done’. Yet Brexit poses an enormous threat to the profits of by British big business.
Johnson has therefore bulldozed over the wing of the Tory party that has most faithfully represented the interests of the British ruling class. He has thrown them out of the party and ignored the pleas of big business and the banks. The process that Thatcher began, Johnson has completed. And this has put the strategists of capital on edge.
One Nation Conservatism
It may seem contradictory that Johnson has tried to paint himself as a ‘One Nation’ Conservative since the election. One Nation Toryism is a pre-Thatcherite, paternalistic ideology in which the capitalist class is supposed to ‘look after’ the working class.
The reason is that the Tory majority is now largely based on MPs representing working-class constituencies in some of the most deprived parts of the country, in the north, the Midlands, and Wales. Already these MPs are demanding massive investment into their areas to reverse the worst effects of decades of deindustrialisation and 10 years of Tory austerity.
The new Conservative MP for Warrington South said: “As a newly elected member for the north-west of England I am going to be fighting very, very hard to get funding here. We need rail infrastructure; we need road infrastructure.”
Likewise, the new Tory MP for Bury North: “More money for public services, more money into our brilliant schools, more money into NHS services and more police on our streets.” The new parliamentary representatives for Workington and Blyth Valley have similarly demanded more investment in transport and energy infrastructure in their constituencies.
Thatcherite attacks on these communities (many of which are former mining or industrial areas) or further Cameron-style austerity would set the PM up for an almighty conflict with his new MPs.
It was Benjamin Disraeli - in power during the second-half of the 19th Century - who coined the phrase ‘One Nation Conservatism’, in an effort to appeal to the working class as the franchise was being extended.
With capitalism in crisis, inequality rising, and the middle class increasingly being hollowed out, Johnson now has no choice but to attempt to place himself in this tradition. But this will all end in tears for the Tories.
In the past, One Nation Conservatism had a material basis. The British capitalist class could afford to grant some improvements to the living standards of the working class in Britain, thanks to the super-exploitation of millions of people under its colonial rule. The British Empire and the dominance of British capitalism were the material basis for One Nation Conservatism.
Today, British imperialism is a third-rate power - soon to be fourth-rate after Brexit. Though it remains an imperialist power, it is a fading one. The British ruling class is no longer in a position to dominate the world economy and use the proceeds to buy social peace back home, as it once did.
In fact, British capitalism today is weaker than ever. In the second quarter of 2019, Britain’s economic growth was the weakest of any G7 nation. During the crisis of 2008-09, Britain was one of the hardest hit of any advanced economy, due to its dependence on finance and services. From being the workshop of the world, Britain has become a rentier economy, living parasitic on real production in other places. In short, the material basis for One Nation Conservatism no longer exists.
After the 2008 slump, Tory austerity under Cameron and Osborne hit hardest the constituencies now represented by Tory MPs. This was not a political choice, but an economic necessity for capitalism to survive the crisis.
Since then nothing has been resolved on the economic front - and a new world slump is on the horizon. Under these circumstances, Johnson’s ‘One Nation’ promises will collide with the iron laws of capitalism in crisis. A Tory party based on support in the most deprived areas of the country will buckle under the impact of further cuts and attacks.
A party of the petty bourgeoisie
The old Tory party based itself on a fusion of landowners and industrialists - the two wings of the British ruling class. The leaders of the Tories were drawn from the old aristocracy - those who could rise above the immediate interests of ‘money-making’ and defend the general interests of British capitalism.
Johnson has now jettisoned some of these types. Sir Nicholas Soames, son of Lord and Lady Soames and grandson of Sir Winston Churchill, had the Tory whip removed by Johnson and decided not to stand in the 2019 election. The same was true for Dominic Grieve, great-grandson of Baronet Sir George Roberts. Grieve also had the whip removed, before running as an independent and losing his seat to the official Conservative candidate.
These figures have been replaced by a new intake of 109 Tory MPs who - far from being industrialists or landowners - are in many cases simply small business owners. The new MP for Meriden is a director in his family accountancy firm; Hyndburn’s MP is a former sandwich shop owner; Tory MPs in Peterborough, Penistone & Stockbridge, Bolton North East, Keighley, and Bridgend all ran their own consultancy firms; the new MP for Don Valley has his own electrical contracting business; the MP in Dudley North is a small business owner and a local landlord.
This is a problem for the strategists of British capitalism. In an article from 25 November 2019 entitled Beware the dawn of the corporate dead, the Financial Times highlights one of the biggest problems facing economies around the world: low interest rates. Britain currently has a historically low interest rate of 0.75%. This makes borrowing cheaper and allows companies that are not productive or profitable to survive as ‘zombies’.
Such weak companies tend to be smaller ones struggling against their big business competitors. In recent years, the average profit for small businesses in Britain has decreased, while profits for the biggest companies have increased. With the approaching economic shocks of Brexit and a world slump, big business will be able to absorb the blows. But the small zombie companies represented by many of the new Tory MPs will face bankruptcy.
Under these circumstances, the interests of big business and smaller businesses will collide. The old Tory party would have based itself on big business and the general strategic interests of British capitalism. But Johnson’s new Tory party is based on the petty-bourgeois small business owners, whose narrow-minded frenzy in the face of economic crisis will threaten the stability of British capitalism as a whole.
The full name of the Tory party is the Conservative and Unionist Party. The old Tory party proudly defended the unity of the United Kingdom. The partnership between the English and Scottish ruling classes was profitable for both, with Glasgow becoming the second city of the British Empire. And the partition of Ireland on the basis of reactionary sectarianism was important for the British ruling class, allowing them to hold onto British imperialism’s economic and strategic interests in the north.
Defending the ‘national interests’ of the entire UK was part of One Nation Conservatism. Thanks to the spoils of Empire and the post-war upswing, living standards rose across the whole country. As a result, in 1955 the Tories won over 50% of the Scottish vote and 36 of the 71 Scottish seats.
Beginning under Thatcher, as British capitalism went into decline and the middle-class social base of the Conservatives dwindled, the Tory party was increasingly forced to lean upon reactionary English nationalism for support. Anti-EU rhetoric, the Troubles in Ireland, and the Falklands War all contributed to this tendency. Meanwhile, Thatcher’s domestic policies - attacking the labour movement, taking on the miners, and allowing industry to be mothballed - led to the collapse of the Tories in Scotland.
Today, only 20 of the Tories’ 365 MPs come from outside England. Little Englander nationalism has gripped the rank-and-file of the party. Earlier this year, 59% of the Tory membership said they would rather see Northern Ireland leave the UK than see Brexit threatened. A staggering 63% said the same about Scotland. So much for the Conservative and Unionist Party.
What began as a useful political tool has now taken on a life of its own. Today, the hard-right English nationalism of the Tories is reaching new heights under Johnson. His proposed Brexit deal will draw a border in the Irish Sea, cutting off Northern Ireland. His belligerent refusal to grant a second referendum on Scottish independence - combined with the SNP’s dominant position north of the border - brings a constitutional crisis into view.
This English nationalism has brought Johnson some admirers. Tommy Robinson, former leader of the far-right English Defence League, has applied to join the Tories since the election. The fringe fascist group Britain First is also encouraging its members to join the party “to secure Johnson’s leadership”. And the former leader of UKIP in Scotland has attempted to join the party.
Such rabid nationalists have strong representation within the parliamentary party. Almost all of the 109 new Tory MPs are hard-line Brexiteers who pine after the ‘good old days’ of the British Empire. The new MP for Wolverhampton South profited handsomely from the 2003 invasion of Iraq by running security for US government officials. Meanwhile, the new MPs for Wrexham, Broxtowe, and Bracknell are all ex-military, ‘Queen and Country’ types.
This new intake has leadership from the MP for Plymouth Moor View, also a former army officer. He opposes all investigations into crimes committed by British soldiers. So vociferous is his opposition that he threatened to quit the Tory party under Theresa May unless it stopped the prosecution of British soldiers for atrocities committed in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. Sure enough, under Johnson, one of the first pieces of legislation the Tories have announced guarantees precisely this.
From the point of view of the ruling class, by basing himself on these narrow-minded English nationalists, Johnson is playing with fire. Constitutional crises are implicit in such nationalist rhetoric. This would threaten not just this or that party, but the entire framework of the British establishment.
The ruling class will be looking nervously at the parallels between the insurrectionary movement provoked by the Catalan national question and the Tory approach to Scotland. Meanwhile, opening sectarian wounds in Northern Ireland, at the same time as cutting it off from Britain, is a recipe for acute political crises.
Reactionary social views
Since Thatcher, the Tories have increasingly - and justifiably - earnt themselves the reputation of ‘the nasty party’. David Cameron attempted to detoxify the Tory brand through ‘greenwashing’, legalising gay marriage, and ‘hugging hoodies’. But under Johnson, the party is set to drop this cuddly façade and openly return to the old draconian days.
Johnson’s own racism and homophobia are well documented. His Home Secretary, Priti Patel, has previously declared her support for the death penalty. The leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg, explained that the residents of Grenfell tower only died because they lacked common sense. Another colleague, meanwhile, explained to the press that he wouldn’t have died in the tragic fire because he’s “very clever”.
The new intake of Tory MPs is of the same breed. During the election campaign, the new Ashfield MP demanded that “nuisance tenants” be forced to live in “a tent, in the middle of a field” and be made to “pick potatoes”. The new MP for South Cambridgeshire has previously written articles claiming that immigration was the cause of HIV in Britain. Meanwhile, the Tory MP for Hastings & Rye claimed during the campaign that disabled people should be paid less than the minimum wage because “some people with learning difficulties, they don’t understand money”.
The new MP for Bury South has demanded tougher sentences for criminals, while his new colleague in Aylesbury is himself a former prison director and local magistrate. They are joined by a new Tory MP in Orpington whose central policy is to increase police numbers.
The Tories and the ruling class have never had anything but contempt for working-class people. They have always demonised and criminalised workers and minorities in order to keep them divided and afraid. But for the strategists of capital, it’s best not to be too open about these things.
The sober-minded ruling class representatives will be worried that one of these out-of-touch ‘swivel-eyed loons’ might one day express their disgusting opinions about the working class publicly, provoking fury and outrage amongst the masses. In October 2019, postal workers in Merseyside held a wildcat strike over racist comments by a manager, for example. In the pressure-cooker of a Tory government and economic crisis, the smallest spark could ignite a blaze.
The coming crisis
For all these reasons outlined, the British ruling class has less control over the Tory party than ever before. Johnson has completed the transformation begun by Thatcher, turning the Conservative party into one riddled with short-sightedness, English nationalism, and a viciously reactionary, petty-bourgeois outlook.
Brexit and a world economic slump are looming. These - combined with the struggles of the working class on the industrial front and on the streets in the coming period - mean that is staring disaster in the face. The coming clash between the party and the interests of British capitalism threatens to shatter it permanently.
Far from being ‘strong and stable’, therefore, this new Tory government is a colossus with feet of clay. Boris Johnson’s parliamentary majority has dynamite built into its foundations. And it won’t be long until this combustible cocktail explodes.
It is up to us in the labour movement to prepare for this. This means building a strong, radical, socialist Labour party that can take advantage of the splits and divisions that will open up inside the Tory party.
The terminal crisis of capitalism has reduced the traditional party of British capitalism to reactionary froth and hot air, with nothing of substance to base itself on. In contrast, Labour must pledge to break with capitalism - to break with the rotten status quo, and base itself on the new, socialist world that is struggling to be born.