ECONOMY

Truss will only make the UK more miserable. That could be good

On Monday, we will witness the ritual miracle of Britain’s peaceful transfer of power, from one Conservative leader to the next. The party’s genius is that it keeps reinventing itself and scrambling the country, so that each new Tory prime minister — now, presumably, Liz Truss — feels like a new regime.

There’s more that’s familiar about this moment. As an ex-superpower, Britain swings between hubris and despair. There was war-induced hubris in 1914 and 1982 and despair in 1956 (the Suez Crisis), 1979 (winter of discontent) and the 2008 financial crisis. The vote for Brexit in 2016, uniquely, combined hubris with despair; some Leave voters thought the UK could do without Europe, while others were expressing their pain. Now a hubristic leader is taking charge just as Britain’s economy and public realm melt down. How will that play out?

Even the British term “omnishambles” cannot capture the current despair. Energy bills will rise 80 per cent next month, real wages are lower than in 2007, foreign investment has evaporated since 2016, the trade deficit is the worst on record and the Bank of England predicts a recession lasting more than a year. Given southern Italian levels of productivity outside London and the UK’s self-exile from the world’s largest free-trade zone, Britain’s regions have no obvious long-term economic strategy beyond flogging national heritage to foreigners.

Britain’s public realm, weak since Margaret Thatcher and hollowed out by David Cameron’s austerity, is now collapsing. In an ageing country that had Europe’s lowest healthy life expectancy even before Covid-19, a record 6.7 million people are waiting for hospital-level treatment. Next comes what Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the National Health Service Confederation, predicts will be “the most difficult winter on record”. Labour is forever warning that the Conservatives will privatise the NHS, but instead the Tories are turning Britain into Brazil, impoverishing healthcare to the point that it’s only used by the poor, pushing the wealthy to go private, as they already do for schools. Meanwhile, climate change is biting, immiserated public-sector workers are striking and, in the only modern country to have fully privatised water, companies have soiled the coasts with excrement.

Now inject Truss into the mix. Like most Tory leaders, she has pitched her appeal to well-off people who want tax cuts. That works electorally when such people abound, but Britain is currently following Argentina’s descent from a predominantly middle-class nation into a predominantly precarious one. Like all modern Tory prime ministers, Truss will spend her political energy on managing her own party. Only during brief interludes before elections do Tories worry about beating Labour. And so Truss will follow Boris Johnson in feeding nationalistic hubris to elderly Conservatives. She will commute to Kyiv for photo-ops with Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, because military action remains shorthand for British greatness, even if the UK’s last military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan ended in ignominious withdrawal.

She also wants to push a bill through parliament backsliding on the Northern Ireland protocol, which the UK signed with the EU. That would break international law, which suits Truss as it signals that Britain does what it likes. The legislation probably won’t ever pass, and will take months of parliamentary time away from the UK’s bigger problems. But its purpose is to remobilise Leave voters and embarrass Labour, which tries to pretend Brexit doesn’t exist. Tory leaders need Brexit to remain an unfinished knight’s quest, requiring constant duels with villains, because as every TV writer knows, that’s a better story than proclaiming Brexit finished and having Leavers say, “But you’ve improved it worse!”

Yet longer term, I’m optimistic. At peaks of despair, British policy changes, occasionally even for the better. After Suez, the UK stopped acting abroad without the US; after 1979, Thatcher decimated the trade unions; after 2008, Cameron imposed misconceived austerity. After the next election in about 2024, I expect two positive changes. First, when you’re down you realise you need friends. Though Britain won’t rejoin the EU for decades, it will seek European allies and freer trade. Younger Britons, raised without superpower fantasies, are overwhelmingly pro-EU.

Second, we will see some reversion to the pre-1979 redistributionist UK, with a stronger public realm. For instance, though the UK won’t renationalise energy companies, it will start regulating them tightly, as it did for banks after 2008. I also expect more serious public debate: whereas fake news is growing worldwide, it’s waning in the UK as the tabloids shed readers.

Despair rarely lasts. Hitting rock-bottom can be a productive national moment.

Follow Simon on Twitter @KuperSimon and email him at [email protected]

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