Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016


Saturday, 30 November 2019

Will UK voters really vote for the Republican party and our own Donald Trump?


There is so much about today’s Conservative party that is very similar to the Republican party in the US. To establish this, there is no better place to start than our future Prime Minister for the next five years, if polls are to be believed.

Trump and Johnson are both inveterate liars. They lie when they have no need to, just for effect. To take some recent examples. He told Andrew Marr that the Tories don't do deals with other parties, when everyone can remember the Coalition government and the DUP. (Marr, as so often with interviewers, let that pass.) Johnson has said that the extra money he has allowed for the health service is the biggest boost for a generation. In fact it is smaller than the increase in spending from Labour from 2004 onwards. There are many like this. He has lied all his life, and been sacked from jobs twice for doing so. He lies about lying! No UK politician in living memory has lied like this.

A consequence of that is you cannot trust a word he says. When he and his ministers say that the NHS will not be part of any trade negotiations with the US, it means nothing. Brexit puts the UK in a very weak position because the political costs of walking away, while the costs for the US are zero. So of course the NHS and things that affect the NHS will be part of any trade deal.

When he says that he will get a trade deal with the EU in just a year he is lying. It is just not possible given the reasons the Conservatives want to leave the EU. So voters will have to decide which lie he will choose: to break his undertaking not to extend the transition period or to leave with no deal.

Like Trump, Johnson treats the economy, and the consequent wellbeing of everyone in it, as a plaything for his own ends. With Trump this involves imposing tariffs because of his 15th century understanding of economics. With Johnson he chose Brexit on a toss up about what would advance his own ambitions. He then championed the hardest of Brexits because it appealed to those who would vote him leader of his party. But there is a difference: Brexit is far more harmful than anything Trump has managed.

Where Trump wants to increase coal production in the US, Johnson wants to stop any increases in fuel duty. Johnson didn’t attend a leaders debate on climate change.

Johnson, like Trump, is totally lacking in empathy for others, and is only interested in himself. Johnson thought nothing of helping a friend beat up a journalist. His personal life matters because it reflects the kind of person he is.

Like Trump, he has no time or respect for people who disagree with him. He shut down parliament because it was getting in his way. In his manifesto he now threatens to curtail the ability of the law to stop him doing what he and his party want. Johnson and the Conservatives, like Trump and the Republicans, are a threat to democracy.

Like Trump, he and his party want a totally compliant media. They have put so much pressure on the BBC that parts of it now do what they can to flatter Johnson and the Conservative cause. They have threatened Channel4 because they put a block of ice in his place when he failed to turn up to that leaders debate on climate change.

Like Trump, Johnson hates scrutiny. They both would much rather talk to an adoring party faithful than take part in critical questioning. In this election, Johnson has avoided questions from the press as much as he can, has avoided debates, and is avoiding an interview with one of the best interviewers around.

One reason they both hate scrutiny is their inability to concentrate on the details, the kind of details he got wrong such that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe remains in jail. This is one reason they sent Gove rather than Johnson to do the climate change debate. Johnson is as mentally unsuitable to be Prime Minister as Trump is to be President.

Republicans in Congress with few exceptions defend Trump. Conservative MPs do the same for Johnson without exception, now that the few Conservatives with some attachment to One Nation Conservatism have been driven out of the party. The Republicans never pretend to govern for the whole country, but just for what some of them call Real America. The Conservatives with Brexit have adopted the same policy. A narrow victory for Leave, obtained in the most dubious referendum ever, has become a mandate for the hardest of Brexits, and with a referendum on the final deal ruled out.

Both parties adopt divide and rule tactics, yet play the nationalist card for all its worth. To conceal and distract from far right economic policies designed to help the 1% wealthiest in the population, by a party financed by the even wealthier, they focus on attracting votes from the xenophobic and racist. The Conservatives have seen off the threat from the Brexit party by adopting the Brexit party. It was probably the votes of ex-Brexit party members that helped secure Johnson his leadership.

The Republicans play the race card and the Tories play the immigration card, something they have done since the turn of this century. Once you do that, it is inevitable that you end up with a party leaders who are themselves racist. Whatever you think about Corbyn, it is Johnson who has expressed racial slurs like calling Muslim women letterboxes, talked about black people as 'piccaninnies' with 'watermelon smiles', Nigerians as money obsessed. (Not to mention his homophobic and sexist comments, and his description of working class men as drunk, criminal and feckless, and what he originally wrote about Hillsborough victims and single mothers.)

In the US Trump gets away with his behaviour among many because of his money and fame, and in the UK Johnson gets away with it among many because of his class and jokes. Both are where they are because they were given huge head starts, Trump through inheritance and Johnson through class, and have subsequently had careers which are dotted with failure. But once you see beyond the fame and jokes, they are both authoritarians who see nothing wrong in stoking fears about minorities to get the majority to vote for them, and in abusing the constitution to get their way. You might say that it is Trump not Johnson who is threatened with impeachment, but I have lost count of the legal cases about his actions that have been conveniently postponed for this election.

What too many commentators on this election fail to see is the potential irreversibility of this decline into right wing authoritarian rule. With most newspapers pushing out propaganda for the Conservatives and the BBC successfully tamed, the Conservatives now have a sufficient block to any real scrutiny of their policies or behaviour. In the next five years their manifesto suggests they hope to tame anyone else who gets in their way.

The Conservatives have ensured that enough people in this country see and read want they want them to see and read. Soon we will see attempts to introduce nationwide voter ID simply because it helps the Conservatives. It is wishful thinking to say ‘if only we had another Labour leader they would be miles ahead’ - just remember Ed Miliband who lost an election because the media conveniently decided austerity was good economics. [1]

Next year the people of the United States will have their chance to get rid of the worst US president in living memory. We have the chance to stop our own Trump, Boris Johnson, before he gets five years in which he could do irreversible harm to our economy, our democracy, our union and our civil society. The danger in both countries is that they keep their Trump/Johnson, and get locked into permanent authoritarian right wing rule similar to what we see in Hungary and Poland.

Alarmist? Johnson shut down parliament to get his way! When Brexit fails to be the promised land Johnson has promised and when the UK’s potential fails to be unleashed, who will the Conservatives blame for their own failure? How much will they give away to get a US trade deal? Johnson, like Trump, is in the words of a BBC interviewer in braver times a ‘nasty piece of work’, whose only interest is in helping himself. It says a lot about what the UK has become that he looks like getting elected to be Prime Minister.

[1] Of course there were other reasons Miliband lost. He was unpopular, like every Labour leader over the past 40 years has been unpopular except the one who did a deal with the Tory press. And in the final days he was said to be in the pocket of Alex Salmond, even though the SNP have said they will never put a Tory PM into power so their bargaining strength is zero. The broadcast media went with the Tory's SNP story rather than Labour highlighting the (we now know very real) threat to the NHS. 


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