Britain is not at ease with itself. This is the real takeaway from the fall in Tory support in recent opinion polls. Contrary to popular wisdom, the spectacular and abrupt evisceration of the Government’s double digit lead cannot be explained solely by some sudden popular awakening that Britain is saddled with “the same old sleazy Tories” (this has, in fact, prickled in the back of people’s minds for months, with Covid contract corruption allegations perhaps the most unsettling). Nor does it merely reflect a “leadership problem” at the top.
Unfortunately for the Conservatives, the problem is more profound than that. As it tentatively escapes the Covid emergency, Britain is not entering a brave new world of renewal, but what amounts to an existential crisis. A country riven with anxiety and besieged by problems on seemingly all fronts threatens to follow other Western nations into a void of declinism.
True, the Owen Paterson shambles has raised questions about the PM’s judgement. The cost of Boris Johnson’s mysterious failure to recruit advisers in touch with ordinary opinion is painfully apparent. Unable to control the Whitehall blob, he simulates power by commanding it to spend more money. As the Prime Minister’s fizzy charisma lapses into a more frazzled persona, his personal approval ratings are finally starting to slide.
But all this has been magnified by a much deeper sense of malaise that grips the national psyche.
Hopes of a British vaccine “edge” appear to have evaporated, as growth disappoints amid a business investment slump. We appear condemned to relive the past, saddled with the highest taxation since Clement Attlee and bracing ourselves for a possible winter of discontent.
If the present looks dismally retrograde, the future seems borderline apocalyptic. As Britain doubles-down on the net zero gamble, crippling its industries and piling costs onto consumers, China dodges commitments to phase out coal. Meanwhile, Project Fear is finding its groove again, as official statisticians return to their miserabilist predictions about the impact of Brexit on the economy, and scaremongering about Christmas shortages reaches ecstatic heights.
Britain’s depression is increasingly spiked with a sense of vulnerability. Terror attacks are at risk of becoming banalised due to their frequency. A refugee crisis – which the Westminster bubble is reluctant to discuss too extensively – simmers at our borders. The woke culture war erodes our confidence from within. The Tories’ flippant view that Left-wing virtue signalling is a dead cat with which to distract the electorate, rather than a serious and pernicious phenomenon they must defeat, could soon backfire; a Tory culture war will cut little mustard if people feel that the country’s sense of itself has continued to disintegrate on their watch.
The good news for the Conservatives is that, unlike elsewhere in the West, Britain’s declinism for now remains a vague collective feeling rather than a crystallising national consensus. For all the criticisms of chaotically resilient Johnson, he is only paradoxically weak, in contrast to the poetically weak Joe Biden. The US President is not just overwhelmed by his country’s chaos – from rising inflation to the highest number of illegal southern border crossings in 21 years. He embodies the chaos, as the human symbol of a distracted America’s dwindling influence. If Trump epitomised the raging impotence of a faltering superpower, Biden captures a more genteel acceptance of decline.
Britain is also less susceptible to the kind of fatalism that is sweeping France. There, declinism has taken on almost epic proportions, as the country suffers insults to its global standing, not least its exclusion from the Aukus defence project. This phenomenon is partly cultural: after the traumas of the Revolution, the French have a much keener sense of their history and are more likely to put contemporary humiliations in a historical context. This is something that French journalist turned Right-wing presidential contender Eric Zemmour has exploited skillfully. But it is also partly political: France lacks the equivalent of a Brexit project, affording them the opportunity to “take back control” of the future.
The situation in the UK, then, is not unsalvageable. There remains a chance that we can avoid the fates of France and the US. If anything, Brexit ought to be the UK’s route out of the mire – if only ministers move on from treating it as a mere opportunity to take rhetorical swipes against the Europeans, and finally set out the boosterish, long-term vision for how the UK can thrive outside the EU. This is after all what voters thought they would get when they elected Johnson.
Why not aim to make Britain the most innovative country in the world by 2030, for example? We should be nurturing our AI startup culture, replacing the diabolical GDPR with a sane UK data protection framework, re-establishing Britain as the world leader in clinical trials, innovating aggressively across the board, and putting the overcautious EU to shame on gene edited crops. Or what about a plan to treble the market share of the City of London within a decade, instead of treating Brexit like a damage limitation exercise? Or a strategy to double GDP per capita?
The point is that the Tories need to help the country regain its sense of purpose and optimism. They might even find inspiration north of the border. Although Scotland has its share of post-pandemic problems, its disciplined focus on innovation niches, on everything from fintech to space projects, is paying off. Foreign investment projects grew 6 per cent last year, compared with a 12 per cent dip in the UK as a whole. Nicola Sturgeon is weaving such achievements into a rousing narrative of the Scottish nation’s fourth industrial reawakening.
The UK’s fundamentals remain sound. The Government still has an opportunity to turn things around. But if the Tories don’t act, the sense that the nation is going to the dogs will eventually cost them, as it did New Labour. Back then, voters could no longer tolerate the country being run on snakeoil, held together by sub-prime mortgages and spin. Nor will the electorate forgive the Conservatives for letting “Britain Unleashed” spiral into “Britain Unhinged”.