Great Britain

Johnson's first 100 days

WHILE the attention of the entire labour movement, much of the press and even a fair bit of the public is focused on the Labour leadership election the new government has embarked on its first hundred days in office.

We should pay attention. Johnson has let it be known that he wants his ministers to concentrate on departmental business and get on with the job.

With a Cabinet that includes no powerful enemies or obvious rivals Johnson has more prime ministerial power within his grasp than any of his immediate Tory predecessors.

The corollary to his decision to delegate departmental authority and clamp down on ministerial media contact suggests that the critical core of the machinery of government will be concentrated closer to hand with mainstream messaging directed from Number Ten.

Much of the left, especially the liberal left — and particularly that sliver which still smarts at the drubbing that Johnson’s unerringly targeted Get Brexit Done tactic delivered — is consumed with outrage at Johnson’s supposed Trumpian political identity.

But Johnson is a more complex character and an infinitely more nuanced politician than this simplistic rendering allows.

The clue lies firstly in his extravagant amorality. As a journalist, as mayor of London and as a politician, fidelity to the truth barely figured. In this, it is true, we can see a parallel with the narcissist over the water.

But with Trump the true persona appears closer to the surface than it does with Johnson where style is strictly subordinated to political purpose.

The real movers and shakers in big business and the banks — and their outliers in the state machine, the media and the foreign policy establishment — have concluded that the critical issue now is not whether or not Britain should be in the EU but how close it should be. It is here that there may be trouble.

These things always depend on the balance of power between the contending forces, but with a solid Tory parliamentary majority the Westminster obsession, to turn the clock back and keep the prospect of actual membership of the political institutions of the EU alive, has been abandoned by all but the most obtuse of Labour MPs. Even Jess Phillips claims no longer to be an “uber Remainer.”

Sajid Javid has told the Financial Times that Britain will not be in alignment with the EU, nor will it be in the single market or the customs union. This is more mood music than precise policy-making.

Given the powerful forces at play it is more likely that the most intransigent elements on the European Research Group end of the parliamentary Tory Party will discover that getting Johnson’s Brexit done will do for them.

Fixing a Brexit formula that allows a recalibration of Britain’s relationship with both the EU and the US whilst dealing with Britain’s mounting social crises within tightening budget constraints is a big ask. Thus the idea that his victory allows Johnson to govern as a parody of Trump with unrelieved austerity, unending attacks on living standards, extravagant tax cuts and rigid public spending constraints is not consistent with the careful husbandry of political advantage that is now Johnson’s priority.

The British ruling class inevitably contains some profoundly stupid and dogmatically reactionary people but, as a class, it is among the most sophisticated in the world. Maintaining its ideological power, its command of the state apparatus and of the machinery of consent and coercion is in its DNA.

The way Labour was properly tucked up in the interim since the 2017 election shows how extensive its reach is.

Johnson’s project now is to ensure that Labour is locked out of the Tory bridgeheads in industrial areas. During the election Johnson dropped the plan for corporate tax relief and unerringly pitched his appeal to a cross-class section of provincial opinion that demands a regional rebalancing of the economy.

At the same time he signalled a shift from the narrow Treasury diktats that both stifled ministerial initiative and narrowed the previous government’s ability to deal with mounting social problems, housing and the NHS.

But yet another hobgoblin is haunting liberal opinion. The figure of Dominic Cummings has assumed a Rasputin-like reputation. No accounts of Satanic ritual or the profane violation of the royal person has leeched out but respectable opinion sees the chef du cabinet to Boris Johnson’s Number 10 machine as an existential threat to the venerable traditions of the Civil Service.

Cummings does cut an unusual figure in the upper reaches of the state apparatus. What is distinctive is his concentration on technocratic, managerial and intellectually rigorous solutions to problems of public administration – which is combined with a perverse engagement with deeply reactionary notions of how human consciousness is formed and human behaviour deployed in a vastly complex and fast-changing world.

He is the erratic instrument of a renewed ruling-class political machine that itself sees the need to understand this world and the forces that act on economy and administration, people and planet, science and technology.

Where traditional conservative notions of public administration intersect with bourgeois liberal opinion is in privileging the defence of public illusions about the Civil Service as a beneficial force for continuity that is infused with a non-partisan spirit of public service.

That some politicians, public intellectuals, civil servants and even ordinary folk believe this nonsense doesn’t make it so.

The problem for our ruling class is that much of the government machine is not fit for the world as it has become. Because it is the servant of the world’s longest lived capitalist state and is shaped by the exercise of power on behalf of that class, and furthermore, is shot through with class privilege it is inevitably the site of unresolved contradictions.

It has been changed by the late 20th century drive to privatise public administration and public services that itself is a product of the underlying contradictions of late capitalism and the particular problems of Britain’s sclerotic class system.

These issues came to the surface in an earlier crossover from Tory to New Labour government.

If privatisation was born in the Thatcher era it was under New Labour that it acquired complete legitimacy in the upper social circles where shared ideas about what its admissible and legitimate set the limits for public policy.

During the last years of Tory government under Thatcher and Major and the first years of Blair’s New Labour government I edited the Civil Service Journal as it was then titled.

As the trade union paper that served a broad swathe of middle-ranking, specialist, manual and administrative grades in the Civil Service its columns inevitably reflected workplace responses to changes that were taking place.

Story after story told of attacks on public services and social security, assaults on service conditions and attempts to constrain pay, bids to privatise government functions and outsource services and the perverse consequences of these.

As the Major government entered its final crisis period and the prospect of a Labour government came ever closer the union’s negotiators reported a sense that, even among senior civil servants, there was a sense that change was possible.

Part of this was reaction to damaging encounters with private-sector consultants and private contractors.

The notion that private sector mechanisms can be mechanically imposed on public administration and public services produced bizarre incidences and maladroit measures that left civil servants, at all levels, dealing with the fallout.

Bungled social security policies and failing IT schemes became the stuff of departmental legend.

At the same time, and across the trade union movement, came accounts of a remarkable resistance from New Labour’s shadow ministers to any concrete programme of changes.

Trade unions, in alliance with a host of campaigning groups, most especially on childcare, employment and social security, reported a stubborn resistance to any concrete commitments by the very people who under the coming Labour government were to occupy ministerial positions.

The root of this alienating obduracy on the part of shadow ministers was Gordon Brown’s commitment to the City of London that not only would Tory spending constraints be maintained but that the Bank of England would be “freed” from government control and put in the hands of finance sector “experts.”

When we are reminded that Blair’s head of policy was David Miliband and his Downing Street chief of staff was Johnathan Powell (brother of Charles Powell who was foreign policy adviser to Margaret Thatcher) we can see how that policy continuity was enforced.

Dominic Cummings is the direct beneficiary of the power to direct civil servants that Blair granted Jonathan Powell.

In these facts we see the Civil Service for what it is, just one instrument of a state machine that itself is the executive committee of the ruling class.