‘In 2019, as Britain faces the prospect of its first truly radical left-wing government, Conservatives are nowhere near frightened enough. If they were, they would defend the checks the British constitution and European law place on power ’
Conservatives are at their best when they are terrified. The fear of losing everything persuades them to give ground on some things. Disraeli and Bismarck knew they could not stop socialism without offering the working class a better life. Post-war conservatives understood they had to prove that liberal democracy was better for their populations than communism, and must therefore foot the bill for the welfare state.
Yet in 2019, as Britain faces the prospect of its first truly radical left-wing government, Conservatives are nowhere near frightened enough. If they were, they would defend the checks the British constitution and European law place on power. They may need these protections soon. But all they want to do tear them down.
Boris Johnson has become Jeremy Corbyn’s role model. He is providing the example and justification the far Left will need if it comes to power. All objections can be met with the retort: “The Tories did that, why can’t we?” In a reversal of history’s usual order, the counter-revolution is preceding the revolution.
In the last century, leftists spat insults at the “capitalist courts” when they ruled against trade unions. “Rank and file miners learned a bitter lesson from the end of a truncheon, that the law, the courts and the police are arms of the state for the defence of private property, that is, for the defence of the capitalist system,” runs an account of the defeat of the miners’ strike of 1984-85 published on the marxist.com website.
Democracy, from this point of view, is a sham. Judges do not dutifully interpret the law as laid down by Parliament. They are Tory politicians in wigs and ermine, who hide their bigotry behind the mask of judicial impartiality. Driven by their wealth and spite, they punished the miners because they feared the victory of the proletariat. Come the revolution it will be different. The people’s representatives will appoint people’s judges to sit in people’s courts.
Boris Johnson is a Conservative prime minister. He’s not a trashy columnist manufacturing rage to suit the confirmation biases of his readers any more. Despite the dignity of his office, and the precedent he was gifting the Left, he insisted the Supreme Court had no right to rule that his suspension of Parliament was an attack on the fundamentals of democracy. Where the Left once condemned “capitalist judges”, the Right now condemns “Remainer judges,” who in Johnson’s words intruded “onto an acutely sensitive political question” and raised “an argument that there should be some form of accountability”. Conservatives, who had fought for Brexit to uphold the sovereignty of Parliament and the supremacy of British law, talked of abolishing the Supreme Court for insisting that in British law Parliament was sovereign.
They did not care that Labour will go into the next election with an astonishingly ambitious programme, which has the desire to confiscate property at its heart.
Conservatives should have noticed Labour’s instinctive reaction to 72 people dying and 300 being made homeless in the Grenfell tower block fire of 2017 was to requisition property in the rich streets of West London that surrounded it. Emotionally it made sense, and not only to the far Left. Here were poor people, burnt out of their homes. In nearby Notting Hill, the world’s wealthy had bought properties as investments rather than homes, and left many of them empty. Everyone with a sense of natural justice felt as Labour did. That emotion has hardened into policy, and this year’s Labour conference called for the requisition of “unoccupied tower blocks in London”.
It is not only the sight of burnt-out buildings and homeless people slumped in doorways that inspires thoughts of confiscation. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan changed the offer Conservatives made to the mass of the population. They did not strengthen the welfare state; indeed they limited its provisions. Instead, they promised their revitalised capitalism would allow the majority of the population to become richer. So successful were they that the liberal-left of the 1980s worried about “two thirds” societies. The top two-thirds enjoyed the benefits of affluence. Their wages rose every year. They were content with a new order that allowed them to own or aspire to own their own homes, and expect a better life for their children. The bottom third was an underclass, locked into poverty or near-poverty. Even if they voted, and many had given up on voting, there would never be an electoral majority in favour of improving their lives.
No one talks like that now or warns that a culture of contentment hides poverty. Wage growth between 2010 and 2020 will be the lowest it has been over any ten-year period in peacetime since the Napoleonic Wars. The Institute for Fiscal Studies believes that wages in 2022 won’t be any higher than they were before the financial crisis in 2007. Home ownership is either a deferred or an impossible dream for a cohort of young people that stretches far into the middle class. You cannot expect them to support a version of capitalism that won’t allow them to accumulate capital.
Looking at the flats bought as investment vehicles by Russian and Chinese speculators, and thinking the state should seize them, is the one form of anti-migrant loathing approved of on the liberal Left. Labour has yet to say whether it would issue mass compulsory purchase orders. But there is no doubt that its supporters would cheer their leaders if they did. They want visible wealth and privilege tackled. So much so that at the Labour conference they voted to abolish private schools and seize their assets.
Whether a Labour government would turn Eton into a comp is unclear (the shadow Chancellor John McDonnell seems to be edging away from the commitment). But no one should doubt that the party is as committed to destroying the country’s economic model as the Thatcherite Right of the 1980s was committed to destroying the post-war economic consensus. Labour favours rent controls on private landlords and giving their tenants the right to buy. It favours workers’ co-operatives over shareholder capitalism, in part because workers are more productive when they have a stake in their firms, but mainly because it sticks by the traditional Left belief that shareholders are thieves who profit from the work of others. McDonnell wishes to create an “irreversible shift in wealth and power in favour of working people” by insisting all companies with more than 250 employees transfer a tenth of their shares into “inclusive ownership funds”. The pose of enabling worker ownership is a bit of a swindle. Employees would only be entitled to dividends on the stock worth up to a maximum £500. The surplus will go into social funds administered by the government. It looks like a tax or a partial tax. But the property of shareholders will be raided in any event.
Then there are the commitments to renationalise energy networks, water companies, Royal Mail and the rail operators. How much will it pay shareholders? McDonnell says as little as possible, at least in the case of the water companies. Parliament will decide the level of compensation, he said, citing the nationalisation of Northern Rock as a precedent, while forgetting that the bank was bust when it was nationalised in 2007 whereas the water companies are not.
As with housing, don’t think Labour wouldn’t have support. Few would shed tears for water companies that have loaded their companies, debt-free at the time of privatisation, with debt, in order to pump dividends to shareholders and lavish pay and perks on their senior managers. More generally people have always liked the promise of free stuff at someone else’s expense. Today, after the failure of Thatcherism to deliver truly broad prosperity, and 10 years after the moral and economic failure of the financial crisis, there are clear majorities in favour of renationalisation, redistribution and higher taxes. Labour wants to do all three, and has also made costly promises to students, pensioners, the disabled and the working poor. You can see why it would want to seize assets.
Article One of the Human Rights Act, which incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights into British law, states: “Every natural or legal person is entitled to the peaceful enjoyment of his possessions.” There are exemptions for taxes and fines. But if the state wants to seize property, the first question for judges to ask is whether it is offering adequate compensation.
Suppose a Labour government simply declares that judges are interfering in politics. Have we not been told by the right repeatedly since 2016 that the courts and Parliament have no right to question “the will of the people”? If a left-wing administration wanted to intimidate or pick off specific judges, they would find the path already mapped out for them. After the Court of Session in Edinburgh said the suspension of Parliament was “unlawful,” the right-wing press went through the Scottish judges’ backgrounds, noting ominously that one was the head of the “Franco-Scottish Society” and another was “a jazz lover”.
I could write the script for a left-wing campaign against the judiciary now. Judges are overwhelmingly white, male and middle- or upper-class. Public schools and Oxbridge loom large in their CVs. Conspiratorially minded Labour propagandists would begin by accusing them of failing to check their privilege and finding in favour of privileged interests. It is time, they would declare, for an “inclusive” and “diverse” judiciary that reflected modern Britain—and more importantly reflected the interests of a Labour government. Who could argue against that?
Conservatives have already said that judges are irredeemably politicised. They scoff at the idea judges are trained to leave their political views at the courtroom door. As for the protections of the Human Rights Act, no one has done more than Conservatives to disparage them. It is not just the courts. If a Labour government were to suspend Parliament, politicise the civil service, batter the BBC into submission, or exploit the Queen’s prerogative powers it would merely be following the Conservatives’ example. And if Labour’s opponents said it was taking a huge risk with the economy? Well, it might reply, Brexit does exactly that.
The objection to the above is that Conservatives have nothing to fear from Labour. They can abuse the constitution safe in the knowledge that the left will never have the chance to follow suit. Corbyn is the most unpopular leader of the opposition since records began. Johnson may not be widely liked, but he is following the example of Disraeli and Bismarck, not only by promising to help the working class but by relying on nationalism to win over working- and middle-class voters. It may work. Johnson could wrap himself in the Union flag and sweep through the marginal seats of the North and Midlands showering promises for more nurses and coppers as he goes.
That is the plan. But there is no certainty it will work. No one can guess how four-party politics will play out in a first-past-the-post electoral system. In the desperation brought upon them by the Brexit crisis Conservatives are playing with fire, while imagining that flames will never burn them. The “take back control” slogan relies on the impossible hope that Conservatives will always be in control. They won’t be and can’t be, and that thought should terrify them.