Joyce McMillan: Millions still prefer the old Tory illusion

So, the UK has a new Prime Minister; but after eight weeks without effective UK government, in the middle of a historic series of crises, we - the voters - could be forgiven for wondering whether there was any point to this disruptive and damaging exercise at all.
Liz Truss makes a speech outside 10 Downing Street, London, after becoming PMLiz Truss makes a speech outside 10 Downing Street, London, after becoming PM
Liz Truss makes a speech outside 10 Downing Street, London, after becoming PM

We can see what the point should have been, of course; indeed just two short months ago, Tory ministers and ex-ministers were queuing up to publicise their letters expressing their view that Boris Johnson must go, to be replaced by a new leader who might give the Conservatives - after 12 years in power - yet another fresh start.

Few of them, though, were very specific about the reasons why Johnson’s premiership had become untenable; and now, as Johnson loyalist Liz Truss takes office, it appears that we are to hear nothing about the former Prime Minister except how right he was about “all the big calls” (he was not), and what a marvellous orator he was compared with his successor - a view that baffles millions in Britain who are unimpressed by his blustering public-schoolboy debating style. As the man himself might put it, in one of his faux-impressive Latin tags, it suddenly seems to be a case of “de mortuis nil nisi bonum”, of the dead let us speak nothing but good.

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The truth, though, is that Boris Johnson is far from dead, and is even now busying himself with efforts to discredit the parliamentary committee investigating whether he lied to the House of Commons over the Downing Street parties; and one unfortunate consequence of this whitewashing of his legacy, for Liz Truss and her colleagues, is that it feeds the indignation of those - in parliament, in the wider party, and among Tory voters across the country - who think Johnson should never have been ousted at all, and are already dreaming (in an irresistible parallel with the post-presidential cult of Donald Trump) of the day when their hero is once again called to power, by a repentant nation.

The difficulty, though, is that for the Conservatives fully to acknowledge the reasons for Boris Johnson’s demise would lead them into territory where, as a party and a government, they simply dare not tread. There are hundreds of thousands, at least, who will simply never forgive Boris Johnson for presiding over the now notorious Downing Street party culture, at a time when people were forbidden to visit their own dying relatives, and on the very eve of the day when the Queen - always conscious of duty - sat alone in St. George’s Chapel at the funeral of her husband of 74 years; but in truth, that horrible breach of faith with the British people was all of a piece with a career in government marked from the outset by an assumption of profound privilege and impunity, in a nation suffering ever more damaging levels of inequality.

From Johnson’s opportunistic decision to back the Brexit Leave campaign in 2016, through to his final glaring failure to ensure that his Downing Street staff were conforming with lockdown regulations, and to keep his own hands clean of questionable personal gifts and associations, his premiership was never much more than an ugly, amoral fin-de-regime scam, combining the remnants of a decaying 1980’s free market ideology with a toxic nationalist rhetoric that led the country into its most damaging economic and political error of the last 60 years. And if Liz Truss succeeds in providing that project with a slightly more respectable face, there can already be no doubt that she will change none of its basic features; notably the promotion of levels of social inequality and injustice that should, if history is any guide, soon become unsustainable.

In truth, though, history may not be any guide at all; for if, as the Czech writer Milan Kundera said, “the struggle of man against power in the struggle of memory against forgetting", Conservative governments now seem able to rely on an amnesiac culture, in public debate, which changes the terms of discussion completely from week to week, and rarely holds those in power fully to account for their lies, or for the real consequences of their policies. Already, it seems that public debate has moved on, and somehow airbrushed the reasons why Boris Johnson’s premiership became untenable; and the same spirit of denial is clearly shaping the Truss government’s policy on everything from the consequences of Brexit to the vital matter of climate change, where it apparently, and heartbreakingly, intends to apply a 1980’s energy policy to the unstable and endangered world of the 2020’s.

This week, writing in the Irish Times from the relatively safe distance of Dublin, the brilliant commentator Fintan O’Toole described Liz Truss as “the embodied death wish of a faction that has lost the will to live, as a real party of government”, and speculated that perhaps, after her, the UK might undergo “a deluge of reckonings with reality”.

That, though, will depend on the ordinary people of the UK reclaiming the right to know and remember what has been said and done to them; who lied, who presided over the loss of prosperity, security and rights they have endured, who demonised their trade unions and encouraged them to worship the wealthy, who privatised their utilities and poured sewage into their rivers, who celebrated the opening of food banks as families with two working adults gradually became unable to feed their children. And so far, despite all of these horrors, it seems that millions - including many in Scotland - still prefer the old illusion; that all is for the best in the best of all possible countries, and that in terms of scandal, suffering, cruelty and corruption, there is nothing to see here in Britain - nothing at all.



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