Rory Stewart was right to be appalled by the Conservatives' descent into fantasy politics – Joyce McMillan
In Rory Stewart’s excellent new book Politics On The Edge, a history of his frustrating and often baffling career as a Tory MP and government minister, between 2010 and 2019, there is one key scene in which, following the Conservative election victory of 2015, he is appointed to his first-ever junior ministerial post – in the Department of the Environment, Farming, and Rural Affairs – and goes along the corridor to meet his boss Liz Truss, the new Secretary of State.
His meeting with Truss, though, offers him a short, sharp crash-course in the attitudes that underpin her brand of right-wing politics, shaped in the enigmatically funded far-right think-tanks of Tufton Street. She asks him to write a ten-point plan for England’s national parks; Stewart, accustomed to serious management jobs, says that he will visit them all, and deliver a plan within four weeks. She laughs, and tells him he has three days, because “we need to get it in the Telegraph on Friday”, then begins to reel off the platitudes she wants to see among the ten points, declaring that she could write it herself.
Stewart realises, with some shock, that Truss has no intention of implementing any of these ideas. All she wants is “a press release, masquerading as a plan”; and she finishes the meeting by telling Stewart that she doesn’t believe in rural affairs anyway, because “there is no relevant difference between urban and rural populations”. Stewart ponders this strange encounter, and concludes that he is watching the rise of a new kind of politics which is not about truth, reason or effective policy, but solely about power, and the manipulation of perception so as to sustain it.
And in a sense, Stewart’s whole book is a history of this radical unmooring of Conservative politics from any serious contact with reality, a process which reached what some hoped was its climax in the party’s near-hysterical drive, during 2019, towards a no-deal, hard Brexit that well over half of its MP’s did not want, and that they knew would have a wholly negative impact both on the UK’s economy, and on its standing in the world.
Yet this week, four years on, the evidence begins to mount that the political situation in the Tory party is no better than in 2019, and in some ways worse. First Liz Truss, whose disastrous premiership should have ended her political career, rose like one of the sheeted undead to make a speech at the Institute for Government defending her disastrous mini-budget of September 2022, claiming in true delusional style that it would have been fine if the ideas behind it hadn’t happened to be “unfashionable on the London dinner-party circuit”, and ending her speech with the current obligatory right-wing call for resistance against “climate activists, anti-capitalists, and the woke diversity brigade”.
What is more serious, though, is the increasingly obvious influence of this kind of thinking on the Prime Minister himself. This week, in an extraordinary act of cowardice, Rishi Sunak rowed back from several of the UK Government’s leading commitments on climate change, deeply damaging those businesses which have taken climate targets seriously, and capitulating to populist campaigns run by right-wing newspapers which, at the point of implementation, invariably oppose any action on climate at all.
To a politician like Rory Stewart, who entered parliament full of old-fashioned ideas about patriotism and public service, this drift towards a politics of obsessive opinion manipulation rather than real social improvement or problem-solving, driven by a toxic relationship between the top level of government, the media, and the public, must be particularly heartbreaking.
Yet in truth, the last 45 years of Tory-dominated politics in the UK have been driven from the outset by an ever-escalating series of beliefs with little or no basis in reality, beginning with the big lie that markets and business always know best, and government is always bad and should be reduced. It has also, often for cynical reasons, embraced the big lie that Britain remains a major global power, with no need of modern alliances such as EU membership.
In the 2020s, the lies now range over topics from the benefits of Brexit, to the pervasive myth that a few thousand migrants arriving in small boats each year is the biggest problem currently facing the British people. And finally, this week, they involve Rishi Sunak and his ministers trying to persuade a nation where wages have flatlined throughout 13 years of Tory government, and where households have been hammered by unprecedented inflation in food, energy and mortgage costs, that this craven decision to throw some policy red meat to right-wing climate deniers was actually driven by concern over hard-pressed household budgets.
The only real remedy to this avalanche of fantasy and untruth, of course, lies in a voting public that finally decides it has had enough; that it wants a government not of celebrities, billionaires and ‘characters’, but of sober, hard-working politicians who actually want to improve the lives of the people. To make that change, voters would actually have to know, or remember, that politics is a force that can change lives for the better; and in Scotland, almost half of voters have already concluded that such a change can no longer be hoped for within the decaying British system Rory Stewart so devastatingly describes, and are hoping that independence might deliver better governance.
In truth, though, those forces that want politics disempowered, and voters everywhere hopelessly bamboozled by an avalanche of untruth and trivia, are now, in the age of social media, far more wealthy and influential than they were even a decade ago. And no country – even those with the most robust and sophisticated programmes of education against disinformation – can afford to believe itself exempt from their influence, or their increasingly destructive power.
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