Joyce McMillan: David Cameron is caught in a steel vice

Prime Minister David Cameron is facing the fallout from the steel crisis hitting Britain. Picture: Getty
Prime Minister David Cameron is facing the fallout from the steel crisis hitting Britain. Picture: Getty
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Whatever the government does, it will be squeezed from both sides as cosy consensus continues to unravel, writes Joyce McMillan

If there’s one truth about 21st century politics on which almost all observers are agreed, it’s that, in the developed world at least, the political centre is struggling to hold – both to hold itself together, and to hold on to power. Support for traditional parties of the centre-right and centre-left is far weaker than a generation ago, while on the relative extremes of politics, phenomena like the Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders campaigns on one hand, and Donald Trump on the other, seem to threaten the old order. And in the UK, most recent comment on this phenomenon has focussed on the stand-off inside the Labour Party, between the supporters of Corbyn and the Blairites of the parliamentary Labour Party.

This week, though, it’s becoming increasingly clear that one of the most significant victims of this political shift may be, not a Labour politician, but the Prime Minister himself. For as the latest crisis in Britain’s steel industry sweeps into Port Talbot, and then on into the corridors of power in Cardiff and London, it seems ever more obvious that he is now caught in a ferocious double bind between the forces of a noisily populist and increasingly nationalistic new right, and the pressures exerted by a financial, business and political establishment which both Labour and the Conservatives have striven to placate, in recent decades; but which has now made itself so unpopular – through a combination of greed, arrogance, and sheer indifference to the human consequences of its decisions – that voters show every sign of being eager to give those most closely associated with it a very bloody nose indeed.

For three decades after the election of Margaret Thatcher, after all, a sufficient minority of British voters were willing to accept the argument that economic pain and rigour, in areas such as traditional centres of heavy industry, was the market price the nation must pay for a new, dynamic economy generating economic growth and creating new jobs.

Since the crash of 2008, though, that promise has begun to lose whatever shine it had. And now – with the government’s laissez-faire ideology increasingly in tatters, following the massive bank bailouts of the crash period – the government seems all but bereft of arguments as to why it cannot step in to save an industry that is highly efficient, famed for the quality of its products, and – according to most analysts – of considerable strategic importance to the nation. As the cheeky online satirists of the Daily Mash put it, the government’s argument seems to go something like this: “If only these plants manufactured something useful, like insurance derivatives supported by credit default swaps, then we’d gladly go billions into debt for them. But steel? What is that even for?”

Now there is, of course, a direction which right-wing politicians can always take, in situations like these; and David Cameron can rest assured that his greatest rival, Boris Johnson, will be taking it, with all his usual panache. For if the immediate problems of the steel industry have to do with the dumping of Chinese steel in western markets, then the obvious, robust-sounding populist solution is a policy of instant government protection for British industries, whether against the government of China, or against the dark forces of the European Union, framed by Brexit supporters as the main source of regulations preventing the British government from saving its steel industry.

Now the Prime Minister doubtless knows that this line of argument is specious at best. The forces that make the British government reluctant to offend the Chinese would bear just as heavily on a Boris-led government as on Cameron’s, with or without the new Hinkley Point nuclear reactors. And so far as the EU is concerned, the truth is that the Union might already have had more enlightened and supportive rules in place to protect its steel industries, if the UK had not led the opposition to those rules, in the interests of free trade.

Yet no matter how strong these arguments are, though, against the Boris wing of the Tory Party, none of them can be of the slightest use to Cameron. He cannot emphasise the extent to which the UK needs Chinese deals and investment without demonstrating how a generation of Tories have allowed top-down economic development to trump national sovereignty. He cannot point out the truth about EU regulations without highlighting his own government’s role in undermining the EU’s potential regulatory might, and keeping it on the strict neoliberal track that has made it so unpopular with millions of its citizens. He cannot pursue the kind of pragmatic solution the Scottish Government managed to broker, in respect of the much smaller Tata-owned facilities in Lanarkshire, for fear of the ideological scorn of his own Cabinet colleagues.

And he cannot do any of the above, in the end, without exposing just how thin is the veil of sentimental patriotism that the post-Thatcher Conservative Party has drawn over a market fundamentalism that finally respects no communities and no frontiers, whether in Port Talbot or across the UK as a whole.

The Prime Minister’s personal comfort and survival is doubtless well assured, whatever his political fate.

This week, though, it began to look as if the kind of establishment conservatism represented by Cameron and George Osborne is about to be ground very small indeed by the big wheels of history.

And Cameron may soon find some of his most significant business backers switching their support to a new master, or set of masters; rowdier and more ruthless in approach, better able to channel the mounting anger of ordinary voters, and willing to ramp up the patriotic and nationalistic rhetoric towards what may be a tipping-point – the point, familiar from history, where jingoistic talk ceases to be a cover for capitalist business as usual, and becomes a decisive political force in its own right, passionate, destructive, and notoriously difficult to resist, until it has done its worst, and burnt itself out.