Locked in a Time Warp

Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer Take Up the Roles of their Thatcher-era Counterparts

It’s easy to draw parallels between the United Kingdom’s bleak economic prospects in the early 2020s and the devastating and epochal Winter of Discontent that augured the Thatcher years in 1978-79. Indeed, many in the media already have.

A cascading fuel crisis that has seen plans for the army to be mobilised, for the second time since leaving the European Union in January, haunts Britain with the spectre of a winter of rolling blackouts. Papers from The Guardian to the New York Times to the Daily Mail have likened the crisis to the blackouts that plagued Britain throughout the 1970s.

As if sensing the nation rowing back into well-charted, if miserable waters, British politics has re-aligned itself accordingly into a pantomime retelling of modern Britain’s most divisive decade.

As the first in-person Labour Party Conference in 17 months wraps up in Brighton, it is hard not to wonder where we might have seen all this before. Keir Starmer, the party’s polarising leader, used his keynote address to settle the nerves of wary moderates and business leaders alike. Labour, he declared, is back in business. The reach for a pithy closing note chimed with the decidedly liberal tone of the speech, emphasising the value of work, the urgent need for re-investment in infrastructure and the challenges and opportunities of the tech revolution. It was in broad strokes the same speech Joe Biden gave in his successful bid for the presidency last year, and the same one that Hillary Clinton gave in 2016, in her notably less successful bid.

Labour is back in business – as a political force capable of winning elections, yes, that was the surface level read, but more importantly, and key to Starmer’s intentions in his speech, it’s back in the business of business. Business leaders can rejoice: the dragon of the Jeremy Corbyn years has been slain.

Sir Keir Starmer, Labour Party leader and Leader of the Opposition

Starmer was careful not to mention his predecessor by name. Instead, he made cutting allusions to the disastrous Labour rout in 2019, the worst defeat in an election Labour had suffered since 1935. For the hecklers in the room, the veiled attack was all too apparent.

There is another Labour defeat in British history, however, that bears a far more noteworthy resemblance to the moment in time in which Starmer was speaking. That of the Longest Suicide Note in History, referring to Labour’s hard-left manifesto heading into the 1983 General Election under Michael Foot. Foregrounding the party’s socialist roots, the manifesto, pledging unilateral nuclear disarmament, nationalisation of British banks and an immediate secession from the European Economic Community, led to electoral disaster and cemented Margaret Thatcher’s then-fledgling premiership.

The parallels to the 2019 election and Jeremy Corbyn’s For The Many manifesto don’t just end in the electoral gutter. What happened next is almost a blow-for-blow foreshadowing of how Starmer came to power and took control of the party machine. Michael Foot was replaced by Neil Kinnock, a liberaliser who ripped Labour out of the clutches of its socialist origins and towards a more softly social democratic, centrist destiny.

Neil Kinnock, ill-fated Labour Party leader 1983 – 1992 

Keir Starmer has followed a similar tack. Abandoning the 2019 manifesto, he has waged a surgical purge of the party’s left-wing activists, removing the parliamentary whip from Corbyn and hiring Peter Mandelson, an advisor to both Kinnock and Tony Blair, to help him reshape the party in the image of his ideological forerunners.

For all his claims of modernisation, Neil Kinnock went on to lead Labour to another humiliation at Thatcher’s hands in the 1987 election. This, too, resounds eerily with the present amongst Labour members. One MP told The Guardian that watching Keir Starmer on BBC One’s Andrew Marr Show was like watching “Schrodinger’s cat.” 

“He is asked about an election he will never win, and refuses to disclose policies that he will never enact.”

In Commons by-elections since coming to power, Starmer’s only victory, a Labour defence, saw a comfortable Labour seat in Batley and Spen whittled away to a majority of just over 300 votes. It’s a dark omen that hasn’t been lost on the party faithful.

“He’s already broken”, a former Labour frontbencher admitted. “He has been losing since [the] Hartlepool [by-election], only just getting over the line in Batley and then getting buried in Amersham.”

The Tories, in the first poll released since Keir Starmer’s Conference speech on Wednesday, sat pretty on an eight-point lead in the polls. They have remained comfortably out in front of Starmer’s opposition party since January this year, despite food shortages, tax hikes, the ongoing hangover from COVID and a plethora of high-profile corruption scandals.

This seeming invincibility bodes well, understandably, for the man taking the role of Margaret Thatcher in Britain’s odd little operatic homage to the 1980s.

Shrugging off reports that he was fed up with the role of Prime Minister, Boris Johnson is alleged to have confided in allies that he in fact intends to beat Thatcher’s record, and stay in Number 10 for at least another decade. Obsessed with British history as the frontman of Brexit is, he no doubt recognises and enjoys the parallels between himself and the Iron Lady. Margaret Thatcher came to power at the close of a decade in 1979. Johnson, too, won his resounding Commons majority and cemented his rule at the apex of another decade in 2019. Why shouldn’t he then feel he can go on to emulate the godmother of modern British Conservatism in other ways?

Margaret Thatcher changed British history and, with the proliferation of neoliberal economic thinking in Europe, the world in turn. Could Boris Johnson do the same?

Boris Johnson, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (Conservative & Unionist Party)

In many respects, he already has. At least at home in the UK.

Where Margaret Thatcher was a ferocious proponent of the economic theories of Friedrich Hayek, which saw small government and the private ownership of resources and utilities as the cornerstones of a prosperous state, Boris Johnson is leaving his mark in a profoundly different way.

By turning the 2019 general election into a referendum on Brexit that only had one answer, Boris Johnson bought himself a mandate that is difficult for opponents to chisel away at. He promised the electorate he would Get Brexit Done. On that, he delivered. Anything else that may be involved in the business of government was simply not up for discussion when voters re-elected him, and isn’t up for discussion now. On his singular promise, he has delivered. The results of such a monolithic political strategy are written in every poll that comes out and buries Keir Starmer’s prospects further. It is very hard to land a blow on a Prime Minister who never promised to do anything but simply, Get Brexit Done.

Well, Brexit Got Done. And the polls reflect that.

The avalanche of crises and scandals that would incinerate ordinary political careers in the weeks and months since Brexit has barely served to dishevel Johnson. Any more than he does himself, at any rate. He has made the Culture War the new political fulcrum of post-Brexit Britain, with his frontbench touching off verbal broadsides at the England football team for their anti-racism activism, pointedly arguing against social justice activists calling for the tearing down of controversial historical statues and shutting down BBC programs that don’t toe the Conservative line. In all of this, he is supported by a British media all too eager to carry on the fight in the trenches, as evidenced by their protracted campaign against Prince Harry and wife Meghan Markle, now transplanted to the United States.

His transformative vision for Britain will not be an economic one in the style of Margaret Thatcher’s neoliberal revolution. Rather, it will be a cultural and societal one, aping in many respects the alt-right rhetoric that swept Donald Trump to power in 2016, diverging in other, uniquely British, respects. Gavin Williamson, the Secretary of State for Education up until a recent cabinet reshuffle, announced the introduction of Latin in state schools in a bid to demystify the language and alter its reputation as an “elitist” pursuit.

Boris Johnson came to power during the right-wing surge of the second half of the last decade. For now, the crest of that wave has been broken, with Donald Trump temporarily abated in the United States and Binyamin Netanyahu cast out of office by an exasperated Israeli parliament. The recent German federal elections look likely to see a social democrat return to the Chancellorship for the first time since 2005. They also saw, for the first time ever, two transgender candidates elected to the Bundestag. Britain’s nettlesome neighbour to the west (or south, depending on perspective), Ireland, has seen left-wing and militantly Republican Sinn Féin dominate the polling for almost as long as Boris Johnson has back home. Throughout western Europe, there has been a pull to the left in the aftermath of the wreckage of the last decade. Next year’s no doubt bitter election in France will prove interesting in documenting this trend.

It is unlikely that Boris Johnson’s vision for Britain will see much influence beyond the shores of Great Britain itself. Indeed, since Brexit, support for European Union membership in nearly every member state has increased. Britain, once aspirational, is now little more than a warning to others. A coming winter of food shortages and power outages will likely diminish Boris Johnson’s stature on the world stage even further.

At home, however, his legacy may grow to eclipse even that of Margaret Thatcher’s, if not necessarily in a way that he would have hoped for. The Scottish National Party has announced it expects to produce a roadmap towards a second independence referendum some time within the next month. In Ireland, even Fine Gael – a party that coalesced from veterans of a civil war fought to preserve the treaty that partitioned the island – is now briefing its ard fheis that preparations must be put in place for a United Ireland. Welsh Labour, the only government Labour has boasted in 11 years, is increasingly coquettish in its membership’s flirtations with the nationalism of Plaid Cymru.

Boris Johnson may become the most famous British Prime Minister in history, for starting his leadership as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and ending it as the Prime Minister of England.

Nicola Sturgeon, Scottish First Minister (SNP)

For proponents of the Union throughout the home nations, the time warp British politics is now experiencing should be sobering. If the actions of the Tories don’t inspire more voters outside of England towards independence, the ramping fallout from Brexit almost certainly will. With no appetite to revisit Brexit by either the Conservatives or Labour, plenty might feel that the cause for rejoining the European Union is best served where Westminster can’t interfere. And Brexit is, for the foreseeable future, not going anywhere.

If history truly is repeating itself, and Keir Starmer is playing the role of Neil Kinnock to Boris Johnson’s Thatcher, then what Labour’s own MPs already know to be true will indeed come to pass. Starmer will drive his party to another humiliation in the next election, which must take place before 2024, and cement the 20s as the second straight decade of Tory rule.

The Britain of the 1990s looked nothing like the Britain of the 1970s and 80s. An economy pieced back together by EEC/EU membership, the titillating prospect of peace in Northern Ireland, and a resurgent Labour Party all drove Britain headlong into the turn of the millennium.

The Britain of the 2030s, in much a similar fashion, could indeed look nothing like the benighted Britain of the post-recession years.

It may not even be called Britain.

Written by: Matt Ellison

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