George Osborne​ gets booed at the London Olympics. Suella Braverman cracks gags during her visit to a half-built asylum detention centre in Rwanda. Boris Johnson is illegally presented with a birthday cake. A Tory staffer throws up as the exit poll drops. David Cameron keeps his bladder full all night to achieve maximum focus during EU negotiations. The Bank of England takes emergency action to stave off financial panic following the ‘mini-budget’. David Bowie implores ‘Scotland, stay with us’ at the Brit Awards. Nigel Farage’s 4 a.m. speech celebrates a victory achieved ‘without a single shot being fired’. Priti Patel is summoned back from Kenya to resign. Kwasi Kwarteng is sacked while flying back from Washington DC. David Bowie dies. We have to care about Steve Baker and Jacob Rees-Mogg’s next moves. Teenagers riot and loot in London, Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham. Theresa May invites Jeremy Corbyn to Downing Street to do a deal. ‘Take back control.’ Strivers v. shirkers. The Red Wall. Eat Out to Help Out. ‘In the UK illegally? GO HOME OR FACE ARREST.’ The Bank of England prints another hundred billion pounds. Nick Clegg.

What is it that is coming to a close? This fourteen-year fever dream of failures, absurdities and outbursts of reaction defies the neat periodisation or symbolisation with which the Thatcher and Blair epochs have become fixed. Some of that comes down to recency, but it is also an effect of political instability. We will look back on 2010-24 as a Tory era, but although the Tories’ share of the popular vote has been on a steady incline since its 1997 nadir, just three and a half of those fourteen years were spent with a prime minister presiding over a parliamentary majority that he had won in a general election. Of those, two and a half were achieved thanks to Johnson and Dominic Cummings installing the Vote Leave campaign in Downing Street, kicking high-profile Tory Remainers out of the parliamentary party, and then fighting an election on the single pledge to ‘Get Brexit Done’. That leaves just the single year Cameron enjoyed following the 2015 election, which he had fought on a promise to hold the referendum that ended his premiership.

For each of us personally, a lot will have unfolded. An 18-year-old who voted Liberal Democrat in 2010, and watched Cameron and Clegg standing in the Downing Street garden sunshine together six days later, is now 32. Aged 24, they witnessed the country take a lurch into the unknown, with a referendum result delivered largely by the over-50s. Johnson took over when they were 27, and less than a year later the country was staggering through lockdowns, with an overwhelmed NHS and an economy dependent on central bank financing of a Treasury-led income guarantee scheme. Aged 30, they will have witnessed, disbelieving, the Truss experiment, in many ways the most outlandish and implausible event of this era. Since then: stasis and drudgery, culminating in the image of Rishi Sunak in a rain-drenched suit, asking for it all to stop.

Biographical time may have retained some shape, but political time has felt like a mess. The Brexit referendum still overshadows the present, while the coalition belongs to a different world. Nobody yet quite knows how to fit the lockdown years into their sense of themselves or society: neither a crisis nor an era, but some unnameable combination of the two. (Memories of the pandemic seem uncommonly dependent on stray artefacts from those years; I had one such jolt the other day, when I accidentally pulled up an email from summer 2020, informing me that my timed visit to a National Trust car park had been successfully pre-booked.) There have been five Tory prime ministers in succession, but one of them lasted just 49 days. Ideological rhetoric (‘the big society’, ‘levelling up’, ‘the anti-growth coalition’, ‘citizens of nowhere’) has been flung about like confetti. Some characters (Michael Gove, Jeremy Hunt) have kept reappearing in different costumes; others (Gavin Williamson) played cameos which, in retrospect, seem scarcely real.

One reason for this disorientation is the absence of any discernible economic or social progress, according not just to conventional statistical measures (such as GDP or life expectancy) but also to the preferred measures of the governing party. What would those measures be? Since George Osborne, who made debt and deficit reduction his central economic goals, departed the Treasury it has been difficult to know what kind of future Tory governments have been aiming at, or how we’d know if we were to arrive in it. Real wages have stagnated, no higher today than when the Cameron-led coalition first came to power in 2010, while the scant growth in GDP since then has been largely an effect of high immigration – GDP per capita has barely risen. The national debt, which Osborne elevated to the indicator par excellence, climbed above 100 per cent of GDP last year, up from around 65 per cent in 2010. Business investment and trade in goods have both collapsed as a consequence of Brexit.

House prices, however, have risen handsomely, up from an average of £170,000 in 2010 to £280,000 today (or, for Londoners, £280,000 to £500,000). More than a decade of the lowest interest rates in the Bank of England’s history – driven even lower than they might have been by multiple rounds of quantitative easing – converted torrents of cheap credit into asset price appreciation, for those fortunate enough to benefit. By withdrawing demand from the economy (through reduced public spending) and forcing the Bank of England to hold interest rates down (to stave off deflation), Osborne ensured that Britain became the textbook example of an ‘asset economy’, in which collective and productive progress is sacrificed for capital gains. This has produced an eerie temporality: society stands still, while certain households seem to pull away magically from others. Libraries and Sure Start centres have closed, while period properties in neighbouring streets get Farrow and Ball makeovers. Public spending per school pupil flatlined, while private school fees rose by 20 per cent. In 2010, it was still possible to believe that a liberal society such as Britain’s was travelling in the direction of greater meritocracy; in 2024, we hear much more about ‘nepo babies’ and inherited wealth.

The increases in wealth for some have coincided with a deepening hopelessness for others. Even before Covid-19 struck, social epidemiologists and public health experts were sounding the alarm about unprecedented spikes in mortality rates and declining life expectancy in the most deprived parts of the United Kingdom. Between 2012 and 2019, austerity was responsible for an estimated 335,000 excess deaths. The rate of prescription of antidepressants in England has doubled since 2011: nearly 20 per cent of adults now take them. The average height of children who grew up under austerity fell relative to European benchmarks. Identifying any material benefits of Brexit is pretty much impossible, but it did at least deliver a brief epistemological reward, as the metropolitan media started to ask how inhabitants of coastal and ex-industrial towns – such as Redcar and Hartlepool – had become quite so excluded from society as it was typically imagined.

If there is any coherent conjuncture to rival Thatcherism or New Labour to be identified in the 2010-24 period, it is perhaps less to do with Westminster politics or ideas, and more the result of two world-historic shifts that immediately preceded it. There is a danger of attributing too much of Britain’s recent woes exclusively to the Tories, and not enough to structural conditions that have been largely impervious to party political influence, and will outlive the Tories’ miserable administration. The Global Financial Crisis and the emergency policy responses to it occurred during Gordon Brown’s time in office, but its aftermath has coloured British politics ever since. Nobody knows quite how differently the last fourteen years would have panned out had Brown defeated Cameron and Osborne, either by calling an election as originally planned in 2007 or forming a Lib-Lab pact two and a half years later (it is a historical curiosity that of the last four general elections, the one in which Labour came closest to government was 2010). But allegations that Labour had overspent would have dogged the leadership, and the City’s demand for austerity would have found its representatives with or without Osborne’s obsequiousness. Would a politician as paranoid as Brown have had the nerve to turn on the spending taps in the face of such opposition? It’s unlikely that he would have launched into welfare and local government cuts with Osborne’s verve, but many of the contours of the post-crash economy would have been the same.

The systemic problem unleashed by the financial crisis was that banks began to doubt one another, and the flow of credit was constantly on the verge of seizing up. The effects of this on the ‘non-financial’ economy turned out to be exceptionally severe in the UK, in comparison with similar economies. Between 1974 and 2007, Britain’s average rate of productivity growth (the clearest gauge of prosperity) was more than 2 per cent per year; since then, it has been less than 0.5 per cent per year. We shouldn’t underestimate how much of the political economy of the 2010-24 era – with its zero-sum conflicts over the public purse, rising in-work poverty, highest tax burden since 1945 and increasing influence of inherited assets – stems from the inability to build wealth through investment in people, ideas and technology. When Adair Turner, then chairman of the Financial Services Authority, declared in 2009 that much of what banks did was ‘socially useless’, this was viewed as an extraordinary attack on one of Britain’s last globally competitive sectors. In 2024, it would almost be surprising to discover that great wealth (or even a basic level of financial security) could be achieved by doing something socially useful.

The expanded remit of the Bank of England, now encompassing responsibility for the overall health of the financial sector, is the outstanding constitutional and political consequence of the financial crisis in the UK. The use of quantitative easing to stimulate a stagnant economy during the post-2008 years, to boost it a couple of months after the Brexit referendum, then to put it on life support under Covid, was the distinguishing economic policy of the era. The distributional effects of QE have been sharply regressive, pumping up asset portfolios, but because the policy was enacted outside the democratic arena by an independent Bank of England, party-political and media attention to these effects has been minimal.

The second historic change that began just before the dawn of this Tory era was the arrival of huge digital platforms. The early 2000s had been a time of curiosity and optimism about the social and political effects of the internet, with pioneering ‘social’ websites seeking to connect people with old schoolfriends (Friends Reunited), neighbours (UpMyStreet) and Parliament (TheyWorkForYou). It was only as the 2010s began that Google, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft started to establish the rules by which all other businesses, media agencies and political campaigns had to work. The business model Shoshana Zuboff named ‘surveillance capitalism’ was born in Silicon Valley, but has now extended its reach throughout the world and – thanks to the spread of smartphones and other ‘smart’ devices – into crevices of everyday life that once evaded observation altogether.

It’s a mistake to infer clear causal links between the growth of these platforms and particular political events (as those who attributed the Brexit referendum result to Facebook did), but the pace and mood of politics since 2010 has undoubtedly been shaped by the new digital media. Platform infrastructures dissolve the institutional boundaries that once gave meaning and coherence to public life: between news and satire, stage and audience, and sometimes fact and fiction. Tabloid newspapers had long been in the business of dissolving the division between public and private life, while it was Labour that turned political spin into an artform, blurring the boundaries between politics, media and PR. But the elevation to 10 Downing Street of a shambolic and needy entertainer like Boris Johnson was only plausible in a media environment in which everything is potential ‘content’ and nobody is ever entirely off-stage. News, now, is only ever ‘breaking’ or ‘updating’, and chronology has been replaced by a series of spectacles and follies that obey no particular sequence. For a period in the late 2010s, British politics seemed to be locked in a constant cycle of absurdity and laughter: at gaffes, at memes, at friends’ gags, at political enemies’ misfortunes. Laughter took the place of both serious criticism and idle contentment.

One thing that both the financial crisis and the new hegemony of platform capital provoked was uncertainty over where power really lay, and over the mere possibility of political change. New Labour had reckoned with analogous questions in the 1990s when faced by the realities of ‘globalisation’, which involved a broad set of sociological and historical processes such as offshoring and advancing information technologies. In the post-2010 world, power was the possession of particular elites, both the known (central bankers, big tech founders, asset managers, the European Commission) and the unknown, who occupied centre stage in the countless conspiracy theories spawned during this period. The Cameron years were punctuated by a steady stream of leaks and exposés of establishment institutions – the BBC and Jimmy Savile, the manipulation of Libor, News International and phone-hacking – which deepened suspicions that all of public life was a sham. There was a creeping sense that democracy itself was based on deceit, a trick played on the innocent by the powerful. Britain was not alone in this mood – it is a widespread effect of the growth of social media – but the Conservative Party has chosen to nurture it and toy with it on various occasions in its desperate effort to retain power.

Over the past fourteen years there has been a series of failed attempts to reckon with the tensions between democracy and technocracy, with elites becoming both more powerful and less legitimate. A key reason Britain seems to have stalled is that the Tories have ended up roughly where they began in 2010, with bland technocrats seeking to appease financial markets, only now they receive even more public animosity for this than they did then. Having lanced the boil of populism in 2016 with the referendum, the Tories embraced a phase of what the political theorist Anton Jäger terms ‘hyper-politics’, in which politics is ubiquitous and absurd, touching on everything but changing comparatively little. Those exhausting, comedic and warlike days, dominated by the persona of Boris Johnson, threw everything up into the air, yet when it all landed, political and economic reality seemed remarkably familiar, just slightly more hopeless.

The ‘hyper-political’ genie was forced back into the bottle only after it threatened a genuine challenge to the economic status quo, not in the form of the pseudo-left ‘levelling up’ but the anarcho-capitalism of Truss and Kwarteng. Truss is an easy person to mock and she (like May and Sunak) lacked any electoral mandate to speak of. But we did at least learn some profound lessons from her brief spell in Downing Street about the nature of political economy, democracy and public opinion in the UK. Thanks to Truss we know that financial markets still set the limits of the possible (which doesn’t mean, in any given instance, that we can predict how they will respond, or what those limits will be). Thanks to Truss we know that the Bank of England (which ultimately caused her to resign, by refusing to carry on buying government bonds) isn’t merely independent, but possesses a form of sovereignty that never gets mentioned in ‘British Politics’ textbooks. And thanks to Truss we know that there is still one constituency that every mainstream politician, newspaper and commentator will defend to the hilt: homeowners. In short, it is thanks to Truss that the British establishment was finally forced to decide between instability and torpor, and opted unambiguously for the latter. Enter Rishi Sunak.

Thecontours of power – not only at the level of the state but also in the financial sector and the media – proved far more durable and impervious to political intervention than may have seemed likely during those turbulent middle years of Tory rule. But this was not true of the nation. Aside from the impact of austerity, Cameron’s legacy – and this is perhaps the biggest historical legacy of this era – was to move questions of nation and nationalism to the centre of British political life. He obviously failed to understand what he was messing with. After narrowly winning the Scottish independence referendum, and assuming that the Brexit round was his to win too, Cameron must have believed that national identity was a frivolity, to be manipulated and exploited by a modern PR machine.

Cameron and the Tory Party did not concoct the energies and discontents that led up to the Brexit referendum, and given the challenge of Nigel Farage, they had real political interests at stake. The issue of nationhood was on the rise, with or without Cameron, but he dealt with it and interpreted it in the most naive and, ultimately, destructive fashion. The question of England in particular, which people like Anthony Barnett had for years been promising would eventually rear its head, did so in 2016, on terms that the Tories could have anticipated but proved ill-equipped to control. English nationalism was the subtext to the Brexit campaign, to the attitudes of the Tory Party membership (which put both Johnson and Truss in Downing Street) and to the 2019 general election result. The resentful nostalgia that had been cultivated in the pages of the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph for decades infiltrated the corridors of power because the Tory leadership allowed it to, while at the same time never taking it seriously enough.

Thanks to copious surveys, the demography of the Brexit vote, Tory Party membership and (pre-Covid) support for Johnson is well understood. The key group was on average older, less well educated and financially more secure than the rest of the UK population, and more likely to live outside the big cities and university towns. Its concern with the ‘nation’ was overt, revolving around such cultural signifiers as flags, poppies and worries about language. It was able to remember, or half-remember, a time when Britain was less globally integrated and ethnically more homogeneous. (What else it may have been worrying about – the NHS, say, or social care or the economic prospects of younger generations – was too often overlooked, because its self-appointed spokespersons tended to be metropolitan columnists such as Johnson.) But the question of the nation – of what, literally, we and our descendants are born into – is never exhausted by the conceits and prejudices of nationalism. That question hovered over the fourteen years of Tory rule, in ways that could never easily be resolved with something as simple and binary as a referendum, or as flippant and easy as flag-waving. Understanding the Tory nation requires looking at what politicians did to shape it, not just what they said about it.

Given the role that nationalism has come to play in politics today, it is odd to recall that nations were at the time of their birth in the early 19th century a force for modernity. A sense of nationhood meant not just a degree of shared identity (which nationalists fixate on), but also a shared journey between past, present and future. Austerity and stagnation, laced with hyper-politics, weakens this shared consciousness of a trajectory into the future, replacing it with a feeling of déjà vu or circularity. Nevertheless, there are two policy domains in particular that provide useful historical bookends for anyone trying to understand the nation that emerged along the way: immigration and education. Amid all the talk of ‘culture wars’ and ‘identity politics’, it is through these policy areas that a government exerts much of its influence over the nation that is constantly in the process of becoming. What difference did the fourteen years make?

Cameron made one of his most politically consequential statements in January 2010, before he became prime minister: ‘We would like to see net immigration in the tens of thousands rather than the hundreds of thousands.’ Net immigration was 250,000 per year at the time. As a policy goal, this was palpably undeliverable because of Britain’s membership of the European Union, which commits its members to free movement of people, but Cameron restated it in office anyway. From this a great deal followed, as successive administrations sought to hang their credibility on socio-economic forces – how many people choose to work or study in the UK, and how many choose to leave – that remain largely outside their control. The ‘hostile environment’ policy, announced by May in 2012 when she was home secretary, which aimed to deter immigrants from outstaying their visas by making everyday life (renting a property, visiting a hospital, getting a job) impossible for them, resulted in the Windrush scandal, in which black Britons were driven to destitution for lack of paperwork dating back to the 1950s. Cameron’s delusional self-regard led him to promise that, before the referendum on EU membership took place, he would have secured a ‘new settlement’ regarding the free movement of people. Had he paid any attention to the way freedoms such as this have long been viewed in Brussels, Paris and Berlin, he might have thought twice before announcing that referendum.

By 2023, annual net immigration to the UK was 685,000; the country’s population is projected to reach seventy million by 2026. Behind such numbers is the rapid rise in non-EU migrants coming to work (especially in the health and care sectors) and study in the UK. Meanwhile, the Tory Party has returned to its Brexit grandstanding: what was tragedy is now restaged as the dystopian farce of the Rwanda asylum scheme, whose cost is calculated at £1.8 million for each successfully deported refugee. A series of governments have overseen the greatest opening up of the UK to foreign nationals in its history, while attacking, deploring and misrepresenting this development at every turn. When it comes to immigration, successive Tory administrations have hoped to walk like the CBI and talk like the Daily Mail, and have pleased neither.

What, materially and culturally, was the result of all this? A certain kind of ‘debate’ has rumbled on over immigration whose xenophobic aspect is inescapable yet treated as taboo. The shadow of Gillian Duffy, a voter notoriously dismissed by Gordon Brown during the 2010 election campaign as a ‘bigoted woman’ after she protested to him about ‘the immigrants’, casts a long shadow. Yet public opinion became notably more positive towards immigration following the Brexit referendum. The demography of the UK is undergoing significant changes, primarily because businesses, the NHS and higher education desperately need it to. From an economist’s perspective, high immigration is Britain’s last best hope right now. But the dire failure of Westminster or the press to narrate these trends in a calm or empirical fashion, the fear that Duffy’s view had some mystical authenticity, means that this historically unprecedented churn in the UK population has created a lot of heat but thrown very little light on what kind of nation is emerging.

Education bookends the Tory era. Its beginning, in 2010, was marked by clashes of young people with police in Westminster in response to legislation that trebled tuition fees to £9000 a year. This was the formative moment for a generation which, five years later, would rally behind Jeremy Corbyn. Michael Gove entered the Department for Education with plans to shake up the national curriculum, to foreground a conservative reading of Britain’s national heritage and to enforce the traditional disciplines of grammar and arithmetic. Jump forward to 2024, and the story is not a happy one. While the increased tuition fees have reshaped the culture of higher education, amplifying universities’ worries over league tables and students’ anxieties in the quest for ‘employability’, many universities are now on the brink of financial collapse, as spiralling costs and declining numbers of overseas students have broken the 2010 business model. The teaching profession is in a state of depression: average pay for teachers is 6 per cent lower in real terms than in 2010, and they have been leaving in record numbers. Primary schools in England are closing and merging, especially in London, because of falling birth rates and changes in local population as parents (or prospective parents) struggle with the cost of living.

There have been ten different education secretaries over the past fourteen years, which is some kind of indication of where education ranks among recent Tory priorities. After Gove’s initial burst of energy, education became an arena for culture wars and politicking. The handling of school closures and exam cancellations under Covid was the low point; the education secretary at the time, Gavin Williamson, was appointed as a reward for political loyalty, not because he had any discernible interest in the job. In the role of universities minister, Michelle Donelan (briefly succeeded by the cartoonish Andrea Jenkyns) launched an unrelenting offensive against higher education and academics, on the grounds that they were poor value for money and engaged in politically motivated censorship in their teaching. Sunak’s promise to crack down on ‘rip-off degrees’ reheats tabloid attack lines in a bid to cling onto the votes of those who have come to see universities as an enemy within.

As a public concern, education is little more than a nuisance to the current generation of frontline Tories. So are children and young people in general: costly, unproductive, unhappy and very unlikely to vote Tory. In the ideal Tory nation, there needn’t be any young people at all, save for those who enter the country in underpaid care roles (so long as they leave again afterwards). It’s become a cliché that Britain has turned into a gerontocracy, given the influence of older voters in deciding general elections and the Brexit referendum, and the way financial gains have been hoovered up by the over-50s. As the birth rate has fallen and the cost of living has soared, as macroeconomic policy further inflates house prices and squeezes education spending, it may even seem that British society and the economy have undergone a kind of dejuvenation, in which the conditions of youthful optimism and opportunities for fresh starts have been systematically stripped away. In retrospect, that sunny afternoon in May 2010, when the youngest prime minister for nearly two hundred years stood in the Downing Street garden, signalled a moratorium on progress, growth and futurity.

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