The untethering of aspiration

In which I skate perilously close to sounding like a Thatcherite, by considering what exactly enabled the electoral success of the Conservatives in the 1980s, and how Trussonomics fails so singularly to connect today...

With the government’s fiscal statement last week came the announcement of huge cuts to taxes in the UK, on a scale not seen in fifty years.

Those cuts have been specifically designed to benefit the very wealthiest in society (see chart below from The Resolution Foundation), with millionaires set to see an annual tax cut in excess of £50,000 whilst the very poorest in society will get nothing; the argument from the Truss Conservative government being that trickle down economics will lead to increased growth in the UK economy – growth that has been consistently in decline since 2014 under previous incarnations of Conservative government.

Chief among the apparent miscalculations of new Prime Minister Liz Truss, however, as she leads her government, blinkered and breathless, into this period of extreme trickle-down economic ideology, is – I believe – a spectacular misread of the British psyche.

For as Truss attempts a revival of Margaret Thatcher’s greatest hits with fiscal policy targeted at the wealthy and a stated intent – which may have caused even the Lady herself to blush – that redistribution should not be the aim of her administration, it’s apparent that she has missed the very essence of the Thatcher project which gave it such broad electoral success in the first place.

Thatcher’s decade was marked by the rise of the individual, certainly, and it is held – in popular memory at least – as a time of the selfish pursuit of wealth. It was the decade when materialism and “ownership” truly took flight.

But while these were unarguably outcomes of Thatcher’s Britain, they were not the enablers of it.

What enabled that particular decade of electoral success for the Conservatives was aspiration.

It was Thatcher who made it okay for normal people to be aspirational again. She made it okay for a people scarred by successive governments of red and blue – which seemingly had no answers to the horrors of inflation, devaluation, price controls, and overbearing unions – to lift its head again and aim for something better for itself and, crucially, for its children.

The great miscalculation of Truss is to confuse those apparently selfish outcomes with what enabled them – perfectly noble and admirable aspiration – in the first place.

This is important because the stated intent of the Truss administration – hard-nosed growth over redistribution – made real by the budget-that-wasn’t-but-was on Friday, gives us an insight into the ideology of a Prime Minister with a philosophical take on Britons as primarily self-serving; as individuals first, greedy for growth, giving the middle-finger to those less fortunate than ourselves.

Except, in this, she is wrong. This is not the Britain that I recognise.

Yes, we can be fearful; and yes, we can too often be insular as a nation. But what we are not – whatever the best efforts from far-right and far-left to convince us otherwise – is selfish.

The nation of the NHS and the welfare state has no collective will to see the low-paid queue to feed their children at a food bank. I believe that even many of those who will benefit most from the tax cuts will see the aggregate effect as detrimental to their best interests at a time when it’s widely recognised that investment in public services is already perilously low.

As Britons we want to get on. We want to climb the ladder. We want our children’s life chances to be greater than our own. We aspire to be better and – importantly – as the tide rises, we want others to rise with us, not to drown in our wake.

While this sentiment would not have been resoundingly endorsed by Thatcher herself, her policies recognised it nevertheless. Indeed, they were built upon a firm understanding of exactly that, and the continued success of the Conservative party in winning power – at least in the modern era of universal suffrage – has been built around aspiration.

On the face of it, the values and policy choices of the Conservatives do not lend themselves to the support of the masses, yet they’ve held power for 47 of the 77 years since the end of World War 2 and are often regarded as the natural party of government. This electoral success is largely due to the aspirational nature of the UK – something that Tony Blair grasped and that Labour sadly often forgets.

It’s a large part of why Margaret Thatcher was so successful in attracting blue collar and poorer workers into her tent in the late 1970s and through a large part of the 1980s. It’s a sense that, although her policies may not have benefitted the less well-off directly, those same people aspired to a middle-class lifestyle and aligned their vote with those aspirations – self-identifying, if you will, with the people who were the direct beneficiaries of those policies.

The danger for the Conservatives now therefore – with the approach being adopted in this latest, economically ultra-liberal incarnation – is that the vast majority of those kind of people who in the past may have been scooped up by the net of aspiration, are cut adrift.

With house prices divorced from incomes, those not already on the housing ladder cannot hope to climb up anytime soon. Those with mortgages, themselves already struggling to manage their own household budgets in the face of eye-watering energy costs, see their near- to medium-term future dominated by spiralling interest rates thanks in no small part to Kwasi Kwarteng’s fiscal incontinence.

And so for those people – who feel that the Conservative party has left them behind in its own insatiable pursuit of profit – the lived reality is entirely untethered from any realistic aspiration they can imagine.

Where once the Tories offered the promise of the good life just within reach – if only we work hard, save, invest – now they have pulled up the drawbridge and left us to fend for ourselves, wiping up the profits of decaying public services with a sneer. Where once they offered a tantalising aspiration for many, now they offer no realistic hope for most.

The Tories, it seems, have cut and run from what has always been central to their identity: to model that kind of government which gets out of people’s way to enable aspiration through stability, security, and competence.

Instead, all they can now muster is a cartoon of their former selves: an economy whose vital signs point seemingly ever downward; a cast of abundantly incompetent characters who lack any semblance of humility; foreign exchange markets which make business planning unpredictable at best; and a seeming disregard for truth and the rule of law entirely at odds with the very strengths which once made their medicine digestible – and even attractive – to the aspirational masses.

In essence, they bring a sense of permanent revolution to a nation which – as any good Tory through the years would tell you – is not a nation of revolutionaries.

The Truss Tories seem particularly tin-eared after a relatively easy ride to recent electoral success and a purge of the centrist, one-nation wing which saved the party from its own excesses.

What they leave in their wake is a void which Labour looks increasingly well-suited to fill, as its own platform shifts unashamedly back in favour of the aspirational masses, with that language of stability, security, competence.

The Labour message is cutting through, with record poll leads and the Tories – for now at least – in free-fall (see YouGov, below).

The tide is turning. This has the feel of an epochal moment in British politics. With the mountain Labour has to climb after the disaster of 2019, it will need to be exactly that. And Labour must be a safe haven to those homeless Conservative voters in search of aspiration again.