By Graham Vanbergen: The Conservative party, or Tory party as many prefer to term them, are deeply rooted in the idea of freedom and stability. Today, they wrap themselves in the Union flag and quote Churchill. They espouse a deregulatory free-market ideology whilst churning out baseless slogans like ‘taking back control’ and stoke up a culture war intertwined with deliberate connotations of tribalism and hate speech. They create bogus enemies – the latest being the ‘invasion’ of small boats. It all comes from a playbook, which Gary Linekar eluded to – and looking at the reaction from the mouthpieces of the hard right, it appears they know they have been called out.
The reality is that the Tory party are now relying almost entirely on tribalism as their policies on Brexit, immigration, the economy, policing, education, public health and housing have all failed in some significant way. You could forgive any government for not really knowing what the outcome of the pandemic was – and for Britain, it appears to be in the middle of the pack for outcomes. Except for the corruption of course.
They are supported by billionaires and the corporations that create them. Then there are other institutions. The banking industry is a good example. The financial crisis of 2008 caused misery for millions, which was exacerbated by a decade of austerity that has lingered and continues to this day. They were rescued at enormous public cost. The national debt soared. And yet, year after year, the banks in the UK continue to pay hundreds of millions in fines for their illegal practices. In 2022, Nat West, Santander, HSBC and Standard Chartered were fined well over £525 million – and yet this is scratching the surface of the total number of fines issued in the same year. The year before, banks were fined well over £500 million just for insider dealing and carrying out regulated activities without authorisation.
Another good example is the corruption of politics. By the time David Cameron came to power in 2010, more than 50 per cent of Tory party donors came from the City of London. By the time Boris Johnson came to power, a quarter of his cabinet had funding from Russian sources as well.
You could argue that the banks and the Russians have collectively brought Britain to its knees. And you could argue that it is the Tories who have fostered these arrangements on the basis of winning power at all costs. And you could argue that the nation is suffering needlessly simply because it is not regulated enough – especially the banks and those who hide in the shadows that fund political parties. This form of freedom only works for a tiny minority.
It is quite clear that the free market cannot solve all of our problems – if ever they really do. We have cars that can easily reach 150 mph, but every road in Britain has speed limits. We stare out of our windows without thinking that glass has many regulatory hurdles to meet before we can do so. It’s the same with mobile phones, fridges, vacuum cleaners, carpets, light bulbs and so on. The privatisation of water in Britain has been a disaster – but not if you get part of the £billions in dividends paid out each year.
As is clearly demonstrated, the so-called ‘free market’ allows for the destruction of our home planet and the climate to be permanently affected to make these cars, windows, phones and fridges (and privatisation projects).
Unfettered capitalism and freedom does immense harm. We allow smoking even though it kills over 75,000 in England alone each year. We allow food manufacturers to churn out ultra-processed foods that heavily contributes to obesity – that now kills more people in the UK than smoking does. The free market quite effectively kills on an industrial scale whilst costing tens of billions each year to combat it. This is, apparently, freedom of choice because who wants to be told what to do by what the right-wing free-marketeers brand a ‘nanny state’? But then again, we all know you can’t use illegal drugs or watch TV without a licence, along with a whole host of minor infringements of the law.
Those who promote the benefits of the free markets, freedom of speech or even the concept of freedom itself are mostly those who benefit from them the most. Those that live in Western democracies don’t need to worry about freedom itself – only the things that erode it or a decent life that comes with it.
Philosophers, authors, Western leaders and many more have quoted freedom as the single most important issue to mankind. And it is, but it depends on what freedom they are really talking about. Freedom is important because we don’t want to live in countries like Russia, Syria or Myanmar. But then again we have to conform to all manner of rules and regulations just to get by in life.
Take religion for instance. The author William Roscoe Estep once said – “True believing Christians are sheep among wolves, sheep for the slaughter. They must be baptized in anxiety, distress, affliction, persecution, suffering, and death.” In contrast, the opposite is, therefore is also true. Author Alexander Berkman says the same; “it is economic slavery, the savage struggle for a crumb, that has converted mankind into wolves and sheep.” The twentieth-century philosopher Isaiah Berlin is rather more to the point when he said: “Freedom for the wolves has often meant death to the sheep.”
Freedom is not just who you are but what you believe. The reality is there is no real freedom because society would instantly fall to pieces without rules, regulations and laws. And yet, as the world seemingly brings us rapid change – the spirit of freedom is being trashed by those who have profited from democratic principles. The battle over democracy, freedom and capitalism is fierce.
For instance – it is illegal to place a sign prominently in a shop window that is somehow racist or discriminatory. And yet, social media platforms allow this type of content all day, every day – 24/7. Not only that but their platforms push pornography to minors and all manner of other illegal content with impunity. The fines metered out are now merely considered the cost of doing business. These same platforms merge their systems with others – polluting the minds of the gullible and vulnerable with disinformation. What they want is swing the balance of power in their favour – as witnessed in the USA with Donald Trump and the outcome of the EU referendum in the UK.
The rise of social media and their hands-off approach to algorithms have caused immeasurable damage to the mental health of our youth – but the billionaires continue to fund through dark-money channels the very lawmakers that should be standing in their way to protect us all from such malevolent and nefarious forces. But they don’t. And when they do, it’s often soundbites to appease, not stamping down on their illegality or immorality. Of course, certain political factions – again funded by the dark forces of corporations and billionaires will tell you that freedom of speech so means more. In the meantime, billions of dollars are generated as people argue over how to regulate.
Freedom, as mentioned, is what you think it is. Being in poverty offers next to nothing when it comes to freedom – but being a wealthy suit in the City of London means something else. If the former steals a sandwich suffering from the pangs of hunger, if caught, the police are called. But rigging money markets for the latter is rewarded with an annual bonus and a pat on the back. The first will be caught via a surveillance system, the second regulates their own surveillance systems.
The consequence is this. There are two wings to the political architecture of our democracy and one centre ground. Extremes to either end are destined to fail if the institutions of democracy are functional. The right and left are broadly supported by about one-half of the population (25/25). The centre ground or floating voters are represented by the other half of the electorate. This is reasonably functional.
However, the right – and keen observers would say – the British government is quite hard right, has overseen a country in decline and exacerbated it. And because everything is worse – from public health, education, and policing to the care crisis and housing crisis – the powers that be have few grounds to fight the opposition on.
Hence, we see the ramping up of the ‘small boats crisis.’ This is not a crisis. There are far fewer migrants now able to reach the UK because they got through via lorries unchallenged at the docks and borders before Brexit. Since Brexit that is not the case – so small boats it is.
The Tory party are deliberately ramping up this story because they know the Labour party under Keir Starmer will challenge them over it because he was a public prosecutor and will abide by international law. This is where the Tories are happy to draw a line in the sand, forget the law or international agreements and swing their doubled swords at culture wars and the small boats crisis. It’s all they have left. They have an army of commentators blaming an invasion of immigrants arriving by boat to ensure the disintegration of British life. They are deliberately giving the impression of this assault on our way of life and attempting to make the public believe Labour will allow it to continue.
All of this is a distraction from the truth.
By nature, economists are seen as a bit ‘lefty.’ This is because if you look at anything the national interest, it costs money. Take education. Capital expenditure in education fell from £8.8 billion in the year of 2010-11, to £5.2 billion spent in 2018-19, or a 41 per cent drop. This has continued to the extent that in real terms capital expenditure on schools is now half that of 2010. In addition, the 2023/24 school per-pupil funding will rise by just 1.9 per cent – a long way short of inflationary pressures.
This is a blatant anti-growth policy. In as little as ten years’ time, the lack of funding means peer nations with higher educational spending per pupil will do better economically. It is the same with public health. The healthier a nation’s population is – the more productive they become and the less it costs to keep them healthy.
Expanding funding for the public good is the only way to keep up in a fast-changing world. One side effect is that the more educated and healthy people are, the more they tend to earn, the more free they feel (because money brings choice). Any society that lacks these basics are not free by the nature of the toll they carry just to get by.
Neoliberal capitalism has failed in this sense. It dictates that we should not pay high taxes because we will then have more money to choose freely what we want to spend it on. The irony is that without an educated and healthy workforce, corporations and their billionaires would not benefit from these national qualities.
Conservatism and their form of freedom has now become an enemy of the future for Britain. They want unfettered power, so they attack the very pillars of the institutions that uphold society at large. They attacked experts and industry professionals as they did the judicial system. The free-market vision of Brexit has entirely collapsed because Brexit was not an economic policy – it was an ideology thought up by economic extremists who have subsequently and demonstrably shown what failures they are. Take the Book ‘Brittania Unchained’ a book extolling the virtues of the free market. It was co-written by Liz Truss, who crashed the economy and was sacked by her own party in weeks.
There is nothing wrong with capitalism, but it depends on what type of capitalism you have. Freedom is important but more important is what type of fredom do you really have. Crudely equating capitalism to freedom is a quick road to serfdom for the many. And it is true to say that at the very heart of capitalism is the desire to exploit. That can be the exploitation of resources, systems, technology and people. This is why capitalism has to be so heavily regulated.
Freedom and capitalism come hand in hand if a really vibrant country is to be built. Both need to be free enough to make the best of everything without exploiting everything else. Glass is a brilliant product. Regulation has made it safe and capitalism found a way to make it profitable.
Expanding the opportunities that freedom and capitalism bring is what will make a success of a country like Britain. But investment is what it is all about. Ideological myth-creating governments like the current incumbents in Downing Street have set this country back a long way. We are on the wrong path to a prosperous future. It will take an enormous effort to come back from it. But it will also take some brave legislation to rebalance capitalism and freedom in this country. The legacy of the Tory failure is they were bought by capitalism and eroded our freedom to stay there. There are many dangers that lie ahead in this context.