The Tory Party in the 2020s - How will they govern?

The Conservative government may wish to centralise power in Westminster – but there are trends in British society that no tech whizz can fix.

Dominic Cummings, the chief advisor to the Johnson government, provoked a minor frisson of excitement amongst political types when he posted a supposed advertisement on his blog for ‘data scientists, project managers, policy experts [and] assorted weirdos’ to join the government in sweeping away the old habits of the state. Much attention was aimed at his denunciation of ‘public school bluffers’ and ‘Oxbridge humanities graduates’ with their sentimental attachment to ‘identity’ and ‘diversity’. Out with the delicate sensibilities of the arts graduates and in with tech entrepreneurialism and hard science. It may look like a case of too much Jordan Peterson, but the departure from stuffy Whitehall conventions does raise the question of how the Tories will seek to govern in the 2020s. It seems that a transformed Conservative Party under Boris Johnson is attempting to rewire the ailing British economy by exerting the power of a slimmed down, centralising British state and summoning up an unevenly experienced English nationalism.

This transformation of the Tory Party has not gone unnoticed. On the right, the Economist has described a ‘radical insurgency’ that has taken over the ‘staid’ Conservatives. The soft left think tank Compass, on the other hand, has recently released a report on the remarkable transformation of the Tory Party since the 2016 Brexit vote. Johnsonism is viewed as a multifarious, semi-coherent bloc – Thatcherism 2.0 – that has achieved a partial hegemony over the whole of the British right. The report is very much in the tradition of Stuart Hall’s work on Thatcherism and Marxism Today’s New Times which called for a reappraisal of the left’s project for Britain in light of the transformations of Conservatism. The latter’s capacity to ‘shapeshift’ is, however, a product of its deep habitation in the structures of the British state. As the so-called ‘natural party of government’ the Tories are given a far greater degree of scope for flexibility than the opposition Labour Party. Equally relevant is the broadly Tory-supporting media which allows them, as Matt Zarb-Cousin puts it, to do politics on easy mode. Compass identifies several threads articulated through the Johnson government: English nationalism; neoliberal economics; Keynesian investment policies; a right-populist communications strategy. Despite the inherent instability of such a compound, none of its elements are unfamiliar in the postwar era and will be diffused with varying degrees of success across the state. Some will inevitably end up dominating over others. Because of the wide variety of social interests it now covers, it is likely the Tories will fall back on an unevenly-felt English nationalism. What is new in this version of Toryism - and largely unaccounted for in both the Compass report and in the Economist - is Cummings’s project to modernise the state for an era of increased global instability and competition between major capitalist states. Writing in Tribune under a pseudonym, one Department for Education civil servant has described the model imposed there under Cummings and Michael Gove in the Coalition years (2010-2015) as that of the ‘hollow corporation’: the centre tightly-controlled; everything else outsourced to the private sector. Cummings argues that the introduction of complexity modelling to improve government scenario planning and prediction making would improve policy and help ‘solve problems’ brought about the ignorance and bias of the traditional Mandarin class. An alternative view might be that Cummngs is going about setting up unaccountable strategy groups - so-called ‘red teams’ - who are immersed in a ‘new management’ ideology that replicates the injustices and power imbalances of the failing corporate sector. What Cummings did for education he now intends to do to the whole civil service, ripping into traditions and rebuilding the state in a leaner form.

Cummings’s blog is a good place to start to understand the politics of Johnsonism. It is easy to dismiss the ideology in these rambling posts as an incoherent blend of techno-utopianism and sharp elbowed individualism. Yet Cummings has a specific and highly telling conception of politics, understood as a technical issue to be resolved by a small core of decision makers versed in new forms of data modelling. He is interested in ‘high risk, high return’ projects, funnelling resources into innovative, untapped research fields that the ‘market won’t fund’. It is as if he has read Mariana Mazzucato, but through the lens of neoliberal management theory. He wants to intensify the work rate, slim down the workforce, make hiring and firing easier. The whole purpose of government policy – but especially in science education investment – would be to make Britain a world leader in knowledge industries. It is a chance to revivify the British nation state. In the world of policy, he wants to deploy new technologies – data modelling and machine learning in particular – to centralise control: Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty for the era of Big Data and Artificial Intelligence. In this he is far from a lone voice: the right-wing Policy Exchange think tank has recently authored a report looking at ways to centralise the civil service and place it more firmly under the control of the Prime Minister. Such reforms in education, scientific research and public administration are aimed at making the inadequate structures of the British state more ‘dynamic’ and ‘competitive’ in the market’s sense of the words.

Cummings’s vaulting ambition is, however, undermined by a fundamental ideological error: for Cummings the state is just the sum of particular combinations of brains, technologies, and the dynamic complementarities that arise from them. He describes no mechanism by which to account for the institutional inertia he abhors, barring perhaps the accretions of time. He does not understand the state as a terrain of struggle, structured by organised political forces and, precisely because of this, predisposed to favour certain kinds of action. Cummings will no doubt blame the failure of his utopian plans on the incompetence and rigidity of the civil service; it will more likely be the result of the passive resistance of other, more highly developed political tendencies than his own. For the political technician, other people’s politics can only appear as a malfunction, or better (given his love of a biological metaphor) a viral infection. Cummings may be out in a year, slouching towards a lucrative consultancy position in the private sector, the grand designs for an overhaul of state strategy an eccentric blip. Yet his role – and that of others like him – is symptomatic of the transformations being imposed on the Tory Party by its shifting relations to both the economy and the state.

What effects are these transformations having on Tory strategy so far? The links between Vote Leave and various dodgy data companies seemingly fed back into Johnson’s 2019 campaign strategy. Research on the general election shows the Tories targeting very specific groups with very specific messaging, an innovation from the Lynton Crosby years. The Tory Party is weak on internal democracy and its membership has dwindled to less than 200,000. This weightlessness at the grassroots is offset by vast contributions from the super-rich, as uncovered in an excellent series of investigations by Open Democracy. Shorn of a mass basis, the Tory Party increasingly resembles a private communications company. It mobilises the support of wealthy backers to manipulate the weakened legacy media and to exploit the viral impulses of what Richard Seymour calls the ‘social industry’. Cummings himself has shown an interest in the ‘complex viral contagions’ of social media space. While Cummings wants to emphasise the potential that artificial intelligence and machine learning have for actual policy design and implementation, Johnsonism’s major successes have so far been in elections and in political communications rather than in ‘delivery’. The purpose of this mathematisation of policy planning is to sweep aside the biases and archaic habits of elite Mandarins; its effects may be to encode the political assumptions of the data and tech industries into government.

The data science research Cummings is seeking to harness would compound the Tories’ institutional weightlessness, while threatening older, more institutionalised factions in the Party. Patrician Toryism, with its ancient ties to the British state, is on the retreat inside the Tory Party. This has in part come about because of the slow break up of the British state since the 1970s. The most recent transformation of the Tory Party can only be understood in relation to this. An early response to the British social crisis was of course Thatcher’s destruction of organised labour, but a later, more mature form of neoliberalism also sought to insulate state institutions from democratic demands through a process of selective depoliticisation. Since the crash of 2008 a new literature and set of policies has emerged within these depoliticised spaces that supports greater ‘resilience’ of big institutions in a chaotic and uncontrollable world. Cummings is now looking to centralise command in Downing Street, while outsourcing everything else to the private sector.

Cummings’s emphasis on education and building managerial capacity is itself a certain spin on the resilience literature: let the European Union dissolve into chaos; let Ireland unify and – if needs be – let Scotland splinter off into the North Sea. Consolidate instead the dominance of Westminster and the City over an underdetermined and underrepresented English hinterland. The project is English rather than Unionist by default. The resistance to this will come as much from Tory Party elites as from the civil service itself. The primary contradictions of the project - combining a certain kind of modernising, tech radicalism with the inflexible paternalism of High Toryism and the free market fundamentalism of the Neo-Thatcherites - is revealed here. To overcome this, Johnsonism will be dependent on its ability to summon up an unevenly experienced English nationalism. Outside of its reassertion of English supremacy, it has no answer to the geopolitical faultlines emerging across the islands in the form of Scottish nationalism, Irish unification, regionalism or even pro-European sentiment.

While Johnsonism has mastered the tools of social media communications, Cummings’ desire to convert this into state reform and policy success may be harder to realise. The institutional weightlessness of the Tory Party may be an asset in terms of PR and messaging, but is a constraint in terms of how it deals with the hard facts of actually governing successfully. It is by no means certain that the Tory Party has the capacity to deliver on the changes Johnsonism promises, nor if the British state can absorb them. To an extent Johnsonism runs against the grain of the general trend towards political decomposition in the islands. A centralising state strategy must be articulated through a matrix of withered and hesitant institutions – especially the Treasury, but also the Bank of England and relevant government departments. It must draw into its fold the primary deliverers of education services – in particular, a patchwork of local authorities that are themselves adjuncts of a desolate local government sector. It was partly Cummings’ and Gove’s own academies and free school reforms, along with deep cuts to funding, that helped drive the current crisis in education. Carefully targeted boosts to science education spending (on which little has been said since last August) delivered via yet more private sector surrogates will do little to alleviate the wider strains in the system. Big infrastructure spending plans do not compensate for the yawning productivity gap between London and the North and Midlands. A party dependent on the backing of the super-rich can ill afford big spending pledges. Right on cue, the Chancellor Sajid Javid has called for deeper spending cuts to departmental budgets. This will no doubt be framed as a matter of priorities, yet the model of financialised accumulation on which the party is reliant scarcely allows them much room for redistribution. The legitimacy of the whole project is therefore dependent on a unified culture of Englishness that has never been effectively organised through the British state and can barely be said to exist outside of the South-East. If Johnson’s record of white elephants is anything to go by, what beckons is a Silicon Roundabout model of development – the Shorditchification of the Humber or perhaps the visiting of Olympic-style miracles on Teesside. The resentment felt towards London in England’s far-flung regions is unlikely to be alleviated by such ventures.

For these reasons it is unlikely that English nationalism will be able to fulfil its necessary legitimising role for Johnsonism. The government will need to bolster itself with attacks on migrants and metropolitan elites while contradictorily operating from the hated Westminster. As alluded to above, however, there is a possible deeper flaw in the whole project: the centralising mission – an omniscient decision making team that delivers smoothly from Westminster – runs against the grain of the ongoing fragmentation and withering of broader state institutions. The answer to fragmentation is not centralisation, but the type of regionalism argued for by Alex Niven. Regional assertion by the English hinterlands – concentrated in the larger northern cities – could become a powerful cultural and political counterweight to an overweening, barely legitimate Westminster. Even in the South, the demand for genuine municipal governance should terrify the Conservatives: picture an autonomous, social-democratic London, shorn of the baggage of the Tory shires, free to administer the coveted tax havens of the City as it sees fit. The Tories may wish to use technology as a magic bullet – to concentrate power in the name of efficiency - but they may yet be scuppered by the ongoing crisis in the state institutions that they have done so much to bring about.