In 1897, the British Empire was at its zenith.Â “The sun never sets on the British Empire” was a literal truth.Â It was the world’s dominant military power and gloried in its success as leader of the industrial revolution.Â Its puissance seemed unchallengeable.Â It was against that background that Rudyard Kipling composed a poem for Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee.Â This is its penultimate verse:
“If, drunk with sight of power, we loose,
Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe,
Such boastings as the Gentiles use,
Or lesser breeds without the Lawâ€”
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forgetâ€”lest we forget!”
The Conservatives would do well to reflect on Kipling’s warning.Â Never has a political hegemony been founded on such a small majority and such a small share of the votes at a general election.Â The Conservatives secured that small majority and vote share by drawing reluctant Lib Dem and UKIP supporters in England and Wales to their ranks to prevent an unpopular Labour leader taking office with the doubtful support of an alien SNP.Â As mandates go, it looks highly contingent.
To their credit the two most considerable politicians in Westminster today, David Cameron and George Osborne, seem to understand this.Â Far from taking advantage of Labour’s introspection to push through a hard right agenda, both have sought to cement their relationship with this loaned support by talking the language of the centre ground, even to the point of leaning over the fence to steal centre-left policies going begging since the Lib Dems were obliterated and Labour vacated the field.
This will not be enough by itself.Â The Conservatives are confronted by two unavoidable challenges in this Parliament that would test any government and are haunted by the spectre of two more that could yet drag this government down.Â By the end of this Parliament, the Conservatives can expect to be suffering the intimations of mortality that afflict every decade-old government.
First, the two unavoidable challenges.
Right now the EU referendum is getting a lot of airtime.Â It would be lovely if this would subside until we actually had a proposition to vote on but that’s not going to happen.Â The Leavers (all fifteen separate camps) are already reeling through their killer facts and the Remnants have launched their campaign with all the aplomb of a newborn fawn on ice but with none of the cuteness.Â They are going to be shouting progressively louder at each other for the 18 months or so.Â It is unlikely by the end of the process that the two sides are going to be on speaking terms and not just because they will be hoarse.Â As is widely understood, the faultline runs straight through the middle of the Conservative party.Â Following the referendum they are going to have to try to put themselves together again.
David Cameron is usually very capable at handling problems that he has spotted and this problem has been obvious to anyone with a political pulse for a couple of years.Â I anticipate that he will secure a modest (but not embarrassingly modest) set of concessions for Britain from the rest of the EU and that he will then advocate a Remain vote with measured enthusiasm.Â In the event that the public votes to Remain with equal measured enthusiasm, he will then seek to pour balm on the disappointed.Â It’s hard to see the dedicated Leavers finding any consolation in this or any enthusiasm for the government afterwards.
Curiously, the Conservative party may be more easily able to come together if there is a vote to Leave.Â They would do so without their current leader, however, who could not credibly negotiate exit terms and would not wish to.Â The political landscape would change irrevocably.Â The contours of the new terrain are too distant to work out but an enduring Conservative hegemony in such circumstances seems most unlikely.
Much less public attention has been given to the impact of impending cuts.Â This is a major mistake: the impact of the cuts may well prove as least as important to the politics of this Parliament as the EU referendum.
The government is looking to eliminate the rest of the deficit over the course of this Parliament predominantly by means of cuts (although it is using some imaginative techniques to persuade the public to give it money upfront, such as offering attractive terms for converting lump sums into state pension).Â It is calculating that the pain from these new cuts will be borne as stoically by its supporters as those in the last Parliament – or that the cuts will not be borne by its supporters at all.
This is a very dangerous gambit.Â The public do not always support cuts over tax rises.Â They do so for exactly as long as they are less affected by cuts than they fear that they would be by tax rises.Â To date the cuts have fallen predominantly on the uncomplaining poor or on niche groups without an effective voice.Â These were hardly easy cuts and now the hard work begins.Â There will be blood.
As a result, cuts are quite likely to be considerably less popular in this Parliament than they were in the last Parliament.Â That unpopularity will knock the Conservatives and give succour to Labour’s intensifying anti-austerity message.Â The battle of ideas over the appropriate level of public spending is far from won.
These two challenges are tough enough, but there is a distinct likelihood of two more.
Scottish independence referendum
Marx noted that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.Â Despite the Scottish independence referendum being billed as a once in a generation event, the chances of an early opportunity to reprise all the arguments for and against during the lifetime of the next Scottish Parliament look promising.Â I am sure that you can hardly wait.Â Those discussions on the price of oil, Scotland’s accession to the EU and the sterling zone will not conduct themselves.
Nicola Sturgeon may yet pull her troops back from the brink or the SNP may yet fail to secure an absolute majority in Holyrood.Â But the SNP may find the lure of a fresh referendum campaign irresistible.Â If so, the government is again likely to get bogged down for months or years.Â The chances of a Yes vote this time must be appreciably higher, and a Yes vote would lead to incomparably greater seismic waves through the political system.Â Again, the contours ofÂ politics in the rest of the UK after Scotland had voted for independence are impossible to work out at this distance, but again an enduring Conservative hegemony, at least as the Conservatives are currently constituted, seems most unlikely.
The least talked-about threat to the Conservative hegemony is one that is certain to come sooner or later: an economic downturn.Â Maybe we will get one as soon as next year if the Chinese slowdown causes the rest of the world to catch a cold.Â Maybe a recession will be created from a slow puncture of the property bubble we’re currently living in.Â Maybe the economy will tank for a reason that is at present unforeseeable.Â Sooner or later, it will happen: boom and bust has not been abolished.
When it comes, as one day it will, the government’s popularity will inevitably wane.Â Economists and commentators will pore over past government decisions and conclude that some at least of them were ill-judged (as of course some of them will have been â€“ no government can hope to be anything close to perfect).Â The opposition will pounce on these and the government will be on the back foot.Â The financial services institutions, never popular, will become public whipping boys.Â The Conservatives, being closely associated with those institutions, will be dragged down by that association.Â The public may decide to stick with the party of experience or they may decide that it is time to take a risk on an untried alternative.Â Either way, the Conservatives will be in a struggle, not sailing effortlessly above the heads of the parties of opposition.
The Conservatives’ current hegemony is not produced from their own innate strength but from the extraordinary weakness of their opponents, who are scattered, quarrelling and divided.Â The Conservatives are facing multiple trials of strength.Â Each of these would be a struggle for a party with a much larger majority and with much stronger latent popular support.Â They are led capably and could hope to survive one or two challenges.Â The sheer number of ferocious challenges that they are facing, however, makes it almost inevitable that their current dominance is a strictly temporary phase.Â The challenge may come from Labour, from UKIP or from some new grouping, but a challenge will come from somewhere.Â The lustre will start coming off sooner than almost anyone is predicting.
Antifrank has been contributing to PB for many years and is one of the regular guest columnists