It’s welcome news that the United States of America has a President-Elect, with Joe Biden beating Donald Trump in both the popular vote and the electoral college. I’m relieved that the psycho-drama that Donald Trump unleashed each day, with his Twitter rants, may be drawing to a close. Even as an onlooker from afar, I am grateful that enough Americans also shared this sentiment, and voted for stability over disruption.
There has been an immediate effect here in the United Kingdom, with the news over the last day or so of conflict and recriminations in Downing Street. Culminating in the expulsion of Dominic Cummings from his job as a special advisor to the Prime Minister Boris Johnson. The sight of Cumming’s leaving Downing Street with his packing box was one last act of rebelliousness by an aid who believed they he was on an equal footing with elected minister and heads of state.
Whatever President-Elect Biden communicated to Boris Johnson it clearly had an explosive effect. We await to see if Johnson will now perform a major U-turn on Brexit, because what has been clear all along for those who have kept their eyes open, there is no way to deliver Brexit without harming the UK for generations to come, breaking up the union itself, and damaging the international strategic relationships with our partners.
With the expulsion of Donald Trump from office, the wheel has turner away from disruption and disintegration, towards a return to consultation and the solidification of international relationships and partnerships. Biden, from what little I know of him, seems to be an institution-builder with a reliance on stability and an aversion of instability.
Biden’s values are the exact opposite of Trump, who sought instability for its own sake. A strategy that Trump’s echo here in the UK, Boris Johnson, has attempted to copy. Johnson relied on Cummings to justify the need to shake things up. It worked well for a time, it got Johnson the premiership, and it got the Tories an eighty-seat majority at the 2019 general election.
Johnson, however, is ultimately in change, and can’t let go of the hot potato when the music stops. Cummings, as an unpaid advisor get’s to walk away from the disruptive calamity of Brexit. The British people, however, are unable to walk away from the mess that is caused by this disruption.
The dividing line in our politics has clearly been redrawn, and when I’m agreeing with almost every word that John Major gave in a recent speech, then I know we are in new territory. The sides in the debate are now less about whether you are on the left or the right, though that remains important, instead the choice is now between the disruptors and the consolidators, or the smashers versus the builders.
The question is, do we expect our political leaders to simply change and disrupt our social institutions without ensuring that something remains in its place that can both practically and symbolically endure? This is not a left-right issue. It’s about competence and public service, versus incompetence and private interests.
What are the social institutions that we rely on to provide stability and a common framework in our lives? The Conservatives always prioritised the monarchy, the Church of England, the justice system and the armed forced. Labour has always worked outside the framework, establishing from scratch new institutions that people would come to trust and depend on – the NHS, the welfare state, the Open University, and so on.
Look at Sure Start as a good example of the tension between building and disrupting. Sure Start should have been Gordon Brown’s enduring legacy, as an embedded and enduring extension of the welfare provision relied upon by all classes of people across the entire country. Strangled at birth by George Osbourne, and a victim of austerity, Sure Start never got a chance to show how essential it could be.
How people now wish they had a wellbeing institution close at hand, part of their local community infrastructure, supporting families regardless of their needs, background or wealth. We look to the NHS in similar terms. The universal service the NHS offers. The principle of accessibility. The contribution by all to its costs. Despite attempts to break the NHS apart these principles have endured. The NHS remains the principle of our national solidarity. Politicians mess with it at their peril.
A quick scan over the institutions that have been at the heart of British life for the last fifty or more years. Schools have been devalued and atomised with Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings compulsory academisation programme. Universities are quasi entertainment camps that produce indebted and timorous graduates, unable to innovate for fear of not getting on the social ladder. The BBC, unable to be objective on major issues like the climate crisis, poverty and discrimination, because it sees the need for balance rather than informing citizens of the reality of the world.
Add to this list railways, that are locked in a dysfunctional market, an energy sector that only invests if government backs them to the hilt. Local councils are rumps of fag-end services that haven’t been given independence finance to respond to local needs.
Each seems precarious, and might easily fall apart at the first sign of some trouble, like a pandemic for example, and how likely is that to take us by surprise? Oh, hang on, the UK is has one of the highest death rates and the worst economic performance as the failing state of the country is swamped by the Covid-19 pandemic.
We’ve clearly got a choice. We can either keep listening to the disruptors, or we can bring together the solidifiers and the builders. It’s easy to smash the legitimacy of an institution, but it is much more difficult to build one that endures. The challenge is to build institutions that are relevant to the daily flow and challenges that we face as we live our lives. The ups as well as the downs.
If Biden is the answer to Trump, I can only hope that this message gets through over here, and that Sir Keir Starmer becomes our answer to Johnson. Both Biden and Johnson have said that the want to build back better. We know that the Labour Party is under new management. It’s time to start to talk about what Labour will build, why it is relevant, and how it will endure.