Is Britain set for Eighties-style class war?

By Siddy Shivdasani

“Events, dear boy, events.”

That was what Tory Prime Minister (1957–1963) Harold Macmillan said to a journalist who asked what is most likely to blow governments off course.

If current incumbent Boris Johnson is the history buff he claims to be, he should have taken heed, although he’d probably expected being PM would be a jolly jape he could show off about to his ruling class old Etonian mates.

Let’s rewind to the General Election late in 2019 when he successfully wooed working class Northerners who had never voted Tory before: we were told the landslide would see them secure power for at least the next decade.

Then coronavirus hit.

Events, dear boy, events.

However, Johnson probably took comfort in Blairite Sir Keir Starmer becoming the new Labour leader, creating a lame duck Opposition. Thanks to the pandemic, Britain is now crying out for someone to save our beloved NHS. But the only thing red about Starmer is his complexion.

His actions after his leadership election victory in April has alienated predecessor Jeremy Corbyn’s army of supporter-Labour members who were leaving the party at a rate of 250 a day for months after the poll. Meanwhile, Starmer is seemingly losing more left-wing members than gaining potential centre-right voters.

It’s all too easy to forget that Corbyn nearly became PM in 2017. Abandoning his project will disenfranchise and disillusion a huge minority block of the working class electorate that Starmer won’t retain if he continues to push further to the right.

Back to Johnson.

The pandemic has admittedly dealt him a duff hand but his government have floundered from the beginning, stumbling from crisis to catastrophe. The UK death toll is one of the worst in the world, over 75,000 at the time of writing. We also have one of the worst death rates globally.

It seems Johnson is what it says on the tin: a bumbling buffoon. A clown with no hidden depths. It’s just that his fans are tickled by his unkempt blond hair and want to have a pint with him, although it has to be said that he probably would be more entertaining over a drink than Starmer.

The latter’s approach is to be largely supportive of the Tories rather than holding them to account for their disastrous performance on Covid-19. Starmer will seemingly pay any price not to end up in the same boat as Corbyn, who got it in the neck from most of the media from the day he became Labour leader in 2015.

A handful of billionaire press barons looking after their own interests and actively cultivating ignorance gave orders to portray him as a Marxist loony leftie prepared to play Russian roulette with the economy.

But critical issues have been quietly bubbling away for years. The frustration is palpable. The blight of ever-increasing homelessness alone categorically proves that unbridled capitalism does not provide a safety net for society’s most vulnerable.

And west London’s 2017 Grenfell Tower blaze, as another for instance, is a tale of Tory easing of health and safety regulations to push economic growth, a political clanger which cost 72 lives and will surely be exposed by the public enquiry, the way police incompetence at Hillsborough has been.

Let’s also not forget that 130,000 preventable deaths occurred in the UK because of Tory austerity since 2012, according to the Institute for Public Policy Research think tank. And while around 26,000 Brits used food banks when the Tories returned to power in 2010, it’s now fast approaching 2,000,000.

It is not an identical set of circumstances to the ones which created class war in the Eighties but the parallels suggest there is fertile ground for open dissent once again.

Please excuse the following history lesson…

Margaret Thatcher became PM in 1979 with a radical agenda of privatising nationalised industries and crushing trade unions. The Tory leader’s policies caused an explosion in unemployment and an ever-increasing chasm between the haves and have nots.

On top of that, she openly supported Apartheid in South Africa. After the first major UK race riot — Brixton 1981 — she denied that unemployment and discrimination led to the uprising, saying: “Nothing, but nothing, justifies what happened.”

That turned out to be in conflict with her own Home Secretary, William Whitelaw, who ordered a public enquiry. The Scarman Report identified police shortcomings which began a process of transforming race relations in Britain for a generation.

So Thatcher didn’t have it all her own way.

Her biggest defeat came after introducing the Community Charge, which was largely referred to as “the poll tax”. It took no account of residents’ income and simply divided each council’s budget by the number of people of voting age in each borough and handed out individual bills.

It meant those on the breadline in poor areas often ended up paying several times more in local tax compared to multi-billionaires. Public fury intensified and Britain in the late Eighties was plagued with conflict, culminating in the 1990 riot in central London around Trafalgar Square, central London.

The poll tax was eventually replaced with the Council Tax, which took household income and number of residents living in a single property into account.

But despite losing a handful of battles, Thatcher won the war on UK socialism.

However, there was great optimism for the working classes when Labour finally got back into power in 1997. But PM Tony Blair turned out to be a puppet for the most powerful press baron of them all, Rupert Murdoch. In some ways, the former was to the right even of Thatcher, one of his first guests after moving into Number 10.

She described Blair as “a great patriot” and someone who would not “do Britain down”.

And he echoed her sentiments from Brixton in 1981 when race riots in northern England led by south Asian immigrant populations broke out during his watch in 2001, claiming the disturbances were merely “a law and order issue”.

That’s the political landscape context to where we are now. But amidst the pessimism, minds are focussing, creating a renewed sense of conflict between the working classes and the upper classes.

The racist murder in May of unarmed black man George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis, US, caused spontaneous global outrage. Suddenly, it became clear that race relations also haven’t changed this side of the Atlantic as much as we like to think.

Social distancing measures were ignored in the US and the UK by protesters voicing their outrage. Slave owner statues tumbled and Confederate flags burned. But there was a backlash from white, working class, fascist counter-demonstrators thrown into the pot. Divide and rule at its peak.

We are now seeing Thatcherism-consumerism played out to its natural conclusion: organised chaos designed to deliver more riches to the rich and scraps for everyone else, if we’re a lucky. But the key difference from when the Tories got back in again in 2010 and now is that increasing numbers are no longer prepared to take it lying down, especially young people.

The pandemic has played a role in this phenomenon, blowing the lid off a pressure cooker subduing anger over a wide set of issues, including growing racism and poverty.

The genie is out of the bottle.

Initially, there was a positive aspect to the pandemic for some, who felt a sense of community and solidarity as we entered the first lockdown. The weekly clapping on Thursday evenings for key workers was widely regarded as a collective emotional experience.

But soon after, questions were being asked why those key workers were being financially exploited. We realised who was really driving the economy and caring for us. A round of applause doesn’t pay the bills. The Tory plan had been for the ladder to be pulled up by a Cabinet packed full of multi-millionaire ministers.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak is a multi-millionaire and, if he’s short of a bob or two, his wife is worth £430,000,000. Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg's value is thought to be as much as £150,000,000. Johnson himself is thought to have a net worth of over £3,000,000.

His handling of the pandemic has exposed considerable shortcomings as hundreds continue to die across the country on a daily basis. His premiership is running on empty without departed chief advisor and “ideas man” Dominic Cummings.

Johnson knows the race is on to vaccinate the British population so we can get back to “normal” but it will be a leap into the unknown when we are in the clear. Will the public remember who who really took care of them, or will we go back to burying our heads in the sand at the nearest IKEA superstore?

The PM might want to take a little history lesson from recent times: how England’s 2011 “consumer riots” spread like wildfire across England out of nowhere after the fatal shooting by police of young black man Mark Duggan in Tottenham, north London.

It’s hard to predict what Johnson will face in 2021 but there’s something he’ll definitely need to brace himself for…

Events, dear boy, events.