“If there is a class war – and there is – it is important that it should be handled with subtlety and skill,” wrote Maurice Cowling, the influential rightwing historian, in the late 1970s. “It is not freedom that Conservatives want; what they want is the sort of freedom that will maintain existing inequalities or restore lost ones.” The nature of Conservatism has altered very little since, but the class on whose behalf the Tory party fights has changed dramatically: where once it was doctors and lawyers, businessmen, “respectable people”, it is now hedge fund managers and property developers, the filthy, the super, the Croesus rich. If you’re less wealthy than Jacob Rees-Mogg, the party has fought a 12-year war against you, and – newsflash – it won.
Some statistics need animating, and some animate themselves. We do not need a human-interest case study to understand what a 40-year high of 10.1% inflation feels like. We don’t need a pessimistic temperament to be terrified of what October will look like, when it’s slated to reach 13% and the choice between heating and eating kicks in for so many people. We don’t need an infographic to get to grips with the official figures that show a 4.1% drop in regular pay. But news that the Dogs Trust, for the first time in its history, has a waiting list for taking in people’s pets still takes your breath away. I’m emphatically not saying that dogs are more important than people – I’m merely pointing out that this government has brought us to a point where we can’t afford to feed our best friends. This isn’t a belt-tightening moment; this is a wake-up moment.
In fact, the class war wasn’t fought with subtlety and skill, it was fought in a more modern fashion, with misinformation. The argument for austerity was built on complementary, nonsensical narratives: most disabled people were faking it; most people on benefits were too lazy to work; most waste in the benefits system was lost to fraud; a class of the workshy had been created by benefits; the “big society” was good, because it was much nicer to get your neighbour’s help than to have properly funded public services; parents know more about education than local authorities; and so on.
Opponents of this Cameron-era inanity dignified it by arguing against these propositions as though he actually meant them. What if libraries were mainly used by middle-class children? What if nurses did have to take a pay cut, or we’d soon become Greece? It was just one diversionary talking point after another, as the first offensive wave proceeded completely without mishap, and the destruction of the social safety net was achieved.
With Brexit, at least we were arguing about something real: what happened in relation to Europe mattered, for our prosperity, for our intellectual life, for our rights, for the union, for the climate. But again, we were arguing from a completely false start, as if the two competing sides were legitimately different visions for Britain, one which wanted to take back control, one which didn’t. In fact, the escapade was there to deliver only one outcome: the destruction of regulation by which workers and citizens protect and assert themselves against the interests of capital. It was just the second wave of the war.
Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak, prime ministerial hopefuls, approach the coming crisis with another patchwork of absolute nonsense. The cost of living crisis is all down to the war in Ukraine. We head into recession because we don’t work hard enough. It’s all the fault of the unions, or the woke, who are coming for our growth and “our women” (respectively). Britain can go from strength to strength if the person in charge is enthusiastic enough (according to Truss). This time it’s different – these lines are so incredibly weak and thin, it’s like reaching the end of the road in a Russian misinformation campaign, where they can no longer afford any tech whizzes and they’re leaving meme creation to bots and Google translate.
But it’s different for a more important reason: they’re not trying to divert us from some smart new move – they have no moves. If you look at the level of public debt, the high inflation, the low growth and the tax burden, we’re already in a postwar economy. It was just a different kind of war, a class war masquerading as a kulturkampf, and we lost. Sorry to labour the point, but until we acknowledge the extent of the devastation and its cause we cannot hope to recover our bearings.
You cannot rebuild anything on fictional foundations. There is no meaningful way out of this if we pretend it’s all about global headwinds and we’re a nice nation that can pull together. You cannot organise if you don’t know what side you’re on, and so many of the narratives of the past 12 years have been tailored to mask exactly that. Are you a striver or a shirker? A net contributor or a net recipient? A patriot or a migrant? Metropolitan elite or left behind? Latte sipper or bitter drinker? Woke or anti-woke? Leaver or remainer? We’ve been trapped in this endless cycle of meaningless divisions to mask what’s incredibly plain: we’re all on the same side and we’re all under attack.
Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist