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Modern conservatism and its discontents in Britain

Britain's Prime Minister Liz Truss announces her resignation as Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative party. (Alberto Pezzali/AP)
Britain's Prime Minister Liz Truss announces her resignation as Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative party. (Alberto Pezzali/AP)

Britain is on Prime Minister number three, in just the past two months.

Prime minister Rishi Sunak now leads a chaotic Conservative Party — one that’s always had its own internal divisions, over Brexit for example, and now over how to handle the post-Brexit economy.

But some British political observers say the real gremlins roiling the Tories aren’t just messing with policy — they’re messing with reality.

“We’re becoming anesthetized to the rising temperature in which facts get lost, constitutional norms trashed,” says Emily Maitlis, co-host of the podcast The News Agents. “We have to stop normalizing the absurd.”

Today, On Point: Modern conservatism, and its discontents in Britain.


Emily Maitlis, co-host of The News Agents, a daily podcast from the UK broadcaster Global. She was previously host of the BBC flagship show Newsnight. (@maitlis)

Jack BeattyOn Point news analyst. (@JackBeattyNPR)

Interview Highlights

On the end of Boris Johnson’s premiership

Emily Maitlis: “I will start with one statistic which possibly encapsulates everything that your audience needs to know. Which was that in 1979 until 2016, that is 37 years, Britain had five prime ministers. In the last six years, since 2016, Britain has had five prime ministers. So the speed of transition has been breathtaking. It has been whiplash for us. And what happened this year, I mean, yeah, it is October, not even November. And we’re already on our third prime minister. And Boris Johnson resigned the beginning of the summer, end of June, beginning of July. Basically, because he lost the support of the conservative parliamentary party. More than 50 members of his government resigned after, I suppose you’d call it sleaze, a series of ethics scandals.

“And there was a frenzied period where he couldn’t replace people faster than they were leaving. He didn’t have the numbers. He didn’t have the people to fill the jobs. There were people doing major, major roles, major posts in government, like education secretary, for two days and then leaving. And once the parliamentary party lost the confidence in him, then he couldn’t really stay, and he resigned using this very strange sort of curious form of words.

“And he said, I’ve tried to persuade my colleagues that it would be eccentric to change governments. … But he wasn’t successful. So his argument was that because he had won the 2019 election on a very strong mandate, an 80-plus seat majority of Conservative MPs, he believed he was the only one who had the legitimacy to govern. And that’s not how we vote. Actually, in the U.K. we vote in a parliamentary democracy where it’s not presidential.

“We don’t choose Biden or Trump. We choose the MP of our constituencies. So what he had amassed was a majority for the Conservative Party, but he made it sound pretty presidential, and he was assuming the role of the person, the leader who had won that mandate. And so he had to resign, and he had already, at that stage survived a confidence vote. And let me explain the sort of the mechanics of a confidence vote, which is basically when the head of the backbench committee, it’s called 1922 committee.

“We do everything in this sort of relic of a bygone age, you know, in this country still. So it’s called the 1922 committee, backbench MPs. And when enough MPs send in letters of no confidence, it triggers what they call a no confidence vote. And then the head of the committee has a secret ballot. And if enough MPs will say they have confidence in the Prime Minister, then he has to go. Now what happened this time round was that he won, but there were a huge number, I think it was 41% that showed they had no trust in him

“More than a third of his parliamentary party had no trust in it. Anyway, he went, he said he would stay as prime minister over the summer and stop as party leader. And then there was this contest, and that was when a real ideological contest began between essentially two candidates, the Liz Truss candidate and the Rishi Sunak candidate.”

What is it about the language and approach that Liz Truss used that sheds light on this ideological battle you were talking about?

Emily Maitlis: “It is playbook stuff. And what I mean by that is that as soon as you step back and stop treating sort of every intervention or every critique as a kind of, ‘what have I done?’ moment, you suddenly realize that it fits a pattern. And the pattern it fits is one of populist rhetoric. It’s very easy to sell populist rhetoric at home, as it is in America. Because you create divides. … Tom Newton Dunn, as you’ve said, he works for Rupert Murdoch. He works on Talk TV. Before that, he was political editor of The Sun.

“The Sun very much a staple of the right-wing media, nearly always supports the government on the right or the government of the day. And yet here was Liz Truss basically telling Tom Newton Dunn that there was a certain way that he should or shouldn’t ask questions and trying to create this divide. And essentially what that does is it says I, your populist politician, I’m connected to the people, the populists. And you, the journalist, are getting in the way of that relationship. And there are a whole host of ways that that manifests itself. And it sort of has been dawning on me for a long time.

“And as you said, back in the summer, I gave a lecture because I wanted to try and understand how it had impacted the work that I had been doing. And I found that there are little trigger words, for example, calling a journalist out for not being patriotic enough. I mean, that was a little bit, you know, where Liz Truss was going there. … You’re being left wing. You’re setting this in a certain way. But I’ve been called unpatriotic. … You know, I was told by one of the cabinet secretaries it would be nice if journalists could be a little bit more patriotic when they were talking about Brexit negotiations. Now, my job as a journalist is not to be patriotic or not patriotic in terms of the questions I ask.

“I just want to try and work out what stage the negotiations are between the EU and the British government. But as soon as you inject something that makes it sound as if you’re being disloyal or not on the side of the people, or somehow against the right direction of travel, then it can act as a real silencer. And that’s what worried me as a journalist, that we constantly try and overcorrect, and that when you hear somebody saying, oh, you’re not being fair, or you’re not being patriotic or you’re not being impartial, we overcorrect, we stop what we’re doing and we think, oh, my gosh, in the name of neutrality, and impartiality and balance and fairness.

“I must listen to that, and I must try and do better. And that’s often exactly what they want to happen. You stop your line of argument. You stop the direction in which you were going. You stop trying to find the answers to the question that has gone unanswered, and you check yourself. So I think that was what was happening there and we’ve seen it, we saw it multiple times, actually, with Liz Truss on the campaign trail during the summer. You know, she would say things like she talked to GB News, which is a right-wing media sort of outlet, sort of newly born. And she’d say, Oh, I thought you got your facts right. You’re not like the BBC.

“Now, you know, it’s not that clever to trash the BBC. It’s a national institution. You cannot like it if you don’t want to international, actually, in many ways. But generally, the BBC works really hard at trying to fact check. And so throwing that out as a sop to an audience to try and say, Oh, the BBC doesn’t get things right, but I your prime minister, I’m on the side of the working people. As I say, it’s Trumpian, it’s populist. You know, we see it in all guises from left and right with politicians who are basically trying to shut out the media from the conversation that they want to be having directly.

Drawing between politics and media in the U.K. and the United States

Jack Beatty: “It’s hard to work out a 1 to 1 ratio, but I latch onto this language. What we just heard, that language of abuse. And of course, in Britain, that had a witty texture. Here, it’s more insidious. And indeed, I would say that you know, the root of many of our problems is the grip of language and its effect on politics. And, you know, if Donald Trump is the emperor of our reign of untruth … Newt Gingrich was its prince. In 1990, he laid out, essentially, what is the future, what was the course of American politics in a memo to his party.

“And it was written, Language, a key mechanism of control. And he said, you know, don’t call them my worthy opponent. Call them scumbags. Call them sick. Call them pathetic, corrupt radicals, you know, scum. Shame, disgrace. He laid all that out. And that destruction of language and that dehumanization that goes with language, you know, helps to define the American crisis today, where people in other parties are enemies, not just opponents.”

Related Reading

Prospect: “We have to stop normalising the absurd” — “We’re becoming anaesthetized to the rising temperature in which facts are getting lost, constitutional norms trashed, claims frequently unchallenged.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.