Beginning to See the Light, 18th February 2021; Plus ça change, Plus c’est la même chose (1)’


‘ ‘Cause you can never really tell when somebody
Wants something you want too..’


This week’s feature is a follow-up to the trilogy which examined Brexit, income inequality, and the rise of the far-right. As a summary we now look at what the political future of the UK might be.

We start with two predictions:

  1. Nothing of substance will change until the UK ceases being a deeply conservative, class ridden society. Within this conservatism is the monarchy which I regard as totally outdated symbolism.
  2. If there was a general election tomorrow the Tories would be returned with a working majority.

Let us start with the monarchy; articles in last week Guardian revealed the outdated process of Queens Consent identifying over 1,000 instances when the Queen had been given an opportunity to shape draft legislation to suit her private wishes.

Queen’s consent allows her, an unelected person, the opportunity to amend draft legislation, making changes that could benefit herself financially, or to exempt herself from laws she does not like, all done in secret without any public accountability.

Anyone else doing this would likely be prosecuted for corruption.

The palace dismisses Queen’s consent as ceremonial, saying; ‘Any assertion that the sovereign has blocked legislation is simply incorrect.’

This is obfuscation; the Queen does not block legislation because she does not need to. The palace has 2-weeks or more to review a draft bill, objections are usually oral, nothing seems to be written, and the bill is then altered to meet the Queen’s wishes and the revised version is returned and gains her consent. Nothing has been ‘blocked’.

An example of this dates to the 1970s, when Queen’s consent appears to have been used to exempt the Queen from having to reveal the nature and extent of her investments. I wonder why she bothered; we all know she is far wealthier that 99.9% of her subjects’.

Another example is Prince Charles who managed to bar tenants on his £1bn Duchy of Cornwall estate from buying their homes. Obviously ‘right-to-buy’ passed him by!

The Sovereign Grant Act 2011, which replaced the old civil list, required Queen’s consent. I doubt there was any objections as the civil list ‘only’ provided her with £7.9m in 2010/11, in 2018-19 the Sovereign Grant paid her to £82.8m.

The final insult is the weeks reminder that the Queen owns our seabed

The final insult is the weeks reminder that the Queen owns our seabed. This means she will benefit by receiving 25% of the expected £9bn, £2.25bn, made from auctioning off windfarm rights over the next 10 years.

Despite Churchills promises on coronation day of ‘an immense and undreamed of prosperity, with culture and leisure even more widely spread … to the masses of the people’, during her reign most of the empire was lost, the country has fallen down the GDP league table, and by the end of it there may be no union, with Scotland and Northern Ireland seeking devoltion.

C-19 aside, we are becoming a weak and small state, diminished deliberately by years of state-shrinking ideology.

Despite this YouGov finds support for the monarchy is still strong:

  • 62% support the monarchy. With the highest support in the south, excluding London,
  • 33% think it should go,
  • 57% of Scots support the monarchy,

Whilst other European monarchs see it as their duty to serve their country, ours appears to see it as the country’s duty to serve her. Perhaps this explains why we are still called subjects, not citizens?

Beyond the monarchy, we are still a country divided by class. Even the ‘haves’ in society rarely become PM, perhaps they think it isn’t worth it given the ‘poor’ salary?

Too many people are happy to serve those of ‘privilege’ and allow them to assume, what they believe is their rightful place as PM.

Aside from their air of superiority, the Tories are especially adept at adapting to social pressure from below, reinventing themselves to absorb new supporters while they, the established elite, maintain power.

Examples are the sale of council houses in the 1980s, and, more recently Brexit, and ‘stealing’ working-class ‘red wall’ voters.

As a country we have avoided revolutions by being malleable; society’s upper echelons are open to individuals from lowly backgrounds if they have the right education, wear the right clothes, speak with the right accent.

The system functions because of ‘its ability to contain violent upheavals behind the veneer of continuity.’

As to my second prediction, a Tory electoral victory, whilst it might seem incongruous given their handling of C-19, and a botched Brexit, people have short memories. As Harold Wilson observed, ‘a week is a long time in politics.’

History confirms this, e.g., look around almost any British town or village and you will see a war memorial, usually first built to honour the fallen of 1914 to 1918, which killed C.17 million people.

‘Spanish’ flu…infected one in three people on the planet, a total of 500 million, leaving between 50 and 100 million dead

Whereas the ‘Spanish’ flu that struck in 1918 infected one in three people on the planet, a total of 500 million, leaving between 50 and 100 million dead. But, as the leading historian of that pandemic, Laura Spinney, writes, ‘there is no cenotaph, no monument in London, Moscow or Washington DC’ for any of them.

Perhaps the explanation for this is that wars offer a compelling, linear story of causes and consequences, battles, surrenders and treaties, all taking place in a defined space and time.

Pandemics lack this essential narrative; C-19 is an invisible and faceless virus. It does not invite that kind of remembrance, the bereaved cannot console themselves that the dead made a sacrifice for some higher cause, or even that they were victims in an epic moral event, because they did not and were not.

This is especially true of an ‘indiscriminate’ virus which affects everyone, everywhere.

Globally HIV-AIDS killed C.35 million, most of them in Africa, yet there is little done to remember them.

Empirical proof of this memory lapse was highlighted in a recent poll by Opinium poll for the Observer, 2-weeks ago in which showed the Tories on 41%, up 4% compared with two weeks ago, and Labour down 3% on 38%.

Johnson has narrowly retaken the lead as the best PM, 33% support him (up 3) with 29% favouring Keir Starmer (down 3).

Perhaps Labour have peaked, whilst Johnson and his mob are seeing a ‘vaccine dividend’

Perhaps Labour have peaked, whilst Johnson and his mob are seeing a ‘vaccine dividend’ as the inoculation programme gathers pace and hopes rise for the end of restrictions.

Voters are still critical of the government’s overall response to the pandemic; 68% say Johnson and his ministers should have done more to stop the spread of coronavirus – the public’s view of how they have handled the vaccine rollout is far more favourable.

Net approval of the government’s vaccine programme shows that 60% now approve of its vaccine handling (up from 47% a fortnight ago), while only 15% disapprove (compared with 23% in our last poll). This raises the government’s net approval rating on the vaccine up from +24% to +45% in two weeks.

Aside from the vaccine bounce, I believe that the country doesn’t want what it thinks a Labour government represents, and that Labour itself doesn’t know what it represents.

the country doesn’t want what it thinks a Labour government represents, and that Labour itself doesn’t know what it represents

An article in late January showed that polls suggest only 4% of Tory voters are switching to Labour almost a year into Keir Starmer’s leadership.

Labour insiders fear the party could lose council seats in May’s local elections, with party officials briefing that a result, where the party gains no seats and minimises losses, would be a good outcome.

Rather than criticising a government that has overseen one of the worst death tolls in Europe in the pandemic, Labour wants to ‘wrap the party in the Union Jack’, when real change is required. They need to realise that admitting much of the country is broken isn’t being unpatriotic, it’s the opposite, you worry because you care.

As the opposition you are effectively pointing out all the ways your country is failing, whilst, at the same time, being required to present a positive vision for the future. What is needed is a sense of national endeavour that binds voters together. This is what Labour is failing to do which is why the party lacks an identity.

The Tories, with the benefit of already being in office, have had a decade to building their own narrow version of patriotism, one which promises to restore Britain’s supremacy in the world.

admitting much of the country is broken isn’t being unpatriotic, it’s the opposite

Simply parroting the Tories’ jingoism won’t allow Labour to define its own progressive form of patriotism.

A strategy that recommends ‘the use of the flag [and] veterans dressing smartly at the war memorial’ to ‘give voters a sense of authentic values alignment’ is a manufactured, defensive, last resort, that bears all the hallmarks of the Conservative party.

The leadership seems to be worried that it hasn’t put sufficient distance between itself and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour, and that both the Tories and the press will keep hammering the party for not loving the country enough.

But, so long as the right-wing press plays a decisive role in driving Britain’s political agenda, Keir Starmer will never be patriotic enough or different enough from Corbyn to satisfy some. All this will achieve is to strengthen the Tories position as they are effectively endorsing it in the eyes of the electorate.

Labour should not have this identity crisis, its natural allies include the people who have suffered a decade of austerity, a civil service that is struggling to maintain impartiality under a bullying government, and the teaching unions whose members are suffering under the government’s erratic lockdown policies.

For a party that has made much of its leader’s legal career, Labour should be standing up for an embattled judiciary that is challenging the government’s unlawful parliamentary suspensions.

Hollow allusions about our imperial past won’t change anything, what is needed is a government that supports the NHS and its staff, key workers, teachers and volunteers. It is possible to stand up for these institutions and the values they represent, while criticising how decades of political neglect and austerity have left them under-resourced and overstretched.

This is a more difficult path, involving a direct confrontation with the right-wing press and their charges of ‘wokeness’, and accusations that Labour is working against British interests, almost an open battle with the right.

There are no quick fixes or shortcuts to attaining progressive and non-exclusive patriotism.

Richard Burgon, a leading figure of the left-wing Socialist Campaign Group of MPs said he was concerned that the strategy was taking votes for granted from young people and BAME communities. ‘This is symptomatic of a strategy which goes chasing votes from groups who already have their own party – the Conservative party,’ he said. ‘You end up with the worst of both worlds losing the support you have already got and not gaining new supporters in sufficient numbers.’

Endorsing this statement is the fact that, among those who voted Labour in 2019, Starmer’s approval rating has more than halved.

among those who voted Labour in 2019, Starmer’s approval rating has more than halved

The Democrats ousted Trump by pinning the blame for a calamitous handling of the pandemic on him. Conversely, Labour has done little to make the Tories face up to their pandemic efforts.

During Starmer’s first months he broadly backed the government’s approach and has offered no clear narrative about how we ended up with one of the worst Covid-19 death rates on earth.

This has allowed the government to deflect the blame onto the public, coupled with the vaccination bounce everything appears sunny and optimistic for Johnson. With no coherent critique or vision, Labour only has short-term tactics, leaving it open to charges of fence-sitting and opportunism which are beginning to stick.

Starmer won the leadership with ‘10 pledges’ committing to preserve the key tenets of Corbyn’s domestic agenda, and he has recently made a compelling case against austerity and tuition fees. The upcoming budget provides Labour with an opportunity to showcase an alternative, however the party’s top brass is divided over how to respond to it.

He could look back to 1945 when Clement Attlee, the Labour leader, declared that when Britain won the war, only Labour would win the subsequent peace, by creating a new settlement that addressed the injustices exposed by the crisis. The party won the 1945 general election in a landslide.

Labour should look back to 1945 and a vision creating a more equal society

Labour should look back to 1945 and a vision creating a more equal society. Whilst the next general election is almost four years away there is nothing to stop Labour from proclaiming the principle on which its manifesto will be based and arguing for its acceptance.

By making equality the centre of political debate, Labour would take the battle to the Tories and ensure that it was fought on ground of the party’s choosing. This commitment to equality and the promise to take the practical steps that are essential to its promotion would elevate Labour’s manifesto from a package of promises into the vision of a better society.

It should be no surprise that in 2020 we suffered a 9.9% drop in GDP. What sits behind that number is job losses, wages cut wages, rising debts, rent arrears, hunger. Whether we solve this real crisis depends on political responses.

In 2009, David Cameron told us, ‘It’s time we admitted that there’s more to life than money and it’s time we focused not just on GDP but on GWB – general wellbeing.’ It was a point well made by a person unqualified to make it. It’s easy to say there’s more to life than money when you have plenty!

It’s easy to say there’s more to life than money when you have plenty!

True to form for a Tory having uttered the right words he reverted to type and shafted the have nots. No one made Cameron and sidekick, George Osborne, offset the cost of the GFC by punishing low-paid workers and disabled people by slashing the welfare state had inevitable.

They made a conscious decision to do it, any mealy-mouthed apologies, or ‘we didn’t realise’ excuses don’t wash. This is Tories doing what they do best, looking after their own.

One study suggested that austerity led to:

  • More than 130,000 avoidable deaths between 2012 and 2019,
  • Health inequalities grew to a higher level than a century earlier,
  • Rough sleeping in England rose by more than 250%,

Johnson claims he always believed ‘austerity was just not the right way forward for the UK’, and pledged last year that the pandemic would not lead to a return.

In the 2019 election campaign, Johnson effectively combined Brexit populism with an eschewing of ‘Osbornomics’, committing to investment in health, schools, and policing. All of which appealed to the socially conservative, economically interventionist voters.

However, his chancellor, Rishi Sunak, seems not to agree. His reticence delayed vital lockdown measures storing up economic consequences for later and imposed real-terms pay cuts on public sector workers who he and other Tory politicians hypocritically applauded during the first lock-down.

Universal credit is due to be cut back by April, and he has already told Tory MPs there is no ‘magic money tree’ setting the scene for austerity II.

However, I fear much of this is irrelevant, the country is too set in its ways, Toryism will prevail. Therefore, let us look at what they are promising / threatening.

Matt Hancock has unveiled plans for a significant reorganisation of the health service that he said would bring better integration and accountability and less bureaucracy, but which will also concentrate power over the NHS with ministers.

Saying the coronavirus crisis had emphasised the need for both a more holistic approach to population-wide health, and better integration with care services, the health secretary said, ‘we have listened, and these changes reflect what the health and care family have been asking for.’

Hancock set out a more top-down approach to leadership within the English health service, saying, ‘Medical matters are matters for ministers. The white paper provides a statutory basis for unified national leadership of the NHS, merging three bodies that legally oversee the NHS into one, as NHS England. NHS England will have a clinical and day-to-day operational independence, but the secretary of state will be empowered to set direction for the NHS and intervene where necessary.’

‘contemptuous disregard of the future of young people and nature’

Next up, we have climate change which we struggle with. We all ‘appear’ to be concerned about it, whilst few are actually doing anything about it. It is rumoured that Johnson has been told he can kiss goodbye to his new friends in the north if he put the environment at the centre of policy, a warning that, if true, would apply equally to a Labour party trying to win those voters back while working towards net zero carbon emissions.

This might be more than just a rumour, as the digging of a new coalmine in a Tory marginal seat in Cumbria continues. The new mine promises to safeguard jobs in the steel industry but has been described by the climate scientist Prof James Hansen as a signal of ‘contemptuous disregard of the future of young people and nature’. Unfortunately, Johnson was elected on a promise to bring prosperity to the north, a task only made more urgent by a pandemic shattering the economy.

Another contentious issue is fuel duty which has been frozen for nearly a decade and is one of the last things we should be subsidising to the tune of billions when we all need to drive less.

However, many provincial towns have poor bus and train services, meaning that people rely on their cars, increases in petrol prices would hurt those on low wages. Some Tory MPs in the so-called ‘red wall’ seats recently captured from Labour are already threatening revolt.

A report from the influential right-wing Centre for Policy Studies thinktank produced with the Northern Research Group (‘NRG’) (2), argues that ministers should aim to harness the ‘restless radicalism’ from those who voted for Brexit in 2016 and the Conservatives in 2019 by creating an economic ‘big bang’, along the lines of the Thatcherite deregulation of the City in the 1980s.

It says that the north of England has gone from being an industrial powerhouse to a deprived region with one of the least productive economies in Europe, whose voters tired of being neglected and ignored, and that a ‘deluge of private sector investment’, would match the special treatment that benefits the south-east.

Recommendations to make the north ‘one of the most investable places on the planet’ include cash incentives for major investors and creating a new northern infrastructure bond aimed at global investors, with projects funded through the new national infrastructure bank to be based in the north.

Jake Berry MP, a former northern powerhouse minister co-authored the report and chairs the NRG, said the PM needed to recognise that the millions of northern voters who broke tradition to vote for the Conservatives at the last election were not just voting for Brexit, but to ‘voice the systemic disadvantages felt in many communities that were tired of being neglected in favour of London and the south-east. The measures we have put forward will help the prime minister and this government to ‘level up’ the economy and help make the north build back better as one of the most investable places in modern times.’

help make the north build back better as one of the most investable places in modern times

This is a prefect place to finish, as it rounds off my argument.

Jake Berry and his colleagues are no doubt well intentioned, but they are backing the wrong horse. The decline of the north, whilst partly attributable to economic cycles, was aided by Thatcherism and subsequent Tory governments who have consistently hidden their true colours in public; lower taxes, shrinking budget deficits, and a smaller state is their creed. The only hope for the north, indeed all the have-nots, is not the private sector, or the Tory party.

Their electoral promises to the north, were just words, nothing more. As I wrote earlier, the Tories are especially adept at adapting to social pressure from below, reinventing themself to absorb new supporters while they, the established elite, maintains power.

And her majesty, she laughs all the way to the bank!

‘..And our figurehead
Is not what she seems..’


  1. The more that changes, the more it’s the same thing: the more things change, the more they stay the same —often shortened to plus ça change
  2. A group of Conservative MPs who represent northern England, the Scottish borders, and north Wales.

Philip had been promising a summary of his splendid trilogy this week, and when his preamble includes ‘this week’s summary should, I hope, have something to offend everyone’ it’s time to grab something fortifying and strap in for the ride.

I have to confess that he blindsided me initially with his strength of feeling about the royals; I’d never had him down as pennant waving John Bull type, but found his attack on Brenda rather surprising – particularly in the week that she handed Harry and Megan their P45s. Having said that, the ability to change any laws that you may take issue with and the fact that HM stands to gain £2bn by virtue of her ownership of the seabed does rather fan the flames of inequality.

Given the decline of GB’s standing on the world stage during her reign, perhaps Philip can be spared Traitor’s Gate for gently pointing out that some may not consider £83m a year to be great value for money.

I don’t suppose too many would take Philip to task over his description of a country deeply divided along the lines of class; the widening gulf between the haves and the have nots have underpinned much of his copy regarding Brexit and then Covid, and he has explored roots that go back to Thatcherism and the austerity that was imposed post-GFC.

It’s interesting that despite his philosophical remoteness from Margaret Roberts who cut her political teeth in Dartford, he betrays a certain grudging admiration for the fact that she was a conviction politician; he displays no such fondness for de Pfeffel.

Instead he presents a litany of half-truth and cock-ups that in different circumstances could have brought down Boris’ rag-tag-and-bobtail collection of con artists, bullies and mental midgets; the problem being that despite having been served up the most benign of underarm pitches, not the least of which being a ‘world leading’ death rate and a track and trace system costing 10 x that of NASA’s Mars mission, Sir Keir Who has still failed to knock them over the bleachers.

As Boris takes full crowing rights to the relative success of the rollout of the vaccine and maintains a very healthy showing in the polls, Labour seems to have appointed Ginger Spice as a brand consultant, and is hardly shooting for the moon in setting a target to ‘gain no seats and minimise losses’ in May’s local elections.

However, the danger of having no effective opposition, a whopping majority and four years to play with, means that the Tories can pretty much get away with anything – seemingly up to and including a radical shake up of an NHS that has already been shaken to its very foundations, flicking Greta the vs and filing ‘leveling up’ in the worthy words file, safe in the knowledge that Labour hasn’t got the answers either.

It’s a mighty piece and one that should possibly set alarm bells ringing for those clinging to the hope that the democratic process will prevail; Matt Hancock has this week been found to have acted ‘unlawfully’ when he failed to publish details of contracts signed during the Covid crisis. Anbody want to take a stab at the length of the custodial sentence he’ll be handed?   

Two tracks this week, just for fun; David Bowie and ‘Stay’ and those naughty boys The Sex Pistols with ‘God Save the Queen’ (natch). We mean it man…enjoy!


Philip Gilbert 2Philip Gilbert is a city-based corporate financier, and former investment banker.

Philip is a great believer in meritocracy, and in the belief that if you want something enough you can make it happen. These beliefs were formed in his formative years, of the late 1970s and 80s


Click on the link to see all Brexit Bulletins:

brexit fc

Leave a Reply