Truss’s Proper England
Futures and fictional pasts
A couple of days after the Brexit referendum in 2016, I started trying to imagine a new country. It was, of course, something of a coping mechanism in the face of what felt like an apocalypse. I wrote a series of postcard sketches: water UK, building stilt houses and allowing rivers to flood, fishing in the delta and upgrading canals, becoming expert in hydro and wave power and embracing the sea; justice UK, with a rapid, renowned and up-to-date legal system carving out a place internationally as a commercial backdrop (a surprising number of contracts are written “under English law” anyway), revising and modernising its constitution to centre democracy, rights and well-being and seeking a niche as honest broker between larger powers… On and on, trying to fuse the rhetorics of Brexit with the country as I knew it, to make something worth dreaming of.
It was useless at the time, but it’s strangely helpful in understanding this present moment. The Brexit government of Theresa May gave way to the confabulations of Boris Johnson, and now to the weird screaming plummet of Liz Truss, whose tenure so far is not so much a government as a landing the exchequer won’t walk away from. But she sees it, somehow: some dream, some city on the hill. One of her early PM photocalls had her gazing into the space behind us at a glorious future only she could discern.
What the hell is it?
Guidance is scarce. Policy-wise it’s deregulated and low tax, thrumming with financial energy. The computer never says “no”, and the convivial business context summons investment and innovation to drive growth. That seems to be about the level of mechanical detail we’re working with, too: gesticulations and assertions. Truss’s own favourite writer on history and economics, Rick Perlstein, disowned her in spectacular style recently. “Liz. Can’t. Read.” Perlstein told Nick Cohen. The economics she espouses, he said, weren’t credible to serious Conservatives in the Reagan era, and they’re no better now.
We know that Truss thinks fields should have livestock in them rather than solar panels. We know she veered off from an info campaign to get us to save energy. We know she backs fracking despite its obvious shortcomings. Increasingly it seems to me that her vision is of “proper England” (note I don’t mention the devolved nations): a Wordsworthian pastiche country of village cricket and lowing farm animals, all underpinned by Dark Satanic Mills which are always somehow “elsewhere”. Never mind that the pastoral England Wordsworth maundered on about was already a nostalgic fiction then; we must have it now, even if the cost of the form is living in the opposite of the substance.
With Johnson, you felt he’d say anything to be popular, and that since he never bothered about reality it really could go anywhere, like the absurd fandango around building a bridge to Ireland which would almost certainly explode.
With Truss, it seems that she has an understanding of the world. Things are either in or they’re out. Fields full of cows are in. It doesn’t matter that cows are hard to make a profit on in many contexts, or are lousy land use for food security and problematic in a global climate crisis. It doesn’t matter that farmers choosing to generate electricity with solar panels may be a business choice, a good use of poor pasture… whatever. It matters that it doesn’t jibe. Fields are not “proper England” if they have solar panels. So she’s putting a stop to it.
We’ve gone from Johnsonian mood music, essentially a Churchill cover album looking for significance in all the wrong places, to a something more impressionistic and ineffable. Proper England is naturally a place of bucolic farmers and ambient industry, and it just needs everyone to know their role and do it without complaining. Trussism is not politics or economics in any way I understand those things. We’ve arrived at the final iteration of the post-2016 Conservative Party and it is in essence a religion: if the rite of deregulation is performed correctly, the prosperity gods will arise from the Earth and bless the coffers. If we resist the sin of tax, we shall be rewarded with investment from the skies.
The tragedy and comedy of it is that those gods do to some degree exist, whether one reveres them or not, and their mortal messengers have made clear that the burned offerings are unwelcome - but the Ontological Argument applies: the proper gods of proper England are the ones which want the things Liz is sending them. Any god rejecting her rite is by definition false. Thus the curious spectacle of a worshipper of free markets reproaching the markets for making free with her currency. Thus the new Devil of Trussism: the sprawling, many-armed nemesis she calls the Anti-Growth Coalition, which on present reading includes almost everyone.
Truss’s country of the mind is plain-speaking, free and rich, its problems solved by clearing away the regulatory rubble. It is verdant, vibrant and independent. But she has no tools that will bring it about. She will spend her premiership pointing at mountains and seas and giving them instructions they will not hear and will not obey. And in the meantime, the country she actually runs will grow colder, darker, hungrier, dirtier and more desperate. You can’t eat theology.
A place for every hobbit, and every hobbit in their place. Welcome to Sharkey’s Shire.