A creaking union in economic turmoil – what could Truss learn from Gorbachev?

Gorbachev and … Thatcher? … in 1989. RIA Novosti Archive image #778094  / Yuryi Abramochkin / (CC-BY-SA)

As Mikhail Gorbachev’s funeral took place on 3 September, commentators on his legacy praised his bravery in taking bold decisions that were right for a country in decline, albeit at the expense of political doctrine. As we get our new prime minister, we can only dream of a UK government that might take a lesson or two from his book.

When, as an A level student, I was interviewed at one university’s Russian department, I was asked why I thought the USSR had dissolved. Keen to show my depth of knowledge, I talked about competing political philosophies. The admissions tutor saw the matter as something far simpler: that rather it was the case that ordinary people in the Eastern bloc had seen the consumer goods available to ordinary people in the West and wanted some of the same. 

Today in the UK, we find ourselves in a situation where increasing numbers of people just want some of those ordinary things that ought to be accessible to all in the world’s sixth-richest nation: simply not to struggle with bills, to be able to go out once in a while, to have a little spare cash to choose some new clothes.

Graffiti near European Central Bank (EZB), Frankfurt am Main by Norbert Nagel via Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA)

Back to the 1980s USSR, and the reality was more complex than the tutor’s soundbite. The Soviet economy was in a disastrous position – stagnant and unproductive, ravaged by alcoholism and rife with corruption. Next door in Europe a sophisticated common market was helping the growth of trade and living standards, while full-fat capitalism in the USA was promoting growth of wealth there. After the doldrums of the 1970s, a new era of plenty was developing in the West.

The Soviet Union was being left far behind; some inconvenient truths such as the Chernobyl accident could still be brushed under the carpet by the Party, but the new generation in the Politburo saw that the reality of a failing system could no longer be ignored. Gorbachev’s policies introduced two Russian words into the English language: perestroika – restructuring, which reformed economic and foreign policy, and glasnost – openness, which altered the political culture to allow criticism of the regime.

Graffiti of Gorbachev on the former Berlin Wall. Image by cocoparisienne from Pixabay

As Liz Truss begins her tenure as leader of the Tory party, and therefore as prime minister, she promises radical change to restructure our economy. However, her change means dialling our current version of 20th century capitalism up to 11, rather than accepting that we are in a different era, when the climate crisis and automation’s threat to jobs might suggest the existing system is simply no longer fit for purpose. But no, let’s plough on with more of the same.

Truss argues – in the limited exposition of her economic plan she’s shared – that to help people at the bottom (who need help now!), we need growth and that the best way to achieve growth is to cut taxes at the top, to stimulate new investment and thus new jobs and wealth for all. In other words, trickle-down economics. And the yin to tax cuts’ yang is deregulation: tear up the rules and set the market free!

As for openness, what change to debate might we expect in the UK now? The Johnson era has been dictatorial, with ruthless purging and ‘badmouthing’ of critics, aided by the client media that makes up much of our ineffectual fourth estate. It seems unlikely the uncharismatic Truss could hold the press in her hand in the same way as Boris, the witty former journalist. So we might hope to see less fawning and more holding to account.

Ultimately Gorbachev’s policy choices caused the Soviet regime to slip away – disastrous when viewed as a national legacy, but monumental globally. But how different might it have been if he’d stuck to the same command economy, refused to permit open discussion and kept the same old system limping on for a few more years? Could the end of the Eastern bloc and the USSR have happened in a far more violent and dramatic way under different circumstances? In August 1991 the old guard staged an unsuccessful coup to reverse progress. There were uprisings in some of the republics, but generally the USSR dissolved almost entirely quietly.

How will things play out in the UK this winter? The pressures on ordinary people keep rising, energy and food bills continue to increase, wages don’t keep pace; small businesses which made it through Covid thanks to savings and reserves now have nothing left to cope with escalating energy costs. Meanwhile, our government responds with a range of ‘more of the same’ strategies, help for the rich in the hope they’ll create jobs, and demonisation of unions and other groups who demand fairer solutions.

It’s time for brave new ideas even if that offends the vested interests. I fear, however, that Truss is more of an Andropov than a Gorbachev. More’s the pity.