In 2002, Theresa May famously said to the party faithful,
“Yes, we’ve made progress, but let’s not kid ourselves. There’s a way to go before we can return to government. … You know what some people call us: the nasty party.“
Since regaining power, however, it does not seem as though the Conservative Party has been trying to seem any less nasty: quite the reverse, many of its most prominent members seem to glory in showing how nasty they can be. As Suella Braverman said,
“I would love to have a front page of The Telegraph with a plane taking off to Rwanda; that’s my dream, it’s my obsession.”
Is this incompetence? Is it arrogance? Is it a government that feels it no longer needs to hide?
This performative cruelty may, in fact, be a well-constructed and dangerously effective electoral strategy.
It works like this: the government has underperformed on so many dimensions – for electoral purposes, most notably the rapidly falling living standards of the UK population – that it is hard for it to attack the opposition parties directly without facing an obvious and damaging response. There is really no element of its record on which it could campaign.
But a carefully targeted campaign of performative cruelty can give it powerful electoral weapons:
- It gives the government a way to divide the population;
- It gives them a way to to provoke the opposition into adopting a vulnerable position; and so,
- It gives them a way to attack the opposition without facing obvious counter-attacks.
As Lee Anderson, the Deputy Chair of the Conservative Party put it:
“The big thing in terms of 2019, there were three things that won us the election: … it was Brexit, it was Boris, it was Corbyn, and it was as simple as that. At the next election we haven’t got those three things, so we’ll have to think of something else. It’ll probably be a mix of culture wars and trans debate.”
Performative Cruelty Gives a Way to Divide the Population
The first step in the process is to identify a suitable target group. The group needs to be small enough (or else left-voting enough) to be sacrificed without losing too many votes. It needs to be a group that can be blamed (not necessarily with any factual basis) for most of our problems. (And of course it must not be a group like tax-avoiders, which would include most of the party’s major donors).
Suitable groups include:
- Migrants – who can be portrayed as invading us, taking our jobs, living on benefits, overloading our schools and hospitals, etc, etc;
- The low-paid – in their book, Britannia Unchained, Kwasi Kwarteng, Priti Patel, Dominic Raab, Chris Skidmore and Liz Truss wrote of British workers, “The British are among the worst idlers in the world. We work among the lowest hours, we retire early and our productivity is poor. Whereas Indian children aspire to be doctors or businessmen, the British are more interested in football and pop music.”
- The disabled – it is easy to imply that the disabled are malingerers, inventing or milking a condition in order to live a life of luxury on benefits while hard working families struggle;
- The unemployed – the demonisation of the unemployed has a long history. Many politicians have implied that being unemployed is just a “lifestyle choice” for many people;
- Trans women – the Right can imply that trans women are merely predatory men seeking either sporting success or access to women’s changing rooms in order to rape them.
Once a target group has been chosen, then a campaign of ‘hard-hitting’ speeches supported by coverage in the right-wing media can drive large sections of the public to see that group as a major threat to their own lives, livelihoods or culture.
Performative Cruelty Gives a Way to Provoke the Opposition
Once public perception has shifted sufficiently – by the time of the Brexit vote over 50% of the population had been persuaded to see migration as a major issue for the UK – it is safe to enact visibly unfair legislation targeting the group in question. This is where the performative cruelty comes into play.
The more visibly cruel and gratuitous the legislation and associated rhetoric, the more difficult it becomes for progressive forces not to position themselves as defenders of the victims. And this is the real objective.
Conservative MP Jonathan Gullis recently explained that he was pleased with the government’s anti-refugee stance because it
“upset all the right people in the right places. Let’s be clear, when I talk about upsetting people I’m talking about the Twitterati, the wokerati of North Islington – those champagne socialists who pontificate all day.”
The policy is, in other words, intended to provoke.
Performative Cruelty Gives a Way to Attack the Opposition
If opposition parties – or even just progressive campaigners – speak out, they can be painted as being interested only in minority rights. They can be ridiculed for indulging in identity politics instead of focusing on the real issues the country faces – and that will be resonant with many of those who are not part of the targeted minority. If they are not careful, by responding to the provocation, they open themselves to attack.
The Illegal Migration Bill has been widely criticised on the basis that it is not only cruel and in breach of international law – something the Home Secretary has not even sought to hide – but that it will fail to stop the boats.
But that may be a feature, not a bug: if the deportation of refugees to Rwanda is halted by judicial review, then the judges become the enemies of the people. We saw this when the courts ruled illegal Johnson’s proposed proroguing of Parliament to avoid scrutiny of his Brexit deal.
But of course, it is not just judges who can be attacked: it is anyone who opposes the cruelty. As Suella Braverman chose to phrase her attack:
“I am afraid, Madam Deputy Speaker, it’s the Labour Party, it’s the Lib Dems, it’s the coalition of chaos, it’s the Guardian-reading, tofu-eating wokerati – dare I say the anti-growth coalition – that we have to thank for the disruption that we are seeing on our roads today.”
So the deflection is complete: a government with a record so poor that it has no way of campaigning on any element of it has successfully created a narrative where the problems faced by ordinary Britons are caused by minority X; the opposition care only about minority X, not the great suffering majority; and the only party prepared to be tough and defend the UK population by addressing the threats posed by minority X is the government.
Those who oppose these tactics need to do so carefully to avoid falling into the trap, while robustly condemning the cruelty.
This is easier said than done. There are several ways to get it wrong:
- Progressive voices can allow themselves to be branded by the Conservatives;
- They can allow themselves to be positioned as supporting only the targeted minority;
- They can fail to respond altogether.
It is surprisingly tempting to adopt the brand the Conservatives are pushing. Thinking that they are ridiculing the rhetoric of the Right, progressives inadvertently make it plausible. When Liz Truss invented her “anti-growth coalition” many progressive voices thought it would be amusing to adopt the phrase as part of their Twitter profiles. To other progressives the message is clear; but to much of the public, it suggests that Truss was right: there really is an anti-growth coalition. The well-meaning Tweet below shows the risk.
Braverman’s phrase “the coalition of chaos, the Guardian-reading, tofu-eating wokerati” seems designed to provoke this kind of self-defeating attempt at ridicule.
It is even easier for progressives to allow themselves to be positioned as supporting only the targeted minority. A natural response like “I stand with the refugees” or “Refugees welcome” plays into the hands of the Conservatives. It enables them to say, “only we stand with the British people against the invasion of people who wish to do us harm.”
And failing to respond is not a viable option for those who oppose the Conservatives’ policies. Not only is it morally unacceptable, it is electorally damaging: other progressives see them as being as bad as the Conservatives, while the many of the population sees them as not helping.
So how can those who oppose this government respond?
In military strategy, choosing the battleground on which to fight is key. The Conservatives wish to focus on Minority X; the opposition should focus resolutely on the government’s record. Comments about the Illegal Immigration Bill should be sandwiched between re-framing paragraphs – both before and after – such as:
“After 13 years of failed Conservative policies, most of the 68 million people in this country are poorer than they were at the end of the last Labour government, we are experiencing the worst fall in living standards since records began, our economy is the weakest of the major economies, and our NHS is in crisis. The government is desperately trying to blame all of these problems on 40,000 refugees who are crossing the channel precisely because the government closed all legal routes. The British people have had enough. Nobody is fooled by this. We demand a change.”
If you are concerned about this government’s intentions and would like to help, take a look at the 99% Organisation and join us.