Yesterday, Robert Peston tweeted out a thread about how he saw the current Boris Johnson-led government as being socialist. Peston really went for it, describing Johnson as “more Castro than Castro”. As a result, people rushed to belittle his claims. What was interesting to me was that the ones who tried to substantially rebut Peston’s claim – as opposed to just vacantly insult him – oddly demonstrated the strength of his thesis by accident.
First off, it’s worth examining what the government is doing and how it could – or even should – be considered socialist. As Peston points out, millions of workers have essentially been subsidised by the government since the Covid crisis began. A huge portion of the economy is being propped up by government money. It may not be socialism as you tend to think about it, but it certainly fits the textbook definition.
The problem is, “socialism” is a loaded term that has come to mean different things to different people. One left-leaning comedian on Twitter had a response to Peston’s thread that was telling: “He (meaning Boris) just whipped his government to vote not to give food to starving kids at Christmas, Robert”. The assumption behind this comment is that no socialist government ever had or even could choose not to pay for children’s school meals. This is the mode of thinking in which socialism is defined as a form of economic organisation in which only nice things happen to nice people and nothing bad ever happens again. Truth is, if you look at the history of socialism, taking food away from kids is actually a pretty socialist thing to do. I don’t even have to go to Stalin or Ceausescu to find things that might be relevant to this; the harsh push and pull of resources – with some people going hungry – was a common feature in every socialist society of the 20th century, even the supposedly softer ones like Tito’s Yugoslavia.
Another form of rebuttal to Peston’s tweet hits on one of my great political pet peeves. This is when left-wing commentators present social democracy and socialism as basically synonymous when they feel like it, then make out like they have nothing to do with one another if it suits them later. George Eaton’s tweet at Peston was a classic of this type, saying “A statist economy is not the same as a socialist/communist one – as any Gaullist or Christian Democrat will testify”. What makes this statement annoying beyond touching on my pet peeve is that George is actually wrong here. What the government is doing at present isn’t social democracy, which is way more interested in outcomes, such as poor kids not going hungry over half-term. No, what we’re seeing is a form of actual socialism, ie seizing of the means of production by the government.
You could argue that they have been forced into doing this by Covid. Yes, to some degree. But there are other factors which suggest that the government doesn’t mind experimenting with socialism anyhow, albeit in a way that most left-wingers would dislike. The way they are fighting to expand use of state aid post-Brexit, for instance. A lot of people argue this is just a tactic to force no deal. I don’t think so, mostly because of how the expanded use of state aid fits into Dominic Cummings’ writings over a number of years. And let’s face it, he’s really running the country right now.
The only thing in Peston’s thread I materially disagree with is that this turn towards socialism by the Tories will hamper Labour – I believe the opposite to be true. The Conservatives becoming much more statist blunts a lot of their traditional attack lines on Labour – you know, the ones around “Labour will trash the economy by spending on everything”. You can’t use that line when you are clearly already doing the same. If the choice at the next general election is between “evil socialism that is mean a lot of the time” and “nice socialism that helps poor people”, a lot of voters will choose the latter. This is one of the main reasons elections were always banned in socialist countries; otherwise the government of the day would be putting the above choice to the people and lose every time. I don’t think the Tories abandoning fiscal responsibility has been factored enough into the electoral calculus.
However you choose to define socialism, it makes no intellectual sense to define it as “anything that feels nice to my metropolitan liberal sensibilities”. Socialism can and often has been brutal. Finally, just because you think of yourself as a socialist and hate the Tories doesn’t mean they aren’t using their own form of socialism to their own ends.