Is this the new Restoration? Sunak and Starmer hope so

John Harris

Eight long years ago, British politics began its passage into a new era of disruption and upheaval. The Scottish independence referendum of 2014 had already highlighted the weaknesses of politics-as-usual, but everything turned on the 2015 general election, in which David Cameron secured the win that set Britain on the path to Brexit, and Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP took 40 of Scotland’s Westminster seats from Labour. Confirming that we had arrived somewhere new, Nigel Farage and the UK Independence party managed to get nearly 4 million votes.
By the year’s end, the legislation for the 2016 referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU had received royal assent, and Jeremy Corbyn was the leader of the opposition. The ensuing years would see our drawn-out departure from Europe, Labour’s revival at the election of 2017 and its rout only two years later, pro- and anti-Brexit protests, an insatiable Conservative party spitting out four prime ministers, and the rising sense that the United Kingdom itself would perhaps not survive.
But now look. Sturgeon is about to quit as first minister, and the cause of Scottish independence has reached an impasse. Corbyn has been barred from even standing as a Labour candidate. Farage maintains a mischievous political presence, but now that Brexit is falling into disgrace, the discrepancy between his bark and bite is surely at an all-time high. Ten days ago, the Economist ran an article heralding Britain’s “great moderation”: of late, it said, “the image of Britain as a land of phlegmatic common sense has taken a beating”, but all these recent changes point to the return of pragmatism, calm and “a more rational form of politics”. As one era gives way to another, and we are readied for the coronation of Charles III, it may not be a coincidence that a comparable period of history seems to be back in fashion. Over the past 18 months, a handful of acclaimed new books have been published about the 17th century, the 11 volatile years England spent as a republic, and how ferment and ideological conflict led on to the restoration of the monarchy.
In Clare Jackson’s Devil-Land, Anna Keay’s The Restless Republic and the just-published The Blazing World by the Oxford historian Jonathan Healey, clear lines can be drawn from the present to the past: 400 years is perhaps not that long, and amid stories of a country seen by Europeans as a byword for “rebellion, religious extremism and regime change”, you can make out enduring national traits and recurring themes. Whereas the 21st century is the age of social media, politics back then was shaken up by the spread of pamphlets and “newsbooks”. Then, as now, conspiracy theories and misinformation abounded. Huge questions surrounded England’s relationships with Scotland and Ireland, and there were moral conflicts and what would now be considered culture wars. Moreover, just as support for Brexit and Scottish independence was rooted in many people’s impatience with established authority and strong sense of neglect, so was the appeal of the factions and sects that made the mid-17th century such a wellspring of ideas and revolt.
But then came the death of Oliver Cromwell, a collective sigh of exhaustion and exasperation, and the arrival on the throne of Charles II. As Healey’s book puts it, the restoration of the monarchy was greeted as deliverance from a “world of confusions” and “unheard-of governments”. The king’s return was also a reminder of the English mistrust of ideologues and zealots, and the fact that protracted political conflict tended to leave most people weary and perplexed. A kind of latter-day restorationism now dominates both main Westminster parties. Rishi Sunak and Jeremy Hunt clearly want voters to forget the misrule of Boris Johnson and the ideological contortions of Liz Truss, and think of his leadership in terms of the fiscally stringent Conservatism that secured Cameron his majority back in 2015.
The sales pitch is a technocratic quietening of Tory unrest, exemplified by the attempted resolution of the Northern Ireland protocol, which at one point was set to involve the King. But clearly, Conservative passions are still boiling away, as proved by the weekend’s warnings from Johnson and his allies that a deal with the EU could trigger – appropriately enough – “civil war”. Sunak presents himself as the technocratic full-stop after all those years of Tory unrest, with the resolution of the Northern Ireland protocol clearly envisaged as the final act of the Brexit drama.
At the top of the Labour party, a nostalgic orthodoxy runs even deeper. As his speech last week outlining five “national missions” reminded us, Keir Starmer does not use a particularly moral vocabulary, or offer much of an expansive vision. Beyond his creditable plans for a greener economy, everything blurs into a familiar mixture of toughness on crime and talk of “opportunity”, and his somewhat improbable quest for the “highest sustained growth in the G7”. His chosen form of politics is undeniably reminiscent of New Labour, but a later vintage than 1997: back then, Tony Blair was prone to biblical homilies about our shared duties to one another, whereas Starmer seems keener on the kind of bland formulations that came later. (“Britain forward not back” was the title of Labour’s 2005 manifesto.)
When senior Conservative and Labour figures recently met for a two-day “private discussion” about the failings of Brexit and how to put things right – a restoration-ish move if ever there was one – the latter included the veteran New Labour courtier Peter Mandelson, now once again an influential presence in Labour circles. His old masters Gordon Brown and Blair are once again regular guests on radio and TV programmes, and in newspaper comment sections. The newly confirmed candidate for East Lothian, the seat that tops Labour’s list of targets in Scotland, is Douglas Alexander, who served in the cabinet under Blair and Brown, and was one of the latter’s closest confidants; in nearby Midlothian, the party’s chosen hopeful is Kirsty McNeill, a former Brown adviser. That fallen Blairite prince David Miliband says that his possible return to Labour politics “has not been decided yet”, but other faces from the past are definitely back: the high-rolling New Labour donor Lord Sainsbury, for example, has just announced his return with an extraordinary £2m boost to party funds.
History suggests that restoration, stability and continuity have their uses, and that most people understandably prefer them to disruption and noise. In Healey’s view, by the end of the 17th century, the English republic’s febrile years were only a memory, and “a new world had arisen”. The picture he paints suggests a pre-industrial version of levelling up: “Even labourers were earning more, and famine was now a thing of the past … Towns were reborn as social hubs, rebuilt in brick and boasting coffee houses, theatres and concert halls. Trade was now the mainstay of economic life in a thriving market economy.” Here, though, is the problem. As I read those words, my thoughts kept returning to a present dominated by strikes, shortages, hunger and news of a country in an even worse state than it was back in 2015. In that context, whether historical comparisons ring true or not, the return of politics-as-usual prompts a huge question: weren’t its failures what triggered all that chaos and ferment in the first place?