openDemocracyUK: Opinion

Is Boris Johnson the raucous clan chieftain that feudal Britain deserves?

In a country where land ownership pays more than work, it’s no wonder that corruption slides off the back of rulers pumping up the property bubble

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
5 June 2021, 7.00am
Boris Johnson greets Hungary’s far-Right leader, Viktor Orbán, at Downing Street
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Joshua Bratt/Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

The current state of British politics only makes sense once you understand that the country is becoming increasingly feudal.

After a long year of allegations of Covid cronyism, donation scandals and the bizarre story of the Downing Street refurb, Boris Johnson is still strolling out ahead in the polls.

How to explain this solidity of support other than to see Johnson as the booze-swilling, raucously shagging clan chieftain that this moment demands?

As the flickering dream of an ageing landed class that’s shaggy at the edges, but conservative at its core, that grew up after sex was ‘invented’, then got fat off the property boom?

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The simplest way to tell that Britain is an increasingly feudal society is that land and who owns it is becoming more and more important, while labour and capital are rapidly losing significance. Wages have long stagnated, while house prices have grown by an average of 5% a year.

As openDemocracy’s economics editor, Laurie Macfarlane, has pointed out, three-quarters of the increase in the UK’s wealth between 1995 and 2016 came from the rising price of houses.

Conveyor belt of wealth

This trend has been so dramatic that, by 2018, the real estate market was contributing almost as much to UK GDP as all of production. And with house prices rising by almost 11% during the first year of the pandemic, while, for obvious reasons, productivity crashed, buying and selling homes likely now plays a far more significant role in our economy than making things.

The rapid churning of the property market acts as a conveyor belt, carrying wealth from poor to rich. Rising house prices are paid for by those struggling to afford mortgages or rent, while most of the benefits are handed to the well-off: if you owned a million-pound house in an average location a year ago, you’re now notionally £110,000 richer. If you owned a £100,000 house, you’re only £11,000 richer.

Equity release, buy-to-let and downsizing all mean that it’s increasingly easy to convert that notional wealth into hard cash – unearned money skimmed from someone else’s wages.

But while the better-off always come out best, a solid majority feel like they’re gaining: about 65% of British adults are homeowners. And so it’s hardly a surprise that the property boom unleashed by the ‘race for space’ has made people feel richer.

And being a nation of people whose fates are tied to the magic property market machine rather than earned wages has significant psychological effects. That, after all, was the point of Thatcher’s housing revolution. “Economics are the method,” she famously said. “The object is to change the soul.”

If your wealth comes from work, you can see its value as a collective endeavour. If it comes from the random soaring of property values, you are more likely to hoard the treasure

If your wealth comes from work, most people quickly see that its production is a collective endeavour: something that’s done together. And most working people consistently vote to the Left – including Labour in the 2019 election, while voters with wealth are more likely to support right-wing causes – including Brexit – despite what much of the media has tried to convince you about the ‘left behind’.

If, on the other hand, your fortunes come from a random soaring of property values that you benefit from through zero effort, then you’re more likely to see wealth like a hoard of treasure to carefully guard, and portion out through ties of fealty and family.

In 2017, when the Democratic Unionist Party was wading through a swamp of corruption allegations, I spent some time wandering round a Loyalist estate in Belfast, asking people what they thought. There were, of course, several viewpoints, but one perspective has stuck in my mind.

A bald man, who appeared to be in his fifties, pointed to a nearby playground that boasted a new climbing frame in the shape of a tank, and claimed that the DUP was good at bringing money into “the community”.

For him, the allegations of corruption weren’t off-putting. Instead, he found them to be evidence that these were people who could bring treasure back to their clan. He and his family may be at the back of the queue for its distribution, but at least it was coming down their line.

Since then, I’ve found myself in essentially the same conversation again and again in various countries. I heard this viewpoints from supporters of the far-Right party Fidesz in Hungary (similarly widely believed to be corrupt); from voters for Andrej Babiš in Czechia, who is both prime minister and the country’s second richest man; and from voters for Smer, the long-term governing party of Slovakia, which was deposed last year.

Pirate kings of imperial plunder

Often, this view of corruption tessellates with specific chapters of nationalist mythology: wealth and contracts are doled out first to the strong men of the country, or the heroes of this or that moment in history.

This applies just as much in Britain, where the ruling class secured its place in the national myth as the pirate kings of imperial plunder, as in Hungary, where oligarchs' images reflect with the Magyar warlords who came down from the steppe to found the country.

If your family’s place in line for the share of national treasure is determined by history, then a certain view of history must be defended at all cost – which is why it’s becoming a specific offence to damage a statue you object to in the UK, and why Hungarian historians have been dragged through the courts for criticising the country’s medieval kings.

For the Orbáns and Johnsons of the world, though, this strategy comes with a risk. For the past decade, both Fidesz and the Tories have built political support on the thin skin of a housing bubble. But the thing about bubbles is, they burst.

Although the pandemic has accelerated Britain’s property market boom, in Hungary, the collapse in the buy-to-AirBnB market in Budapest has put a pin in Orbán’s floating sunbed. In 2020, house prices fell by 18%, and his support has crashed in the polls, to the extent that he could well lose the next election.

In contrast, the British property market is inflated by a national obsession with home decor as well as the money laundering of oligarchs. COVID has diminished neither.

And so Johnson continues to be king, straddling his ever-inflating bouncy castle – as the super rich get richer, and the average working Briton gets poorer.

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