British ‘idlers’: how a 2012 attack on UK’s work ethic could haunt Liz Truss

In an awkward moment during the first televised head-to-head Tory leadership debate, Liz Truss was challenged about a passage in the book Britannia Unchained, which she co-authored in 2012 when she was a new intake backbencher seeking to make her mark as a next-generation Thatcherite.

The passage in question is infamous, reading as it does: “Once they enter the workplace, 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.”

To be on the side of hardworking British people has long been safe Tory territory. To assert that such people do not exist was a risky proposition.

The passage, leaked by an eager publicist before the book’s full publication, won the authors – Truss, Dominic Raab, Kwasi Kwarteng, Priti Patel and Chris Skidmore – the kind of attention that ambitious backbenchers crave, even if the book’s wider ideas about a shrunken state, national decline and enterprise got lost in the attack on the British people’s laziness and penchant for shallow cultural trash.

The book got another round of publicity when four of the authors were handed big portfolios in Boris Johnson’s first cabinet, suggesting it showed the ideological frame of his administration. The unlucky Skidmore was cast in the role of the fifth Beatle by becoming only a minister of state.

But the mixture of despise and near contempt for the British character implicit in the fragment has clearly unnerved Truss. Challenged on it in the debate, Truss said she had not written the offending chapter, gently blaming Raab, a Rishi Sunak supporter, instead.

Sunak said he recalled that the authors of the book took collective responsibility for its contents, a reasonable point given the way the five self-consciously offered their ideas at the time as a decisive alternative to the mushy coalition Conservatism being offered by David Cameron in harness with Nick Clegg.

They were all members of the Free Enterprise Group, wrote a collective introduction to the book, authored a second, more policy-prescriptive second volume, After the Coalition, and altogether gave the impression of offering a cohesive tour d’horizon of where Britain needed to look for renewal.

Given the one-dimensional nature of the Conservative leadership contest, fought entirely within the parameters of the Tory right, many of the ideas in the book will hardly appear controversial. Weakening labour laws, reducing the size of the state, lower taxes, less welfare dependency, raising parental expectations, more science in schools – these are small change at the Tory hustings. They are hardly the equivalent of floating private health insurance in liberal democratic circles, something David Laws, a Clegg acolyte, did when he contributed to The Orange Book, a similarly controversial if less cohesive work, published in 2004.

The risk in Britannia Unchained lies not so much in individual policies shocking this current narrow electorate, but instead the whole on your own two feet tone, jarring in an era when the wider public after the pandemic and at a time of raging fuel prices have learned to see the state as a source of protection, not oppression.

Written by the cream of the 2010 intake inhabiting largely wealthy, safe, southern English seats, the tone may also play less well in the “red wall”. MPs nursing small majorities may blanch, for instance, when they read: “We should stop indulging in irrelevant debates about sharing the pie between manufacturing and services, the north and the south, women and men. Instead, we should focus on trying to make it easier for firms to recruit people and ensuring the tax burden is less onerous.”

The book is littered with calls for ever harsher medicine. “We must stop bailing out the reckless, avoiding all risk and rewarding laziness.” “The bald fact is that the only successful approach to poor performance has turned out to be hard work.” “The average Singaporean works two hours and 20 minutes a day longer than the average Brit.” “There is no need for managed decline, but Britain will only get there if people are willing to take the tougher options.”

The Science Museum is scolded for trying to make its exhibitions relevant. Media studies are anathema. By contrast, Korean students are lauded for “going straight from long days at school to studying all evening and weekends”. And that is all before you get to the chapter on the work ethic. The Joy of Living this is not. Under Truss, it will be double maths every day.

Many views seem to have been derived from conversations with “industrious London cabbies”, ironically an industry wiped out by Uber, the kind of US tech firm praised by the authors.

The other worker held in high esteem is the Polish migrant, but sadly their work ethic too has been lost to the UK labour market – thanks to UK state regulation. The possibility that low productivity is linked to low capital investment or poor management is not investigated. Despite the book’s self-declared optimism, it is relentlessly negative about the feckless British.

The authors’ refreshing determination to learn lessons from overseas economies – so long as they are not European – leads Truss and her fellow authors to gloss over authoritarian states, a subject that now animates her.

“As British politicians we feel that it is particularly helpful to learn from the successes of China and other emerging economies. China’s march to prominence has been accompanied by rigorous educational standards and intense spirit of competition.” The most remarkable aspect of the Chinese leadership is not their politics but that so many are engineers. Dubai is praised for its lack of regulations. In the search for prosperity, human rights deserve no mention.

A long chapter praising Brazil’s optimism did not foresee the advent of Jair Bolsonaro. Russia gets precisely one mention. Israel’s technological startups are praised as if the state played no role. US technology is lauded and the dominance of tech in children’s lives admonished, without any link being made.

But credos and tracts written a decade ago to catch the eye come with these inherent risks. Most politicians’ ideas are ephemeral and rapidly pass their sell-by date. No harm done. The same cannot be said if a book reveals such an un-nuanced Darwinian attitude, a charge sometimes laid against Truss.

Indeed, it is quite possible that at the next election two competing visions of the state will be the point of contest. Do you want an arm around your shoulder or a kick up the backside? If that proves true, Britannia Unchained may prove more of a shackle and less a source of liberation for the Tory party.

The Guardian