The Hydra of Lerna in Greek and Roman mythology was a venomous, multi-headed water serpent that guarded the entrance to the underworld. In some versions of the myth, the hydra was able to regenerate its severed heads, growing two where one had previously existed. Myths provide us with symbolic narrative explanations for aspects of the physical and metaphysical world. They are part of the repertoire of stories that makes up humanity’s oldest pedagogic strategy—its means of passing knowledge from one generation to another. Over time, stories are interpreted and reinterpreted against a panoply of socio-cultural and technological changes, but they remain a means for understanding the world as it is.
In our own time, the hydra might be an apt metaphor for explaining the current crisis in Britain—a crisis that has been building for at least the last four decades, culminating in the awkwardly resolute figure of Margaret Thatcher’s Second Coming in Liz Truss. New premier Truss is being pilloried as the cause of the crisis by large swathes of the British public, and nervous members of her own party fearful that evaporating majorities will eventuate in their loss of power at the next election, which is still two years away. After only a month, sections of the Tory Party are calling for Truss’s dismissal and one section is campaigning for the resurrection of Boris Johnson. If Truss has a fault, it is perhaps trying to be as resolute and transparent as Thatcher was, but without the same public macro-economic resources at her disposal as Thatcher had. Thatcher privatised almost all of Britain’s nationalised services and utilities, as well as implementing regressive public expenditure cuts, in order to fund tax cuts.
Over four decades the gap between the richest 1 per cent of the population and the remaining 99 per cent has been widening, with millions of people forced into poverty, surviving on handouts from thousands of foodbanks, most of which did not exist even ten years ago. Despite living in the sixth richest economy in the world, this winter millions of people will be forced to choose between heating their homes and eating. The crisis in Britain is as much a moral one, as it is an economic one. Truss has come under attack because, along with her Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng, she initiated an interim budget in which the cap on bankers’ bonuses would be removed and the richest 1 per cent would receive a 5 per cent cut in taxes. This decision has since been reversed as it became clear it might not be passed by parliament. In addition, the government is borrowing an estimated £89 billion to give to already highly profitable private energy companies to offset increases in domestic energy bills. Even so, for millions of people bills will double, and in some instances quadruple. By contrast, the nationalised energy company in France intends to increase charges by only 4 per cent.
Beneath the spectacle of the deepest crisis in living memory lurks the omniscient four-headed monster, the true cause of Britain’s demise. The first head of the Hydra of Albion is neoliberalism, the second an entrenched class system, the third the residual myth of Empire, and the last the opiate of the masses, the British media.
The neoliberal experiment initiated in the 1980s by Thatcher and continued in varying degrees of intensity by successive governments since promotes ‘small government’ and the freedom of the marketplace, alongside legislation designed to protect the pursuit of profit. State provision of collective services has been progressively cut. For example, the NHS, once the jewel in the crown of the British welfare state, is on the point of possibly terminal decline, and swathes of the public service are now run by private companies. Weak environment laws are being exploited by privatised water companies that are releasing millions of gallons of raw sewage into Britain’s rivers and seas with impunity. A ban on fracking is to be reversed despite it being an uneconomic enterprise in Britain, and despite fears of earth tremors and damage to homes. What is left of the state is becoming increasingly coercive. On top of anti-trade-union laws, the Police, Crime and Sentencing Act 2022 imposes new restrictions and lengthy prison sentences on protestors.
An endemic feature of Britain is its class system, a product of capitalist modes of production emanating from the Industrial Revolution that began in the mid-eighteenth century. Although the classic Marxist demarcation of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat is reported as having fragmented across seven social grouping based on differences of wealth and social and cultural capital, the highest class identified in the BBC’s Great British Class Survey Experiment has a household income of £89,000, which is about half the amount cited by social geographer Danny Dorling as the lowest parameter for the richest 1 per cent in Britain (the upper parameter includes multi-billionaires). The BBC survey does not appear to capture the privilege enjoyed by the established elite, which is symbolised by the monarchy, Eton and the House of Lords. The elite continues to be predominantly educated at private schools and Oxbridge, and gateways to ‘choice’, power and status remain largely closed to those from the ‘lower classes’, whom the elite view with disdain. Social class in Britain is both an instrument of economic division and one of symbolic violence.
Although Britain is no longer a commanding world power, its postcolonial position is fused with the residual fantasy of Empire. The narcissism associated with Empire permeates British society from the playing fields of Eton to the terraces of football clubs up and down England, with the possible exception of Anfield where Liverpool supporters have little regard for the trappings of nationalism. Racism, with its roots in Empire and slavery, has never been eradicated in British society and is on the rise again. One manifestation of this is the increase in racist attacks over the past seven years, a period which coincides with Brexit. Another is the planned deportation of migrants to Rwanda and the real risk of human rights violations.
Effective democracies thrive when citizens are well informed about the workings of their own society, but large sections of the mass media employ rhetorical devices and silence to maintain the social and political status quo. On 1 October 2022, hundreds of thousands of people joined protests in over 50 towns and cities across Britain to call for a raft of social and economic improvements, but these demonstrations went largely unreported. The British press, which is owned by five billionaires including Rupert Murdoch, predominantly serves the interest of the elite by keeping the masses in ignorance. Broadsheets with low circulation figures and a small radical press provide alternative perspectives, but only reach a marginal audience.
The four heads of the Hydra of Albion conjoin at the body of a monolithic monster that guards an underworld of increasing government corruption and cronyism. Its venom, an opiate of lies, obfuscates and beguiles the public, and it will take a feat of Herculean effort to slay the monster before it regenerates its multiple heads. In the meantime, solutions to the current crisis will be sought that leave the beast intact. Ultimately, Britons will never be free until they eradicate the extremes of social class inequality, replace neoliberalism with a fairer economic system, replace the press barons with a more democratic media, and stop the perpetual dream of Empire.
Gavin Lewis, Mar 2022
Are UK Labour and other such subverted parties globally that are ostensibly of the Left still worth voting for?