Letter from . . . February 2020
Conservatives & conservatives
On the past and future of party membership in Britain.
The shock of the size and the nature of the Conservative Party’s victory in December’s British general election will resonate for some time yet. In the weeks before it, and despite the country’s having the most extreme left-wing Opposition in its history, few could quite believe anything more than a narrow Tory victory was possible. The Labour Party had appeared so embedded in its tribal heartlands, notably in the post-industrial north of England, that it seemed impossible that it could be forced out of them. And, indeed, a number of major northern cities still returned no Conservative MPs, including Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Sheffield, and Leeds. Other smaller towns that had not known anything other than a Labour MP within living memory, however, suddenly turned from red to blue (in Britain, Labour’s traditional color is red, while the Tories’ is blue). It was not that Labour’s erstwhile supporters failed to turn out: rather, a lot of them turned out and voted Conservative.
The reason so few of us in the college of British political pundits predicted Boris Johnson’s substantial victory was that so few of us realized how political loyalties that went back four or five generations among the English industrial class had eroded. For forty years, the Labour Party had exploited the grievances of those left behind by the triumph of Thatcherism, as the reconstruction of the British economy closed down large parts of uncompetitive (and usually nationalized) staple industries—or, in the case of the coal industry, all of it. Broadcast media in particular, shaped as it is in Britain by leftist, metropolitan editorial directors, concentrated its attention on the resistance to the incumbent Conservative Party, not on the weaknesses of the Labour challengers. Such people seemed not to want to break out of the metropolitan mindset, just as they failed to do in 2016, at the time of the European Union referendum. The London television media, and that in the other big English regional urban centers such as Manchester, Leeds, and Birmingham, took Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party, at his own estimation of himself—something most of the print media did not. This simply confirmed that too many of those who make the editorial decisions in broadcast media found nothing exceptional in Corbyn’s anti-capitalist, anti-British vision of the future. It is now clear that in their often unthinking determination to represent the “woke,” minority-obsessed urban elite that most normal people find irrelevant and even offensive, they, like the Corbyn clique, ostracized themselves from the actual mainstream of society. Once the results started to come in late on December 12, the difference between expectations and reality became immediately apparent.
Labour’s disconnection from “its people” was not unprecedented, and therefore perhaps should have been more easily predicted.
Apparent, too, was how the Labour Party had detached itself from the very people it was founded to represent. It flourishes most now in London, whose idealistic, bohemian, middle-class denizens can afford the luxury of aspiring to a neo-Stalinist government much more than most genuine working-class people ever could. It is where Corbyn, its defeated, and soon to be replaced, leader, has his power base. There was much talk during the campaign of the “metropolitan bubble” within which this discrete tribe of Labour supporters lived. Their main political obsessions had become those of the “woke” movement—minority rights principal among them. The areas that deserted Labour are populated by those who think “woke” is the past participle of the verb “to wake.” Their great concerns are the failures of the National Health Service, the crime wave caused by cuts to the police force, and the underperformance of pupils in state schools. Labour talked endlessly about health, not least in claiming that America would “buy” the nhs as a consequence of the prospective post-Brexit trade deal that the Conservative government hopes to do. But it never convinced the public that its concerns about the nhs were motivated by fears of the sick going unhealed rather than by fears that some of its clientele in the heavily unionized workforce of 1.3 million could lose their jobs. The other pressing issues seemed of little concern to the putative next government. The people noticed.
Labour’s disconnection from “its people” was not, however, unprecedented, and therefore perhaps should have been more easily predicted. It had happened in urban constituencies in the south of England at the time of Mrs. Thatcher’s rise to power in 1979. That swapping of allegiances came after working-class people in these districts had supported Labour in the historic 1945 election (which had, by a landslide, put Clement Attlee in office and sent Winston Churchill into opposition just as he won the war) and then played a significant part in four Labour victories in 1964, 1966, and at two general elections in 1974. And the same dissociation happened in Scotland in 2015 and continued in 2019; while Labour held as recently as the 2010 election forty-one of the fifty-nine parliamentary seats in Scotland, it won only one in December 2019, while the separatist Scottish National Party won forty-eight. Faced with a choice between homegrown socialism and a socialism bestowed upon them by what the Scottish National Party regards as a colonial oppressor, Scotland now routinely chooses the former. Labour still has not come to terms with the reality that if it cannot win a large share of seats in Scotland, it will almost certainly not form a British government again anytime soon, whether or not Scotland chooses to remain in the United Kingdom.
But what the 2019 election has told us about the British people is something we, in our heart of hearts, knew already: that however they might vote, the British (and more particularly the English, Welsh, and Northern Irish) are a profoundly conservative people. Some might have economic sympathies with socialism, but they readily embrace values consonant with the reputation and history of the British people—what Ralph Waldo Emerson called “English traits”—and are reluctant to vote for parties or political leaders that repudiate them. The intrusion into the lives of individuals that doctrinaire, Corbynite socialism would have entailed was at odds with the idea of British bloody-mindedness and resistance to state control. But there is another element in the national character, particularly among the working class, that was lacking in the offer Corbyn’s Labour Party—which spends much time apologizing for Britain’s alleged misdeeds, both current and historic—made to them. A useful shorthand for it is the idea of “patriotism,” something the average Briton often finds as easy to discuss as his sexual habits or the Greek New Testament. But confronted by Corbyn and his neo-Stalinist cronies, hundreds of thousands of Labour voters decided that to support them was not something they could reconcile with their consciences, or their identity as Britons—because Corbyn and his chums lacked that fundamental core of patriotic conservatism that even good Labour voters need as part of their political cocktail.
Whenever there was the chance to show his hatred of his country, its values, its traditions, its mores, Corbyn seized it hungrily.
Corbyn had, in over thirty-five years in the House of Commons, taken every possible opportunity to flaunt his anti-conservative (as opposed to his anti-Conservative) and, it seemed, anti-British credentials. Whenever there was the chance to show his hatred of his country, its values, its traditions, its mores, Corbyn seized it hungrily. In 1984, days after the Irish Republican Army attempted to kill Mrs. Thatcher and her cabinet by blowing up the Grand Hotel at Brighton, where they were staying during the Tory Party’s conference, he brought some of the Republican movement’s most virulent activists to the House of Commons. Over twenty years later, when Islamic extremists were attempting to kill people on the streets of Britain, Corbyn ostentatiously shared platforms with radicalized British Muslims, or went abroad to fraternize with members of terrorist organizations in the Middle East. A number of members of his party, sharing his sympathies, started to express opinions that were blatantly anti-Semitic. This last example of offensive behavior quite rightly became an issue at the election, with the English Chief Rabbi asking his co-religionists not to vote Labour. Corbyn dragged his feet in apologizing for the bigotry exhibited by his party, and when he eventually did so, his half-heartedness convinced no-one. When in the 1930s Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirt movement attempted to import fascism into Britain and, in keeping with the example of its European masters, launched a campaign of noxious anti-Semitism, it never became more than a minority interest. The British values of live and let live would not allow it to; moreover, as P. G. Wodehouse displayed in his caricature of Mosley as the lingerie baron Sir Roderick Spode, Mosley was, to British sensibilities, inherently absurd. So were Hitler and Mussolini, and ridiculing them became the basis of British propaganda campaigns against the Axis during the Second World War. The contemporary electorate did not need to ridicule Corbyn; they had the good fortune to have an election that they could use to express their contempt for him, and to end his political career, denying him the grip on power that would have made ridicule necessary.
The British working class generally love their country, have a sense of identity rooted in its history and way of life, and profoundly believe in a Britishness, or increasingly Englishness, that has come to embody values that they instinctively share and endorse. This is clear from their attitudes towards their national football or cricket teams, their huge support for the Queen, and, of course, the decision (in which they played a major part) to leave the European Union and have Britain, once more, stand on its own two feet. These things are profoundly conservative. When they came to vote, it wasn’t just that they had to decide whether they could support the decidedly un-conservative spending promises that Labour made, which included £58 billion to compensate women disadvantaged by the decision to raise the pensionable age, a four-day work week, “free” (that is, taxpayer-funded) broadband for everyone, and a huge program of nationalizations. They also had to decide whether they could bring themselves to vote for a man and a potential regime that had Hugo Chávez and Hamas in their pantheon of heroes, that tolerated Jew-baiting, that were overtly republican (Corbyn has spent much of his political life expressing his disregard for the idea of monarchy), and which seemed to be searching out popular or treasured aspects of British national life and culture to attack and, preferably, to destroy.
In the end, that simply wasn’t possible. Working-class people who had always, like their parents and grandparents, voted Labour could do so no more. Enough, it seems, was enough. Labour had come a very long way from the era when it coalesced during a Tory government led by Winston Churchill, when men such as its leader Clement Attlee (who had fought with distinction in the First World War) put the salvation of the country and its way of life at the heart of their beliefs. But one does not have to go back eighty years to find patriotic Labour politicians. In the 1960s and ’70s, Hugh Gaitskell and Barbara Castle, both prominent within the Labour Party, resisted British entry to what became the European Union because of what they sincerely believed to be the superiority of British democratic practices that would be lost if the nation ceased to be sovereign; Gaitskell made a famous speech at his party’s 1962 conference about the threat to “a thousand years of history” if Britain entered Europe, so profound was his belief in the desirability of maintaining British values and institutions. Millions of people who voted for his party agreed with him. When Jim Callaghan was Labour prime minister from 1976 to 1979, he established a rapport with the Queen that even Mrs. Thatcher could not match or emulate. Tony Blair gave the world “Cool Britannia,” boosting British cultural exceptionalism, an idea that those on what is now called the Corbynite Left of the Labour Party found utterly contemptible, and which they added to their lengthening charge-sheet against Blair. By the time Corbyn took over his party in 2015 any suggestion that there might be anything praiseworthy about Britain became anathema to his adherents; the more obvious this became, the more the inherently conservative British working class turned against him.
This new society is in fact an old society; it embraces the values of moderation and unashamed patriotism that no Labour leader, and few working-class people of a generation or two ago, would have thought to conceal or question. How Prime Minister Johnson will retain the support of these conservative ex-Labour voters is the most serious challenge that faces him. He will need to disprove the contention by some Labour politicians that the Conservatives have only “borrowed” the votes and ensure that those votes will stay with him for elections to come. The mass membership of the Labour party remains Corbynite and is likely to choose someone in Corbyn’s image to replace him in the spring when the party leadership contest finally takes place. That would seem to rule out a shift towards the center by Labour; it may well not rule out the creation, at last, of a centrist party that can tempt back the working-class people driven by desperation to abandon Labour, so much so that they vote Conservative rather than abstain.
Britain is now not only going to be an independent nation again, with Brexit in effect from the evening of January 31, but it has just reaffirmed itself through its behavior during the election as a conservative one. Johnson’s difficulty may be that his tribal supporters now want a renewal of the Thatcherite project; his new recruits would prefer something far more redolent of the “One Nation” Conservatism of her predecessors, notably Harold Macmillan and Edward Heath. As he embarks on his program, he must above all remember that although Britain has proved yet again its deep conservatism, it is not yet Conservative.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 38 Number 6, on page 31
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