Thursday’s local elections in Britain look somewhat less dramatic than people were expecting in the light of national opinion polls showing Theresa May’s Tories literally twice as popular as the Labour Opposition. The BBC summary was: Tories gain eleven councils and 563 seats; Labour lose seven councils and 382 seats; and UKIP retains just one seat nationally.
That looks pretty good for the Tories, very bad for Labour; disappointing for the Liberal Democrats; and terminally bad for UKIP.
That’s a massive turnaround from the results of the 2010 election, when the Tories fell short of a majority, and the 2015 election, when they had a small and vulnerable majority. What happened in the meanwhile?
The answer, of course, is Brexit.
To grasp why and how that’s happening, we should first consider the nature of the Tory party.
Toryism has three overlapping identities. It is the party of economic freedom and enterprise — Mrs. Thatcher is the purest symbol of that identity. It is the party of British nationalism — Churchill and Disraeli are the greatest figures in that tradition. Its third strand, however, is a more complicated one: It’s the party that always seeks to interpret, defend, and advance the interests of the British state in a skeptical and non-partisan way — Lord Salisbury and Sir Robert Peel are the most distinguished exemplars of that view.
It was this third strand of Toryism that Orwell was contemplating when he wrote in his essay on Kipling that the distinguishing mark of a Conservative is a sense of responsibility. He cannot be content with merely criticizing an abuse or error. He always feels that he must answer the question “What should we do about that?”
On Britain’s grand strategy in world politics, most Tories have thought that Britain should promote a liberal world order rooted in sound money, free trade, free capital movement, and property rights.
Obviously, different people will give different answers. On the matter of Britain’s grand strategy in world politics, most Tories, including both Peel and Salisbury, have given the answer that Britain should promote a liberal world order rooted in sound money, free trade, free capital movement, and property rights. For most of the last 200 years it has served Britain well. In pursuit of that strategy, Salisbury appeased the United States from the Venezuela crisis onward — and its ultimate result was the peaceful transfer of world leadership from Britain to the U.S. in 1941 and the subsequent rebuilding of the world liberal order after 1945. Andrew Gamble, a friendly critic of Toryism from a social-democratic standpoint, even calls this strategy “Anglo-America” in his powerful 2004 book on British politics. There he concedes regretfully that Anglo-America has shown more staying power than he would ever have predicted. (I suspect that recent events have entrenched his opinion.)
By the late 1950s, however, a strong movement arose in British politics advocating the adoption of an almost opposite strategy of immersing Britain in a new European polity rooted in a more protectionist, regulated, and centralized economic and political structure. Some Tory leaders in this third tradition concluded that British membership in the European Union was the answer not only to the decline of British world power but also to their party’s need for a non-socialist form of modernization. They succeeded (not always by the nicest or most honest methods) in persuading the Tory party — and, over time, the nation — to embrace joining the EU.
But the idea that the interests of the British state could be advanced by sinking its identity and institutions into those of an entirely different state was always a paradox too far. Thus the Tories never embraced this policy by a substantial and lasting majority. They continually rebelled against its extensions and implications for policy such as the Lisbon and Maastricht treaties. And they saw some of their more dedicated supporters in the electorate defect to other parties or slide into apathy, abstention, and protest from a sense that the party had betrayed its nature and purpose.
As time went on, moreover, the EU project revealed itself to be more and more hostile to all three Tory traditions. To the Toryism of economic freedom it became clear that the EU was a protectionist bloc rather than a free-trade area. In Lady Thatcher’s memoirs there’s a hilarious moment when she complains to French president François Mitterrand that the EU’s trade and agricultural policy is harming the GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) round because it’s protectionist.
“Of course, it’s protectionist,” he replies. “That’s the whole point.” And as the Tory party became more free-market-minded, so it became more critical of the EU.
Patriotic Tories were equally offended by the extension of the EU’s legal and political authority into both domestic U.K. politics and the conduct of foreign policy. And Tories in the Peel and Salisbury school were driven toward a practical Euroscepticism by the failures of the European Union — in particular the impact of the euro and migrant crises — and its refusal to subject them to rational analysis and reform. None of the three Tory traditions could realistically see such developments as being in the interest of the British state, British nationhood, British liberty, or the grand strategy of Anglo-America.
What the Brexit vote did was to make it both possible and respectable for all three Tory traditions to support leaving Europe. That liberated people to abandon the fixed positions and conventional wisdom of the previous 40 years. And over the next few months, following the replacement of Cameron by May, the Tories gradually reassembled themselves as a post-European party.
That is having more consequences on the electoral fortunes of all parties than most commentators expected. But that’s because they have forgotten U.K. electoral history from, say, 1930 to 1970. Throughout those years the Tory party received the votes of fully one-third of working-class voters. Moreover, that one-third provided the Tories with one-half of their total electoral support. And it drew that support from all over the British Isles, not merely from the South-East. When the Tories committed themselves as a party to support EU membership, they drove away their supporters in the patriotic working class and, in recent years, in the Thatcherite private-sector middle class as well. By weakening the British identity in this way, they strengthened the appeal of local nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales. And they fostered the rise of UKIP as a vehicle for the specifically British loyalties and opinions they had abandoned or heavily qualified in a “European” direction.
Brexit has reversed those electoral trends in an astonishingly rapid way.
If the expected Tory landslide next month occurs, it means that the Tories have reassembled the broad-based majority national coalition they enjoyed from 1931 to 1970.
If the expected Tory landslide next month occurs, it means that the Tories have reassembled the broad-based majority national coalition they enjoyed from 1931 to 1970, when it began seriously to splinter. This prospect is strongly reminiscent of the 1931 election, which brought to power a Tory-dominated National Government with more than five-sixths of MPs on the government benches. That election brought to an end a period of parliamentary instability that had seen two minority governments in the previous decade. It introduced 43 years during which the Tories, either alone or in coalition, were in power for 31 of them. That is the prospect beckoning Theresa May.
Today, as in 1931, the opposition parties are divided and distrusted.
It’s well known that Labour is burdened by a leader, Jeremy Corbyn, and a Left movement among its grassroots that have adopted positions so extreme — e.g., Corbyn was a declared friend of IRA terrorists — that ordinary Labour voters are repelled by them. It is also divided and therefore weak on its attitude to the great issue of the day, Brexit. No one quite understands where the party stands on it, which opens it to contempt and mockery from both sides.
As a result, the party is stuck in the mid-20s in opinion polls, and it has lost its former redoubts of unshakeable Labour loyalty in Scotland and Wales. It won’t disappear entirely because the threat of UKIP to its base seems to have lifted, but it can’t possibly win under its present management. And most moderate Labour MPs despair of actually regaining control of the party from the Left — especially since the Labour Right is likely to be disproportionately culled by losses in the election. All this is a recipe for several decades on the opposition benches.
Liberal Democrats, too, are now in an oddly frustrating position. Their prospects looked promising until last Thursday. They distinguish themselves from Labour by claiming to be the unqualified champions of EU membership and the Remain vote. Given that Remainers were 48 per cent of the referendum total, and that there is a deep cosmopolitan passion driving them, that should theoretically enable them to overtake Labour as the leading party of the Left. But Thursday’s results suggest that Labour has a floor of support just about equal to the Lib-Dems’ ceiling. Their support in the elections rose to about 18 per cent, but that was still eight points behind Labour.
Moreover, the cosmopolitan passion of the Remainers is a problem for them as well as a new driving force. It means that the Lib-Dems are instinctively and all but automatically the anti-national “Brussels” party going against a buoyant nationalist Tory party in debates on Brexit. Just this week, Brussels suddenly doubled its estimate, from 50 to 100 billion pounds, of what the Brits would be asked to pay for leaving the EU, provoking the prime minister to argue that the Eurocrats were trying to influence the election. The Lib-Dems could not resist the temptation to come down heavily on the side of Brussels. The election results, which disappointed them, suggests that was a mistake.
That leaves UKIP. Having lost every seat it contested except one, as Eurosceptic Tories went home to that nice Mrs. May, it was at once pronounced dead. That’s probably correct — unless Mrs. May decides, after her expected victory, to seek a “soft” (i.e., minimal) Brexit rather than the “hard” (i.e., genuine) one that her newly patriotic party and its supporters plainly want. In that eventuality, UKIP would rise again in reply, and this time it wouldn’t be starting from scratch. Its share of the national vote at 4 percent is higher than it achieved two elections ago, and today it has a party structure, organization, and electoral know-how it didn’t have before. So its existence in the shadows is a further incentive for Mrs. May not to abandon the strategic policy stance that has led to such a remarkable electoral turnaround in her favor.
One final point: The word “populism” is strangely absent from all these electoral events. That is because the Tories have adopted (with amendments) the policies that the European establishment has pronounced “populist” and therefore untouchable throughout the continent. Between now and June, therefore, there will be a genuine cross-party debate on all these matters in front of the voters, who will decide which parties will debate and resolve them in discussions in the next Parliament. In France tomorrow, however, it looks as if a large percentage of the voters — maybe 40 percent or more — will be told that what they have voted for is unacceptable to decent people and cannot be seriously considered by the government. They must eat their defeat with a sauce of contempt.
We shall see which is the more successful version of democracy.
— John O’Sullivan is an editor-at-large of National Review.