The Corner

Britain’s Election: A Setback for the “Moral Clerisy’ ?

Writing in Spiked, Brendan O’Neill:

Labour has transformed from a party of the trade unions into a party of the metropolitan, largely London-based opinion-shaping set and new clerisy. A party that was born to represent working people’s interests is now little more than a kind of political safe haven for a new elite that feels cut off both from traditional politics and the masses. This is the real story of the 2015 General Election: the reduction of Labour to a middle-class machine, which speaks to a bigger and profound hollowing out, even death, of social democracy as we knew it….

This collapse of Labour in Scotland and growth of Labour in London is about so much more than last year’s independence referendum (some are blaming Labour’s decision to align with the Tories in that referendum for its poor showing now) or the fall of the Lib Dems everywhere (which created the space for Labour gains in London). It tells a bigger, longer, more historic story about what is becoming of Labour: it is shifting from being an outlet for the expression of trade unionist and working people’s interests to being a kind of encampment for the chattering classes, a safe space, if you like, for a secular, pseudo-liberal clerisy….

What the election has fundamentally exposed is the existence of Two Britains. No, not a Labour Britain vs a Tory Britain — that old divide has been flagging for years. Not poshos vs workers, as Labourite commentators like to fantasise. And it’s not even England vs Scotland. Yes, that divide will undoubtedly be the source of instability in the coming months, but even it is merely a strange expression, an accidental byproduct, of the real Two Britains. Which is, on one side, the Britain of the moral clerisy, which is pro-EU, multicultural, anti-tabloid, politically correct and devoted to welfarism and paternalism as the main means through which to govern the masses, and, on the other side, the Britain of the rest of the us, of the masses, of those people increasingly viewed by the cultural elite as inscrutable, incomprehensible, and in need of nudging, social re-engineering and behaviour modification.

Which is why Labour, once more than a little suspicious of the ‘Common Market’, has become so enamored of the EU, a post-democratic system of government in which the opinions of ‘ordinary’ voters count for very little.

But before Conservatives reading what O’Neill has to say reach for the champagne, they should consider the leadership of their own party, candidate members themselves of that same moral clerisy. The Tory stewardship of the economy had a great deal to do with the unexpected Conservative triumph on Thursday (and it was a triumph, even if the margin of victory was, historically speaking, on the narrow side), but it also owed much to distaste of what O’Neill describes and, almost certainly, English concern over what Labour’s dalliance with the SNP might mean, the latter a somewhat traditionalist, even nationalist (smelling salts!) issue very far removed from Cameron’s exciting plans to ‘decarbonize’ the economy.

With the excuse of coalition gone, Cameron now has to show what he’s made of. A few examples come to mind, and there are plenty more where they came from. Will his new government persist with the same ruinously expensive greenery or will it move towards a saner energy policy? Will Nanny be told to take a hike? Will Cameron give self-government to the English as well as the Scots?  Will he continue to pretend that Britain’s role within the EU can be renegotiated into some safe place or will he, at last, recognize the legal, economic and political reality that it cannot—and that there is no decent alternative to Brexit?

To ask these questions is, I suspect, to answer them, but it’s only fair to wait and see. Wait for how long? Well, in the past Cameron has often shown himself to be dangerously complacent (thus his reputation for ‘government by essay crisis’) but that may be a luxury that a small majority—and the power that it gives his backbenchers— will deny him. There’s also the little matter of the nearly four million votes that went UKIP’s way (12.6 percent of the total, more than four times UKIP’s share in 2010). Whatever lies ahead for that party, the significance of its vote ought not to be overlooked by any politician who is paying attention. Reading Brendan O’Neill will help understand why. 

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