Britain and Scotland have changed: The Tory Story of Britain is Dead

The British Conservative Party is one of the most successful electoral parties in the developed capitalist world. They might not look like it at the moment but this is a force which has adapted to numerous challenges and changes: the coming of the mass franchise and rise of the working class, emergence of Labour, the post-war settlement, and demise of Empire and the UK’s diminished global standing and influence.

The Tories are the party of privilege and entitlement; of a ruling class which has presided over a version of Britain which has been historically run for the few, not the many, but which has invited the vast majority of us into their political and social construction of prosperity, affluence and social mobility.

Having said that the Tory Party has always been more than the hard-nosed, selfish, greedy capitalists of leftist legend. Indeed, it can be said that the left-wing caricature of Toryism and Tories (‘Tory scum’ etc) has not only held back a more successful left politics, but it has aided Tories who have on occasion been able to defy these stereotypes: for example, in Macmillan’s promise to build 300,000 houses a year and by Thatcher’s council house sales appealing to working class voters.

For all their past and love of their own past, the Tories are in serious trouble. They are becoming an endangered species: in the last year the Tories raised a mere £1 million from members to Labour’s £16 million. They are increasingly aged, inactive and unrepresentative: hankering after a lost Britain which never really existed.

Much more, the Conservative idea of Britain – what Andrew Gamble called ‘the conservative nation’ – has collapsed. This vision told a story of British continuity and evolution, where the working classes and aspirational were incorporated into the dominant social order. Alongside this, the nations and regions of the UK were respected by the likes of Baldwin, Churchill and Macmillan. Churchill, for example, railed against the centralisation of the post-war Attlee Labour Government and its imposition of socialist policies on Scotland. This idea of Britain, economically, socially and as a partnership of nations, has collapsed, leaving the Tories without a guiding compass.

This crisis of Conservatism as an ideology, and for the Conservative Party itself, was evident in every speech at the recent Tory Conference. This is about more than the limits of Theresa May’s leadership or Brexit – neither of which help. Here are some observations about the Tories, the state of Britain, and how it impacts on Scotland.

1. Theresa May’s leadership may be uninspiring, but she is going to attempt to deliver Brexit.
Theresa May is patronised, ridiculed and demolished in a large part of media commentary, but her style of cautious leadership isn’t just about her personality. It is a product of a party with deep-seated political and philosophical divisions that is increasingly unsure what it stands for, who it speaks for, and the kind of Britain it wants to advocate. This existential ambivalence can be heard in the pronouncements of Tory ministers this week who don’t know how to deal with the multiple crises of Britain – the economy, public services, housing – before we even get to Brexit.

2. The Tories are the party of the union but they aren’t sure anymore what kind of union.
Tories think they own the idea of the union, in the way Labour do the NHS. This is why some Scottish Tories (unlike Scottish Labour) enjoyed the indyref. But Tories know the union’s foundations are cracking and have little understanding of how to respond. The union as a popular idea has been in decline for decades, but our indyref and the Tory response subsequently: Cameron’s invoking of ‘English Votes for English Laws’ followed by Brexit, has exasperated the already existing fault lines. It is a bit difficult to wax lyrically about ‘a partnership of four equal nations’ when you are ignoring the majority opinions of two on Brexit. May did not even try to mount a convincing case for the union in her speech.

3. The Scottish Tories are not a major influence.
The Scottish Tories are marginal in the Tory coalition. They have 13 MPs in a party of 317 MPs. The only Scottish Tory who carries any weight in London Tory circles is Ruth Davidson. But it is obvious that if the predominantly English Tories want to go down a hard right, hard Brexit agenda, or even, embrace Boris Johnson, there is nothing the Scottish Tories can do but go along with it.

4. The Tories have very few political stars and are light on political talent.
In actual fact, the Tories only have two real political stars: the only two politicians apart from May who get lots of media coverage: Boris Johnson and Ruth Davidson. Neither will become leader. For now. But one might in the future – and that will not be Boris Johnson. If Johnson by some miracle became leader this would only magnify Tory decline and problems, as he goes down well in the most fanatical parts of the Tory tribe, but increasingly doesn’t translate into wider electoral appeal. Whether Davidson’s distant appeal from Scotland to liberal Tories would translate into a UK appeal remains to be seen if she established herself as a Westminster force.

5. Brexit has become the equivalent of a religious cult.
The most fundamentalist Brexit supporters in the Tory Party – around the European Research Group chaired by Jacob Rees-Mogg – seem to be in conflict with the modern world. They are old-fashioned English sovereigntists who believe in an absolutist, indivisible idea of political power that cannot be shared, pooled or used in partnership. Hence we are either in or out of the European project, and even a pragmatic Brexit has to be resisted. In its inflexibility and dogma on sovereignty, it has echoes of previous British intransigence which led to disaster: the loss of the American Colonies in 1775-6 and the creation of the Irish Free State in 1921-22: two of the biggest humiliations and defeats of the British state and statecraft until Brexit.

6. The Tories are now unashamedly English nationalists.
One of the enduring characteristics of the Tories until Thatcher was how they balanced the English/British dimensions of their party and the country. In the last forty years, the Tories have become increasingly fed up of Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish voices (the latter being ironic given the critical role of Arlene Foster and the DUP literally holding up the May Government). It is not just that the Tories have become a party of an increasingly, narrow, intolerant version of Britain – focused on supposed winners and the interests of the global classes. They have become a party by age (with 44% of members aged over 65 years according to Queen Mary College, London), housing, employment, education and ethnicity – that is a voice for a diminishing and minority Britain.

7. The Tories have tried to embrace optimism this week. But it is too late.
May and other senior Tories tried to talk an upbeat message this week about the future of Britain. They played up optimism, invoked freedom, and recognised the cost of austerity. May said on the latter that ‘the end is in sight’, but offered little reprieve in terms of anti-austerity policies. The Tories have a major problem with their record: eight years of growth and savage public spending cuts, while May herself is haunted by the memory of ‘Go Home Vans’ and the ‘hostile environment’ immigration policies which came to a head over Windrush.

8. The Tories are worried about the appeal and radicalism of Labour.
The Tories can see how energised and galvinised Corbyn’s Labour are. They don’t quite understand it, see it as a new ‘Red Scare’ and a popular one which should not be part of the script. Another part of the Tory mindset is frightened even more. They recognise that for the last forty years the battle of ideas has been won by the right, and the capitalist world with all its excess and greed, has been made in their image. Corbyn speaks to a discontent with this world – and offers a break with this that the Tories cannot compete with.

9. Multiple challenges are ahead for Britain and the Westminster political classes are uniquely unprepared.
Neither Tories or Labour seem to be prepared for the future challenges which the UK will face down the line. The economic and social model which has dominated British politics for the last forty years is completely broken. This has not been recognised by the Tories, and while Corbyn and McDonnell can see this, they have underestimated the resistance they will face to change direction, and have only a nascent, half-prepared agenda for radical change. What will happen if an early election comes and a Corbyn Government is elected which faces economic chaos, capital flight and open resistance from the British establishment?

10. The Break-Up of Britain is happening as we speak.
There is no such thing as British politics anymore. Yet, we still have a UK Government which claims to and legally speaks for Britain. This creates huge dislocations within the British body politic, and leaves majority Scottish and Northern Ireland opinion, and to a lesser extent, Welsh opinion (which did narrowly vote for Brexit), in effect disenfranchised. This is a political union which cannot exist in this form indefinitely.

This leaves Scotland and majority opinion in a frustrating place. Some pro-independence opinion cannot hide their impatience and want a second referendum as soon as possible, seeing it crucial that it is held before the current Scottish Parliament term and SNP current mandate ends in 2021. Many more are growing a little weary with the constant invoking of competence and cautious, safety-first politics from the SNP administration.

Between these two pillars, a longer timeframe and perspective would note that an independence referendum is politics as process and a means to an end, not the end in itself. Independence is a habit, a state of mind, and form of mindset, attitude and politics, which is made and remade everyday. Already in many respects, Scotland is semi-independent in how it thinks, sees and talks, but as we all know, our country continues to sit in an imperial, unreformed state.

Scotland has changed and there is no going back to the old union and Britain. That idea of Britain long ago passed away in Scotland, but tellingly, it is even dead in the deepest Tory shires and the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham this week. As we navigate our way out of the wreckage and rubble of HMS Britannia slowly impaling itself on the rocks, we have to find the confidence and agility to see the long revolution we are living through and have helped create.

Comments (17)

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  1. Mark Bevis says:

    I don’t disagree with any of this, but it doesn’t make me feel any more comfortable.
    Even from within the Green Party, I feel under-equipped politically to deal with the self-impaling on the reefs by HMS Britannia. Whilst having vague ideas of how a post-collapse England should look, I have no confidence that any political party or grouping has the skill set or mind set to, as you say, navigate through the upcoming wreckage.

    The logjam holding back the collapse is withering under the dead weight of austerity, climate chaos, MSM distortions, economic falsehoods and rising fascism.
    What then, are the answers to lift the darkness I see ahead?
    Can the Scots offer any answers, that the left behind English here cannot see? Are there, indeed, any answers?
    Other than offering me a passport for later use…..

  2. john burrows says:

    A thoughtful analysis. Good to see venturing off of the fence for a change Gerry.

  3. Jim Morris says:

    Brexit is about money, big money, dark money. It is not about sovereignty, etc.
    On April 1st 2019 the EU Finance Bill becomes law. It has been 5 years in the planning.
    It outlaws offshore banking for tax avoidance and money laundering. British Overseas Territories
    come under EU law, so bye-bye tax havens. The fact of British Exit on March 29th is totally logical
    and necessary for the rich and super-rich. There will be no “People’s Vote” or final parliamentary
    vote on the final deal. We are out! The money has spoken, and Westminster has obeyed.

    1. Wullie says:

      So the Greens see darkness ahead but still vote for Ruth Davidson & the Tories!

      1. Mark Bevis says:

        No, thats just me, and am in the English branch of the Green Party.

        Mark

    2. L. Campbell says:

      I agree with you here, Mr Morris, and this is one of the best pieces by Mr Hassan I have ever read, too. I believe the haste with which we are leaving is testament to the fear striking the hearts of the grossly economically bloated. What is much harder to explain and accept is the headlong suicidal charge of ordinary English people into Brexit. How can anyone imagine that this will be a good thing? I also believe that we, in Scotland, underestimate the sheer determination of those who live in Scotland as English and British Nationalists to prevent our leaving the UK. They are colonialists in the full sense of the word, but, still, we bleat about ‘persuading’ them and use terminology, such as ‘soft Nos’, to avoid facing up to what we are really up against. We would have gone in 2014, had it not been for these people being utterly determined to prevent that very situation. They, with the backing of the entire British State, took it upon themselves to ensure that Scotland could not escape the destruction of our country that is coming courtesy of Brexit. Voters have many different strands to their motivation for voting the way they do, but to try and deny that both the Scottish British Unionist vote, in 2014, and the rUK vote, were anything other than an overarching imperialist/colonialist vote is stupidity writ large. Since 2014, we have allowed these people to call the tune while we dance around them, and we witter on about ‘democracy’ when ‘democracy’, if it ever existed, in the UK, outside our imaginations, as being necessary for a second vote on independence. Democracy demands that we do something about gaining our independence, and that might not be about a second indyref which, if we are reading the message correctly, means that there will never be a willingness to ‘allow’ us a second indyref because that is how the British State prevents independence – by never ‘allowing’ us the means to hold one, unless we do so ‘without permission’. What so many independence supporters have failed to realize is that the NO vote, Brexit and the Tory revival in Scotland has one thread running through them all – English/British Nationalism, so often precisely the same thing. A million or so voted for Brexit in Scotland, but never have we had the courage to break down that vote into its constituent parts, just as we have never really had the courage to break down the NO vote into its constituent parts, and use that understanding to make our next move, which might not be another indyref, but which should be legitimate, legal and democratic. There is more than one way to skin a cat. Instead, we wait…and wait…and wait…

      1. Willie says:

        We play twee democratic charades whilst the Britnat plays with the boot of an all powerful colonial master

        Scots within the UK are truly something that you wipe off your shoe.

        Yes we wait, and once out of Europe we will be told.

      2. Iain McIntosh says:

        We have played the unionist’s game, on their ground using their rules with their ball and at a timing convenient to their goals.

        Post brexit Sturgeon played an absolute blinder, but rather than keep the pressure on and put independence to the fore, she backed off, created a vacum which was in part filled by someone screaming her head off whislt being promoted as the messiah of the union. We must learn from this lesson! Now!

        brexit has not yet happened, but we already see the jack boot of the british state marching in Scotland’s direction to quell disquiet in the colony

        Whats on the menu for Scotland ppost brexit appears to be a neutered parliament and more or less direct rule from London. The Scottish Patliament can not be seen to be successful in the eyes of Scots, In parallel Scots and others in uk will be told continued austerity is down to those evil EUers and the bogey man, Russia. All our ills will be down to them and of course the BAD SNP.

        We must get back on the independence track immediately the brexit deal is known. If a referendum is denied, we should hold one, we have a mandate already in place. If May can twist the gereral election timing, we can do similar.

        The biggest waste of time in my life time was John Majors taking stock on Scotland, we waited nothing happened. If we wait beyond October, history will repeat itself and nothing will happen.

    3. Andy Donnell says:

      Jim, I agree, this seems to be the main driver behind the elite forcing Brexit through against all common benefit. Despite all the reservations about the referendum process, lies, illegal campaign funding, serious questions of Russian involvement, the total failure of Brexit negotiations, the Brexiteers are pigheaded in failing to argue against these reservations and continuing to drive our truck over the cliff edge. “Democratic will of the people” is disingenuous claptrap from the WM Tories and financial elite who show little appreciation of democratic principles.

  4. Jack collatin says:

    At one second past midnight on the 30th March 2019, Scotland and its people will be held under House Arrest by an English Homeland Security Force.
    After more than 4 decades we shall not be ‘allowed’ by the command 500 and change English MPs to travel. work, settle, or retire in 27 European Countries.
    The future of 1.3 million UK Passport holders living working and settled in Europe will be in jeopardy.
    They will be subject to ECJ laws and rules, and will not be protected by the ‘take back control’ Brit Nat ‘third country’.
    Spain particularly has form on this.
    The villas and gites bought by UK silver surfers may be requisitioned by European governments in retaliation as the 3 million EU citizens working and settled in the UK are maltreated by UK Government ‘hostile environment’ Departments.
    We are heading for a No Deal outcome, the Brexiteers’ wet dream.
    The notion that the author of this piece considers that we pause and contemplate Ruth Davidson’s future as PM-in-waiting of England epitomises the many garden paths down which soft Brit Nat But Remain commentators attempt to lead us.
    I am about to be held forcibly in my country Scotland by England’s (and it is England’s) Homeland Security.
    I shall not tolerate this.
    We must act, and act now.
    Independence is the only option left for Scotland.
    England and Wales made their bed, let them lie in it.
    I for one will not be sleeping on their bedroom floor, my neck stiffening painfully from the cold draught of the chill winds from WTO.

    There is no UK.
    It evaporated on the 19th September 2014, at 07.00 hrs outside number 10, Downing Street, when the soon to resign PM Cameron announced EVEL.
    There is a mighty storm coming, and I for one do not give a tinker’s curse about Mum2B Future prospects in politics.
    So can the hackery cease and desist writing about this over bloated Nobody, and ‘get on with the day job’ forensically dissecting Brexit and the Eurmageddon that awaits us all.
    The Scottish Government has just awarded 75,000 carers a 13% rise in their Carers Allowance.
    Ruth supports the Rape Clause and two child Child Tax Credit Cap.
    But you write about Ruth as your new UK PM?
    We shall be free by 2023.

  5. Redgauntlet says:

    What’s really shocking to me, is the complete absence of voices of what we could call the “patriotic Unionist Scot”.

    I’m talking about a kind of Scot who was a Unionist, often conservative or liberal, but absolutely staunchly and firmly a Scottish patriot first and foremost. These were people who thought that the Union was good for Scotland and that the best future for their country lay within the Union. They were often the Scots who stood up for Scotland more than anybody else in the never ending power struggles with London.

    Walter Scott is the most obvious example of that. It was Walter Scott who fought London, starting a campaign himself, to fight to maintain the right of Scottish banks to print Scottish pounds when London wanted to do away with it back in the 19th century. It was Scott, the Unionist, who broke down in tears one day on The Mound in Edinburgh and said “They will not stop until they have done away with every single thing that makes Scotland different…”

    Scott won the fight, and as the Brexit disaster looms, you ask yourself: where are these Scots today? Where are the conservative pragmatic Unionist voices who should now, by all accounts, be saying “The Union is no longer a safe or rational option. The safe and rational option is independence in Europe”… Scott would surely have said as much?

    The entire Scottish Tory contingent just roll over to what London says… but the Scottish Unionists don’t even know their own tradition…

  6. Jamsie says:

    I found the comment that “ this leaves Scotland and majority opinion in a frustrating place” totally surreal.
    Yes the majority of the Scottish electorate have been frustrated by the total disregard shown by wee Nicola et al towards the democratically expressed will delivered at the referendum in 2014.
    However Mr Hassan summarily ignores this.
    This piece is not so much analytical; more as being wishful thinking and is typical of the desperation to find some form of mandate which would enable Indy to be forced upon Scotland whether the electorate want it or not.
    Sorry but that won’t happen.
    I think as I have said many times there will be no referendum in the near future and given the constant revelations of Scottish “government” independence the next election in Scotland will see the SNP minority being increased even beyond the margin where a deal with the greens will help them foist their mostly unwanted nanny state policies upon us.

    1. David wood says:

      Yawn!

    2. Julian Smith says:

      Your epithet for our First Minister tells me all I need to know about the validity of your posts.

  7. Ottomanboi says:

    What if the Unionist ie establishment party remorphs, invents itself yet again? How if it pushes all the right patriotic post Brexit buttons? Being in charge of ‘everything’, media included they can project themselves as the people to trust at the helm, moderate, free of outlandish, radical political notions, sticking to a straight course but the proud repository of old school British values in a wicked world.
    In a notoriously safety first country like Scotland that might ring clear and appealing.
    The SNP has done very little to attack the myth ridden, ideological core of British Unionism. It is not a party that engages in that brand of continental style ‘intellectualism’. The leadership seems, judging by appearances, not to read much history or have any deep cultural sense of the complex entity they govern. Do they read more John Buchan than Tom Devine? Competence and prudence in government, sound Calvinist values shades of Buchan, have made them good administrators of a devolved UK region. Maybe this is as far as the SNP will get, or intends to get.
    The playing down of independence, something the leadership has done before, is suggestive of a certain contentment with the status quo. Not rocking the boat could make the SNP suitable partners for a Conservative party focussed on ‘consolidation’ rather than innovation.
    The forthcoming SNP conference looks to be a stage managed, strictly choreographed affair just like that event in Birmingham. Nicola will no doubt have limbered up to do all the right moves with consummate ease.

    1. Jack collatin says:

      I was enjoying your wee flight of fancy, Otto, until you mooted that the SNP would link up with the Tories.
      What colour is the sky on planet Zircon?
      The SNP would sell off the NHS, Schools, reintroduce PFI, The Right To Buy, and declare their support for the rape clause, prescription charges, and the elderly paying for their medical care?
      I am minded of an old scots admonition:- Awa an’ bile yer heid.

  8. Stephen says:

    An excellent article Gerry. Especially this –
    ” In its inflexibility and dogma on sovereignty, it has echoes of previous British intransigence which led to disaster: the loss of the American Colonies in 1775-6 and the creation of the Irish Free State in 1921-22: two of the biggest humiliations and defeats of the British state and statecraft until Brexit.”

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