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.