There are two important things to remember about the new Tory majority. First, the class-party realignment represented by Tory victories in Bolsover and Sedgefield, and Labour ones in Canterbury and Putney, has been happening over a long period of time. Second, it is not just about Brexit but about a whole values/worldview divide — at least partly summed up in my own Anywheres/Somewheres labels — which has afflicted almost all big centre-left parties in Europe as they have come to primarily represent the interests and priorities of their liberal graduate members, activists and MPs.
Brexit did, of course, hasten this realignment. And spare a thought for the Theresa May/Nick Timothy strategy in the 2017 election which was widely ridiculed at the time, because it narrowly failed, but which can now take a bow as a necessary prelude to the breath-taking Tory advances made into historically hostile territory on Thursday.
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Brexit, rather like immigration in the past couple of decades, has become an “emblem” policy. Support for Brexit is not so much about the details of EU regulation, rather it has become part of a wider, defensive reaction to the radicalism of the post-Cold War “double liberalism” of free market and cultural opening, represented in the EU by the two central post-national policies of the Euro and free movement.
The challenge for the Tory party now, as Mary Harrington lays out in her election night piece, is to represent aspects of this defensive, national reaction without turning its back on the attractive aspects of the economic and social openness of recent decades. There is no reason why this cannot be accommodated under the canopy of the “One Nation Conservative party” that Boris Johnson talked up last night and throughout the campaign.
On immigration, for example, Johnson has already been shaping policy to appeal to both wings of the new Tory coalition. While the overall stress is on control and a return to more moderate levels, there has been selective liberalisation — over post-student work opportunities, for example.
It is not even impossible that Johnson, pressured by the Spectator magazine’s enthusiasm for it, could announce an amnesty for those illegal immigrants who have been here 10 years or more and who are never going to be deported anyway. Such a gesture to the liberal end of the coalition could be balanced with something for small-c conservatives such as the introduction of a citizen identity system (ID cards in the old language) which would, incidentally, make illegal immigration much harder.
There will also be genuine conflicts of interest between different parts of the new Tory coalition. The small-state, low-tax Toryism of the affluent suburbs has hardly been in the ascendancy in recent years. But it will have to concede further ground to the new Tory voters who want quite high public spending and good public infrastructure. How much ground it will have to concede will be the stuff of battles to come.
Housing is another potential battleground. The interests of younger people and lower income renters not on the ladder are potentially in conflict with those who are already happily housed and worrying about the impact of a massive building programme both on the value of their home and its effect on the green belt.
Meanwhile, in post-school education, the over mighty universities, long institutions of the middle-class Left, may find themselves less favoured, as investment into the battered Further Education sector is prioritised. Yet universities should also be on the front line of a rejuvenated Tory industrial and regional strategy which tries to spread good jobs and economic success more evenly around the country.
So new priorities need not always conflict with old ones. But one interesting thing to follow will be the changing tone and accent (literally) of the Tory party as the proportion of privately educated Tory MPs falls to an all-time low, possibly as low as one-third. The new generation of Tory MP, such as Eddie Hughes the working-class Birmingham man who won Walsall North for the Tories in 2017, do not have a noblesse oblige interest in decent public services for the masses because they have spent their lives depending on them.
People such as Eddie Hughes and the new generation of less middle-class Tories might also have an interesting impact on the party’s attitude to family, gender and race issues. In recent years, British Conservatives have not really offered any kind of alternative to liberal metropolitan thinking in these areas. This could be about to end. Fairness and opportunity for minorities and women need not take the often sectarian and hyper-liberal form of recent years and can better accommodate the priorities of small-c conservatives, in family policy for example.
The fact that Johnson has promoted ethnic minority Brits to leading positions in his cabinet and No 10 also bodes well for more balance in the area of race and minority rights and a willingness to challenge the assumption that any departure from perfectly proportional ethnic representation must always be down to white discrimination.
Is it possible that fresh thinking in these areas, thinking that is closer to what the decent average person thinks, rather than the average university administrator, might even filter through to younger people who are overwhelmingly under the sway of the Left? That is unlikely to change in the short term but if the Tories push back intelligently against ‘woke’ culture, they might find a surprisingly receptive audience among young people.
A significant section of educated Britain has been suffering from Brexit derangement syndrome in recent years. It might be seen as a less alarming version of the 1930s flirtation with communism. But, as in the 1930s, the sophistry and fundamentally undemocratic instinct of many of those wanting to overturn the Brexit vote has come up against the decent common sense of the new Tory voters.
As John Gray put it in a recent A Point of View talk on BBC Radio 4:
“Those who have studied to degree level and beyond have often embraced ideas and projects that many less educated folk instinctively recognise are dangerously absurd. Something like this happened in Britain in the 1930s — much of the intelligentsia was ready to junk democracy in Britain for a new order that they felt was coming into being somewhere else.”
The EU is not the Soviet Union but the quasi-religious embrace of the EU worldview does seem to have driven many people, some of them my best friends, slightly crazy!
This election result is a big blow to the confidence and cultural power of educated, left-liberal Britain. A new coalition of people from many different backgrounds, by no means all Tories, now has an opportunity to push back against the extremes and pathologies of that cultural hegemony.