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The last bastion of Tory Britain Will tomorrow's landslide topple the Bluest seat in the land?

Sir John Hayes MP, pictured as a cabinet minister under David Cameron (Guy Corbishley/Alamy Live News)

Sir John Hayes MP, pictured as a cabinet minister under David Cameron (Guy Corbishley/Alamy Live News)


July 3, 2024   6 mins

The flag outside the Spalding Conservative Club is at half-mast. This is not because of the wider Tory calamity — though it should be — but, the barmaid says, because a member has died. This is South Holland and the Deepings in Lincolnshire, the safest Tory seat in Britain, Fenland, and a gateway to the Wash. Sir John Hayes, who has held the seat since 1997, had a majority of 37,338 in 2019. The Club is a Queen Anne style house with a rose garden, decked with St George flags and five photographs of Hayes, who looks like a central-casting Tory grandee from the mid-Eighties. Apart from the barmaid, it is empty. Even so, if there is a centre to British Toryism, this is it.

This is laconic Toryism, narcotic, incurious and swagged. Georgian mansions line the river and in the gardens of Ayscoughfee Hall, a medieval red-brick manor and museum, schoolchildren play by an ornamental lake and topiary. If there is decline here, it is hidden at the edges.

Off the market square, where the busker says Elvis is the favourite — he plays for people who had a lot of sex in the Seventies — I find a gun maker selling Barbour dress clothes and, nearby, a gypsy boy by his pony and trap. The horse is called Red Bull, he says, and he drove him from Peterborough for chips. Faced with this landscape — this majority — the Liberal Democrats are remote, and Labour is barely campaigning. The candidate didn’t appear at the hustings where the first question was: who is your favourite king? There are Union Jacks everywhere: on cushions, tablecloths and dogs. There is occasional bunting and a defibrillator on an exterior wall because Tories are old, and old people die. Typhoons from RAF Coningsby rip the sky.

“He campaigns like a lover, and it is amazing to watch.”

It is Armed Forces Week, and a parade of local dignitaries muster with soldiers, banners and pipers: slowly. Sir John Hayes MP is photographed with the staff of Peacocks. I don’t think I have ever had a Tory MP on the record while reporting an election — they tend to flee — but Hayes is a secure Tory.  I ask him why this is the safest Tory seat. He doesn’t tell me about Spalding, but himself, as related to Spalding. He and the town are one — as in Arthurian legend.

“I’ve been here a very long time and over that time I’ve touched many people’s lives,” he says. “As I go round countless people say to me, ‘Oh thank you for what you did for my mother or my child or my neighbour or my friends.’” That, he says, “makes a huge difference. In a way,” — in a way! — “the national brand matters but that brand matters too.”

He campaigns like a lover, and it is amazing to watch. He darts down a line of women, pounces on one, and mutters into her hair: “Look after me on the 4th.” As he speaks, his voice takes on a distinctive London accent and he adds, “you will, I know you will” — like a spell. “I certainly will!” she giggles, a heroine of romance fiction in Spalding. We retreat. “That’s how it is, alright,” he says to me, comfortably. I have only ever seen Boris Johnson do this, but his eyes were dead.

“That intimacy,” he says, “is the heart of good democratic representation, and it’s particular to our system. They feel they own me. I’m a romantic High Tory: a Disraelian High Tory. I keep his picture with me all the time. I will show you.” He gets it out: it sits inside a tiny book of Keats’s poetry. Disraeli stares at us, and Hayes enacts a masterclass in the Disraelian creed: the Tory aristocracy and Tory working-class as one. That is, he speaks the theory into my Dictaphone, and runs into the crowd to demonstrate the practical. He shouts at a greengrocer: “I’m on it, Michael!” Then to another woman: “If I didn’t get your vote,” — he gazes into her welcoming face — “I’d be really worried.”  “I think the way you are really matters” he says, “your demeanour”.

I believe in Hayes’s belief: later I meet a man on a mobility scooter. He has a Poppy keyring and a sticker that says: “Send Nudes”. (Spalding has the glossiest mobility scooters I have seen. They are Ferrari red and festooned with Union Jacks.) He says his mother wrote to Hayes — they live in the same village — and a few days later he received the two-bedroom bungalow he wanted.

Jack Braginton, 23, the Liberal Democrat candidate, has been alive for less time than Hayes has been MP. He did work experience in Hayes’s office as a schoolboy, because that is how Spalding works. (In 2019, the Lib Dems got 6.6%, almost half the Labour share.) We meet by Greggs. He says that Spalding’s Toryism is “perhaps rooted in the belief within a rural community that hard graft provides. And deep within this, is the duopoly of thought: personal responsibility for hard work, and a deep sense of community.”

I ask why they don’t talk about it? Why is Hayes the only Tory philosopher in a Tory town? Braginton, who is ruddy and genial, says: “It is not for us to consider larger questions of economy, society or politics.” Rather, “it is the role of a politician to just keep our way of life ticking over, it does not need change or bureaucracy, it just needs to be allowed to continue as it is. That is the genius of the Conservatives — balancing all interests by doing nothing and calling that consensus.”

Spalding is so Tory that the dangerous opposition is also Tory — a former Tory, now Independent — and I wonder if Hayes would smile on this and say: the system works! He is Mark Le Sage, a nurse and local councillor. We meet in the gardens of Ayscoughfee Hall by the lake. He is functional, aggrieved. The meaningful opposition is always independent here. If people are angry on polling day, they stay at home.

“I am a very annoyed, very upset, very frustrated, very disillusioned dad, granddad, nurse,” he says. “I’m so fed up with the system: the lies; the backstabbing; the scandals. I’ve had enough”. He stood, he says, because he was so frustrated, “with the fact that we just been lied to: over and over again. And then they brought David Cameron back — the guy who left us in the lurch after Brexit!”

Here, when you look behind the swag, people are “disconsolate”, though I think they aren’t used to naming it. The cost-of-living and public service crises don’t stampede in Spalding. They crawl. A former teacher tells me girls don’t feel safe in the town. A Bulgarian woman says eastern European immigrants bring crime to Spalding and “make life hard”. A homeless girl says she was attacked with a brick and shows me the scab. A young man tells me his mother died from cancer last winter. It shattered him. It was, he says, like television: “When it’s like, ‘the NHS is on its knees’. I sat with her at Christmas for three hours and nobody came. She deserved so much better.” That is: the outside world intruded on Spalding, and this is awful, and new.

Later I stand in the Spalding’s Gentlemen’s Society, and stare at the curiosities — its members measured a conch by drinking from it, the guide tells me — and the rows of unread books. Spalding had an Enlightenment: it was a progressive town 300 years ago, and that helped to make it rich. If it is in decline now, I think it doesn’t yet know it, and I wonder if that is the spell Hayes casts so well.

At the Red Lion, a group of ageing men in straw hats and women in bright dresses sit in the sun, drinking. They are the affluent, self-made Tories of Braginton’s analysis. Their fear of Labour is semi-religious, with inbuilt legends. “Keir Starmer is a paedophile-lover,” says a woman. “Exactly,” says a man. “I don’t trust him one little bit.” Tony Blair is a war criminal: “All those soldiers that lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan: that was down to him.” Jeremy Corbyn is, “the worst thing that ever happened to this country”.

“Poor Rishi Sunak,” says one, “He got fined for saying, ‘Happy birthday,’ to someone.” The table silences itself in sympathy: then someone moans that Sunak came home early from D-Day, “because he’s not an Englishman”. What is their main concern? “Too many foreigners,” says one, and he points at his friend. “He’s from Peterborough.” They cackle.

Reform is no threat to this kind of Toryism: it is dysfunctional, messy, a threat. “Nigel Farage is a complete cock,” says another. “What is he going to bring to the table?” Their main resentment, though, is towards the civil service. They think it stymied Brexit. They are grateful we left Europe, despite everything: they think it is doomed. But not Spalding in its sunlight, with defibrillator and swans: the last, gasping vestige of British exceptionalism.


Tanya Gold is a freelance journalist.

TanyaGold1

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El Uro
El Uro
10 days ago

— Defendant, when did you realize that you were not shooting at an elk, but at another hunter?
— When the elk started shooting back.

Dennis Roberts
Dennis Roberts
9 days ago

“The candidate didn’t appear at the hustings where the first question was: who is your favourite king?”

Absolutely hilarious and ridiculous at the same time. Were they expecting a pop star?

Chris Carter
Chris Carter
9 days ago

A sour and patronising write up of a constituency which sounds wonderfully at ease with itself.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
9 days ago
Reply to  Chris Carter

I thought that too. Gave me a bad taste in my mouth.

mike otter
mike otter
9 days ago
Reply to  Chris Carter

Alcoholism is a terrible illness and leaves lasting neurological and psychological harms, and was a victim badge gladly worn by La Gold. Perhaps this explains the timbre of her work? I wonder if she feels its the fault of the good people of Spalding or their ilk that “made” her be a pisser?

Agnes Aurelius
Agnes Aurelius
9 days ago
Reply to  mike otter

That is a revolting comment. I thought Unhurd readers well above that and better educated

Carl Valentine
Carl Valentine
9 days ago
Reply to  Agnes Aurelius

Really why did you think that?? Go to ‘naked capitalism’ they are a clever lot, some on here are bright but there are quite a few bigots…

David McKee
David McKee
9 days ago
Reply to  Chris Carter

A little harsh perhaps, but fair. I know it’s been a desperately boring election, with all the drama and excitement of the Lord Mayor’s Procession, but that’s no excuse.
The piece put me in mind of The Village, the place where Patrick McGoohan was held prisoner. Yes, that certainly shows my age!

Bret Larson
Bret Larson
9 days ago
Reply to  Chris Carter

She even uses somebodies death as a meme.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
9 days ago
Reply to  Chris Carter

It seemed fair and even sympathetic reportage to me. I tend to think when people write this sort of comment, that they are actually reflecting their own true views of the subjects……

Chipoko
Chipoko
6 days ago
Reply to  Chris Carter

Very well put. Dripping with arrogance and bias.

Ian McKinney
Ian McKinney
9 days ago

Beautifully written.

I might move to Spalding.

Muiris de Bhulbh
Muiris de Bhulbh
9 days ago

In the 1990s, the Tory Government in Canada was reduced to two seats. When Ted Heath, (Tory Prime Minister before Thatcher( was asked about that happening in England, he replied that ‘he wondered who the other one would be’. Well now we know.

Lesley Keay
Lesley Keay
9 days ago

I fail to understand why voters in so-called Blue Wall seats are turning to Labour or the LibDems. These same voters have consistently pushed back against planning reform, particularly in the Green Belt but this is exactly what Labour are proposing.

Kirk Susong
Kirk Susong
9 days ago
Reply to  Lesley Keay

Isn’t the answer because the Conservative Party is ignoring those voters’ desires? While Labour is no closer, voting Conservative would not signal to the Party how badly it is failing its own electorate and their principals. Perhaps it is wrong to think of ‘landslide’ elections as expressing a clear ‘national mandate’; many voters may be completely unenthusiastic about the victor’s proposals. They just have to signal to their ‘natural’ party how dissatisfied they are.

Tony Price
Tony Price
9 days ago
Reply to  Lesley Keay

Probably because the last 14 years have been a calamity for Britain; planning reform is a minor factor compared to the general destruction of society.

Peter B
Peter B
9 days ago

I’m not sure Spalding and its surrounding area are quite as wealthy as Tanya Gold suggests. It’s not Stamford or Surrey.
I do also wonder if there’s some connection between Lincolnshire being so firmly Conservative (Lincoln and Grimsby excepted) and the fact that the county retained its grammar schools.
The 23 year old Lib Dem candidate’s quote is – unintentionally I suspect – hilarious: “It is not for us to consider larger questions of economy, society or politics.”
What does he think the job of an MP should be then ?

Norfolk Sceptic
Norfolk Sceptic
9 days ago
Reply to  Peter B

MPs can deal with Local Authority matters, while the Local Authorities can make international deals.

mike otter
mike otter
9 days ago
Reply to  Peter B

Lincs is an epicenter of 2 stroke motorbikes from the 1978-1998 era – only N Ireland has a similar density of RG and LC500s. You don’t need a lot of money to buy and run such machinery compared to new showroom prices, but you do need balls and brains which is probably why the good ppl of Lincs are hard to fool.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
9 days ago
Reply to  Peter B

The Lib Dem said it, but the Conservative MP also lived and breathed this sentiment. It is about localism.

Malcolm Webb
Malcolm Webb
9 days ago

When I read an article deriding a place in England which it seems is calm, clean, relatively prosperous and where people feel free to make “ unwoke” statements, I question the intent of the writer.

Alphonse Pfarti
Alphonse Pfarti
9 days ago
Reply to  Malcolm Webb

You only need look at the name and you know what to expect.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
9 days ago
Reply to  Malcolm Webb

In what way was it “deriding”?

Rocky Martiano
Rocky Martiano
8 days ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

Is that a wind up?

Ben Jones
Ben Jones
9 days ago

How snide. I look forward to Tanya’s dispatches from Starmer’s Britain a decade hence.

Norfolk Sceptic
Norfolk Sceptic
9 days ago
Reply to  Ben Jones

That long?

mike otter
mike otter
9 days ago
Reply to  Ben Jones

Hopefully she’ll be back on the sauce by then, or “monkey dust ” or some such synthetic nonsense the left propagate via the MSM – then we need never know!

Point of Information
Point of Information
9 days ago

The “Where to stay” and “Where to eat” paragraphs are missing.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
9 days ago

This is what snobbery sounds like in 2024.

Citizen Diversity
Citizen Diversity
9 days ago

The Spaldingers aren’t ‘crying out for change’, as we are constantly told the country is.
This is the sort of provincial town that once would have been called ‘sleepy’. And not in the sense of an American president.
These oases could probably be found anywhere at some point. In the 5th century there would be Spaldings where the Romano-British world pottered along, unaware of the storms chewing at its edges.
Though in reality they are more like rock pools after the tide has gone out. Appearing as a miniature replica of the ocean world far away and with which it holds no commerce. Yet at the same time having a distinct ecosystem.
The Spaldings are not reservoirs that can refill the river bed dried up by some political, economic or social climate change. If the sun warms the rock pool too much the delicate anemones and gobies will be endangered. The creatures are vulnerable to predation.
The rock pools are reliant, as with Roman Lincoln, on the tide coming back in to replenish them. What if it never does, like the legions whose temporary withdrawal became permanent?

Anthony Roe
Anthony Roe
9 days ago

Well put but there are none so blind….at least the end may be a gentle falling to sleep. One day treasurehunters may unearth the ruins of Spalding and find it still breathes of a musty golden age.

Pedro the Exile
Pedro the Exile
9 days ago

Coincidentally the wife and I had a day trip last week to a small West Berkshire Village that we haven’t been to for decades-expecting to see major changes I saw very little and the article could have easily been written about it.The wife remarked “its a bit dull here ” to which I replied ” possibly but I would describe it as tranquil-and that suits me”.

Kirk Susong
Kirk Susong
9 days ago

Fascinating that some comments here think the authoress is deriding this town and its people, while others think she is complimenting them. That’s a sign of good writing about reality. I think she did a nice job giving us a rounded picture of real people – Bulgarians opposed to immigration, handicapped hoping for nudes, the twinkle in the eye of the natural politician.
Whether she personally likes the place or not is beside the point. She gave me a full description, so I can make up my own mind. And I think I like the place.

Adam K
Adam K
9 days ago
Reply to  Kirk Susong

Yes, it did not read as patronising to me. Maybe the reference to unread books and drinks might have been. Besides that, not that I could really tell. It seemed to present Spalding as a desirable place that is now experiencing the symptoms of the broader national and cultural decline.

Bret Larson
Bret Larson
9 days ago
Reply to  Kirk Susong

I guess this is a little gem of self knowledge for you. You know like, “this is what people think about me when I talk” type of thing.

mike otter
mike otter
9 days ago

In Russia 1880s through 1905 and to 1917 and beyond people were in despair about the lies and scandals and over that time large numbers of “civil servants” – govt employees, soldiers, orthodox clerics met sticky ends – especially in the vast countryside. I doubt the average brit sees a lot of difference between the wokist Starmer and the Tories or limp dims – all with their snouts in the trough. I am not advocating a Russian solution – especially as the 1917 revolution was such a let down – i am, to quote the skinhead bands of the late 70s/early 80s – “just saying what happens”

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
9 days ago
Reply to  mike otter

Are there loads if any of such state representatives in Spalding?

Douglas Redmayne
Douglas Redmayne
9 days ago

Glad all.of these people are old.

Adam K
Adam K
9 days ago

I didn’t get the impression she was being that bad apart from the odd reference.

Steven Farrall
Steven Farrall
9 days ago

Not ‘Tory’. Small C conservative and patriotic.

Nick Toeman
Nick Toeman
9 days ago

I find many of the comments here a bit odd. I read the article as an affecionate portrayal of a town mostly at ease with itself, except for a few outsider roughnecks. I wish I felt the same, perhaps I should move there and stop worrying about the acceleration of decline that a likely Labour government will likely bring us.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
9 days ago
Reply to  Nick Toeman

I think it’s because not a few right wing culture warrior types are not as different from their woke opponents as they like to think. They often disdain ordinary not very politically minded people, perhaps don’t quite come up quite to the ideological mark!

They share the views deep down about small towns, even while perhaps theoretically exalting them: people making oddball, narrow or selfish remarks, gypsy boys going to.buy chips, a lot of people on mobility scooters, the apolitical squire etc etc

Angus Douglas
Angus Douglas
9 days ago

Geez, the comments are having a go at you Tanya. I liked the piece, whimsical and true to life. I didn’t dislike any of the characters, you were simply observing them, without too much judgement. These Tories need to loosen up a bit. I feel offended on your behalf.

M James
M James
6 days ago

Who was the commenter on one of the other Unherd articles who said that the answer to a rhetorical question in an article title is always “no”?

That was the case with this article. After reading it, I had to check the outcome. It’s quite something how much vote share the Tories had and the healthy amount of vote margin they had, despite losing half their vote share to Reform, the Independent candidate, and, to a very small extent, Labour. But it seems none to poor Mr. Braginton, who finished just ahead of the Greens.