by Will Lloyd
Monday, 9
May 2022
Behind the news
12:15

Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells turns on Boris Johnson

The totemic small-c conservative stronghold despises the Prime Minister
by Will Lloyd
Boris has lost the bowlers. Credit: Getty

A Conservative council leader said once that if he pinned a blue rosette on a dog it would win in Royal Tunbridge Wells. For a century, until Friday afternoon, this was true. Conservatives were defending 11 of the 16 seats put to a vote in Tunbridge Wells at this week’s local elections. They only held two of them.

The town’s borough council had been in Conservative hands for decades. When this brick-solid hegemony was (briefly) interrupted by the Liberal Democrats in the mid-Nineties, the splash in the Daily Telegraph read: “Even Tunbridge Wells Falls.” One hack there said the shock was only marginally less seismic than the fall of Rome.

Few places occupy such a central place in the imaginative landscape of English conservatism. Tunbridge Wells sits in the middle of Kent, and the middle of Middle England. A water colourist would paint its rhododendrons, its Georgian shopping parade, and its three immaculate bowls clubs. A visiting anthropologist might wonder why a town this lovely has a hardened reputation for the barely repressed spleen of its populace.

There is a particular strain of the English petit-bourgeois character that expresses a powerful desire to stop things. Litter-dropping, dog muck, and taxes — bad. They do like some things though: bridge, sherry, and commemorative china plates with pictures of the Queen’s face on them — good.

If this character lived anywhere, it was Tunbridge Wells. The decades old joke — “Disgusted, of Tunbridge Wells” —  is that even there, surrounded by green spaces and good grammar schools, they were still twitchy, still anxious about slipping standards, still vaguely threatened. Living in a town that 99% of humanity would be happy to dwell in made its residents grumblingly resentful. They wrote gone to the dogs letters to newspapers.

But they were not really political; they just felt in their bones, as Roger Scruton did, that “the old courtesies and decencies are disappearing.” They wondered why men no longer wear hats and were treated as a national joke for it.

Tories like this are supposed to have gone the same way as social decency. They joined Ukip in large numbers, then died. Tunbridge Wells is supposed to have changed too. Disgusted, according to the Financial Times, has become Delighted. A booming property market has filled the town with young couples fleeing Stoke Newington. A “kinky rave” festival was held in the woods outside town. The fusty reactionaries are gone.

Yet the fall of Tunbridge Wells this week, like other Tory strongholds across the south, was a reminder that small-c conservatism lingers on. Tories who admire moral decency, think plans to development laws are ghastly, and respect the BBC, the National Trust, and the Church of England, do not have a home in Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party.

Last week in West Oxfordshire, Huntingdonshire, Wokingham, and Tunbridge Wells they either voted for the Lib Dems or stayed at home. Michael Gove blamed these losses on the housing crisis. That might be true in London. But not in Tunbridge Wells, which has a classic NIMBY lobby.

More than anything, southern Tories have become offended by Boris Johnson. His behaviour is the kind that inspires dyspeptic letters. “Even in a town like Tunbridge Wells, true blue Tory, there’s only so much we will take”, one voter told Sky News. She was playing bowls; stout, sensible, English. “Enough was enough.”

Though she didn’t give her name, it was obvious who she was. Disgusted, of Tunbridge Wells.

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Justin S
Justin S
1 month ago

For all of this writers sneering, patronising and superior tones I will respond to this article.

I actually live just a few miles from TW. I am a life long Tory voter of 40 years and have at various times been a Tory Party member. However, I am not at present and intend not to vote Tory at the next election if Johnson is in charge.

What is the point of the Tory Party at present?
It does not represent traditional conservative thought or practice and become a pastiche of the Blair government of c.2000. It is a centre left Cabinet of wealthy old money and new money immigrant social democrats.

Tax and spend, eco idiocy, trans and gay rights, anti small business and the self-employed.
They have done nothing with Brexit, no bonfire of regulations.
Those in the Red Wall will soon enough realise that the governments hysterical over reaction and over spending on the Covid pandemic has doomed the ‘levelling up’ agenda and all the monies that would have gone to them have now been thrown away postponing the date of death of those in their 80s by a couple of years.

The Tory party needs to suffer a massive shock at Election and to be thrashed and broken. Johnson has to go and the cabinet of social democrats dismissed to the back benches.

Last edited 1 month ago by [email protected]
Pamela Booker
Pamela Booker
1 month ago
Reply to  Justin S

Absolutely spot on. Where are our truly conservative MPs?

Peter Joy
Peter Joy
1 month ago
Reply to  Justin S

Exactly. I couldn’t have put it better.

AC Harper
AC Harper
1 month ago

The small c social conservatives underpinned both the Old Tories and Old Labour. The Conservatives did not do well in the latest council elections, but then neither did Labour.
Blaming the results on Boris Johnson alone misses the point. Some like him for his heroic actions, some hate him for his heroic character flaws.
Perhaps you could equally argue that Kier Starmer failed to step up.

Perry de Havilland
Perry de Havilland
1 month ago

The NetZero insanity will make people much poorer, making driving the preserve of the upper middle class, make energy erratic and unreliable, make holidays either hard or impossible, require heat pumps that don’t actually work well and require unhealthy hermetically sealed homes, and require *massive* state control over society to enforce.
If I wanted green I’d vote Green, but if I’m going to get green even if I vote Tory, I’ll vote Reform UK.
The Conservative Party is not in any meaningful sense a conservative party.

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
1 month ago

I lived near Tunbridge Wells for some years. The writer’s description is most inaccurate, a cartoon sketch; after all, if was so blue it would not have gone yellow this time (as it has before).
Incidentally it is not in the middle of Kent; it is on the border with East Sussex

Geoffrey Hicking
Geoffrey Hicking
1 month ago

While having moral standards is fine, constantly being offended by everything is for wokists. I tried being disgusted by the drop in moral standards. It was very useful, but eventually it began to consume me. How far did I have to go to be a true small-c conservative? Could any modernism at all be tolerated? Was tolerance an unacceptable attitude in and of itself?

I became a snob and was corrupted by excessive melancholia over the loss of the past. I considered just giving up on life. Why bother trying to increase attendance at my local church? Better to shake my head at how it was in decline. Why support new housing development if that was going to tear up a green field?
It got to the point where instead of trying to bring the past back (with some of the modern age integrated in), I was just waiting for the world to end.

Presenting Tunbridge Wells, Douglas Murray, Peter Hitchens, and declinists as heroes can go too far. Even Andrew Roberts began to criticise Hitchens in Standpoint Magazine when one of his declinist screeds targeted Churchill.
There are plenty of people with good moral standards. There are plenty of tasteful houses being built (see Shrewsbury). let’s have some positivity instead of constant declinism. It is not heroic, no matter how respectable it might look.

Boris is part of that. he got us Brexit, and is lauded by the Ukrainians as an ally- take that declinists! Some progress on mass migration has been made, with more to do. He may not be an angel, but his moral standards are deeper than many people realise. He too is stout and sensible, when it really matters.

Pamela Booker
Pamela Booker
1 month ago

It is Boris’s “just follow the money” values that are desecrating the country with the unnecessary HS2, concreting over prime agricultual land, London carbuncle building by big patrons of the party, unwillingness to deal with wokeism in our public institutions that the public sees and will vote accordingly.
Don’t be too smug that new conservatives will go the way of UKIP.

Peter Joy
Peter Joy
1 month ago

Can’t go criticising WSC in front of Roberts: that’s his whole career and income-stream Hitchens was sullying. No wonder Roberts had a hissy-fit.

Fragmentary Gadabout
Fragmentary Gadabout
1 month ago

Personally I think it’s just too difficult to hold the north and the south in a coherent electoral coallition for any length of time. A charismatic figure like Blair or Johnson might do it for a time but ultimately the priorities of these places are too great for it to hold.
To make lasting change you have to pick one, and then govern according to the values of that place, as Thatcher did with the South.

Matt M
Matt M
1 month ago

I’m afraid I don’t agree with this at all. I am a northerner who has lived in the south for half my life. I have family and friends in both regions. I don’t see any difference in the attitudes or circumstances that can be pinned on their geography. I grew up in a Lancashire constituency that voted Tory in the Maggie years and Labour in the Blair years and is now Tory again. I lived for 20 years in a London constituency that was a Labour/Tory swing seat and now I live in a southern city that has a Tory MP and a Lib Dem council. I think regional political differences are an invention of the press.

Last edited 1 month ago by Matt M
Peter Joy
Peter Joy
1 month ago

Grantham’s arguably more North than South. Methodism certainly was. Thatcher’s values were of old school Northern self-reliance and personal responsibility as much as anything: ‘Never do ‘owt for nowt less’n it be for tha’ sen.’

Grace Froggatt
Grace Froggatt
1 month ago

Bubellib!!

Peter Joy
Peter Joy
1 month ago

Some truth in this. But the disgusteds of Tunbridge Wells are, I think, long past respecting the rank and stinking BBC, National Trust and C of E. For many small c conservatives, even the monarchy is, all too literally, on its last life.