The totemic small-c conservative stronghold despises the Prime Minister
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.