What’s the matter with Bolsover? That’s the question many will be asking after last week’s election, and one many have asked quite angrily over the past few days. Emily Thornberry’s apparent explanation is that they are “stupid”. That working-class conservatives are rubes tricked by the wealthy to vote against their own interests is an old theme on the Left, prominently given voice in Thomas Frank’s 2004 polemic What’s the Matter with Kansas?
There are various reasons why the Tories now do better in the north — one of which is that housing is much more reasonably priced. But a lot of it is clearly down to values, and that gulf between the Labour hierarchy and former voters. If you appreciate that politics is simply religion by other means, then it becomes easier to understand why people might not vote with their wallets.
Historically it’s always been hard for elites to maintain the support of the majority if they don’t share the same faith, however benevolent their rule. During the time of the First Crusade, for example, the Muslim world was weakened because the rulers of the Fatimid caliphate were Shia while the people they ruled were mostly Sunni.
Centuries earlier Egypt fell to the Arabs partly because there was such bitter divisions between its Byzantine Greek rulers, who were orthodox Catholic who followed the Council of Chalcedon, and the Egyptian Copts, who were Miaphysites. In contrast, for example, the Normans in England were pretty brutal but within a short space of time had intermarried with the natives because they had the same faith. Britain’s rule over Ireland was unhappy for a number of reasons but that the two groups did not share the same church was fatal.
Religion is essential to the functioning of a society — its etymology is “to bind” — which is why conquering tribes throughout history have adopted the faith of the natives they ruled, including the Franks, the Mongols and Turks. If they didn’t, they made sure the defeated converted to their way of thinking.
Perhaps the first proto-working-class rejection of liberalism came with the revolt of the Vendée, where Catholic peasants fought side by side with aristocrats against the Paris revolutionaries supposedly trying to help them. Yet the people in this part of western France cared deeply about their Catholic faith, which was far more important to them than class or any concept of liberty. That the revolutionaries had contempt for their religion — and, as a result for them — was not a selling point.
Where religion declines political value systems become a substitute, and since the 1960s there has a growing gulf in values between the bulk of the population and a dominant liberal Brahmin caste. The increasingly fractious politics of the 21st century is easy to understand when you understand that, like in previous unhappy societies, ruler and ruled no longer share the same faith.