The takeover of the Conservative party by its ‘nastier’ wing over the past few years is one of the most astonishing developments in modern British political history. I’m not by the way being unfair in using the word ‘nasty’ here. It’s the one that Theresa May herself chose to describe the Conservative party – or how it was regarded – in 2002. (See https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2002/oct/08/uk.conservatives2002.) But that was before she felt compelled to tuck herself into bed with the nastiest of them.
I always imagined that back in 2002 she was referring to the nouveaux Conservatives whom Thatcher had represented, and who gradually displaced the older-fashioned sort – old-world, tweed-jacketed, cuddly, paternalistic – after the fall of the Empire, which had needed paternalists to rule it. The latter were Thatcher’s ‘wets’. Today’s nasties are her ‘dries’. Which is not to say that they are all hard-nosed neo-liberals in the Thatcher mould, although many of their leaders appear to be. Either that, or chancers like Boris, Nigel, Jacob and (I would say) Theresa; who are the ones who seem to be dragging the party and with it the nation Rightwards today. How this bunch came to overshadow the rest of us, from what had until quite recently been seen as a minority, marginal and indeed ‘extremist’ situation in British politics, will provide History PhD students with research material for many years to come. It will make a super dissertation topic. I almost wish I were starting out again twenty years hence, when our current affairs have become ‘history’.
Commentators – mainly op-ed writers in the press – have already begun trying to explain the ‘turn’, but usually in short-termist ways. (Journalists generally don’t have as broad a vision as we historians do.) Short-term politicking and plotting are undoubtedly part of the picture. The Right have always been good at plotting, as a way of countering or manipulating ‘democracy’; which is why they tend to suspect it on the other side: vide McCarthy and successive ‘Red’ – and long before that anti-Catholic, anti-French and anti-Russian – scares; plus our own ‘secret services’ at various times. (See my Plots and Paranoia, 1989.) They also tend to be less scrupulous about the means they use, more ‘Machiavellian’, if you like. (Though I have a theory about Machiavelli which puts him in a different light. He wrote The Prince to warn us.)
The ideological Brexiteers have undoubtedly been clever in using the flaws in the British system of government to pack a punch entirely disproportionate to their mere numbers, and to use any popular discontent that arises, whatever it’s really about, to further their reactionary cause. That’s what is happening today. They have been aided in this by two other short-term factors: Theresa May’s quite staggering, and surely unprecedented, incompetence, and Cameron’s before her; and what is seen as similar failures of ‘leadership’ from the other parties in Parliament. The result could be a further swing to the Right in British politics generally; that is, not only on the question of ‘Europe’, but on every other social and economic question, putting Britain on the road to the kind of populism/proto-fascism we’re seeing in America and many other places in the world today; and all due to the intrigues over the past decade or two of a mere handful of men (mainly men, I’m afraid), plus, of course, Cambridge Analytica.
But there must be more to it than that. Historians are rarely content with short-term explanations for events, and ache for something ‘deeper’. (Perhaps because it makes us seem cleverer.) I don’t want to go into this now – too old and tired – but here are a few hints, for those bright young PhD students of twenty years’ time, to start them off.
The decline of the British Press is obviously a factor. That’s been going on for more than a hundred years now; and recently has been instrumental in sanitizing right-wing causes, and in muddying the reputation of the ‘political classes’, which may be one reason why we don’t get better ‘leaders’ coming into politics. ‘They’re all the same’; ‘all in it for themselves’, and so on; which after a time becomes self-fulfilling. Then, I’m sure the surprising survival and dominance of the public (private) schools and their values are part of the problem. (Look at Cameron, Johnson and Rees-Mogg.) Thirdly: de-industrialisation, and the neglect of the mainly Northern working classes and of their concerns by all political parties, starting of course with Thatcher, were clearly medium-term factors behind the Brexit vote of June 2016; creating the wave of discontent and unrest which the Rightist toffs so cleverly rode. Fourthly, our past-its-sell-by-date voting system has much to do with it, leaving huge swathes of the population feeling unrepresented by and cut off from the ‘Westminster bubble’ (see https://bernardjporter.com/2016/02/29/first-past-the-post/). Fifthly: as a historian of better and more liberal times in Britain I can’t accept that Right-wing thinking (racism, xenophobia, authoritarianism and the like) has been especially or peculiarly rife there in the past, but on the other hand there can be no doubt at all that it has always been there, waiting to be whipped into flame if the conditions are right. Sixthly, there is of course the bloody Empire, whose ‘decline and fall’ you might expect me to claim, as an imperial historian, was a factor behind all this; but in fact I don’t entirely hold to that, for reasons I hope to explain in the new (6th) edition of my The Lion’s Share when it comes out next year. Seventhly, there are international connections or networking between Right-wing movements. An example is the American Steve Bannon’s current European crusade on behalf of the Right.
And lastly, of course, there is my own favourite scapegoat, which is ‘late-stage capitalism’: a very long-term and developing factor, and also in itself a global one. But I need to do some thinking about that. And in the meantime I’m sure other long-term factors will occur – or be suggested – to me.
On the Empire, of course myths have always abounded, but it still plays an important role in the mythology of modern right-wingers and is also linked to their mythology of Brexit, that Britain must once again be free to bestride the waves and win back its glorious past. By the way Bernard, have you read ‘Ghosts of Empire’ by Boris’s chum Kwame Kwarteng MP (Eton and BA PhD Cambridge and co-author of ‘Britannia Unchained’) ‘Ghosts of Empire’ (2011) is about aspects of the Empire that manages to say little about its downside, but rather sees it in a more or less wholly positive light.
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Agreed, with reference to the Brexit leadership. No, I’ve not read the book by Kwarteng, but I remember reviewing an earlier book by him. I didn’t think it was too bad.