“As Matthew Goodwin has repeatedly written, it is easier for the Conservatives to move slightly left on economic issues than it is for Labour to move right on cultural issues.”
Britain has been in a mess for three years. The 2016 referendum on whether to stay in or leave the European Union was the first time a majority of the British people voted for something that Parliament didn’t want to enact. This simple underlying fact explains the conflict that has riven British political life for many, many months. Now, the question has been decisively answered. On Thursday, December, 12 2019, Britain elected the Conservative Party into government with a majority not seen since Margaret Thatcher’s landslide in 1987, winning 365 seats. For Labour, it was a bloodbath; they gained 1 seat and lost 60—leaving them with 202 seats in total. They lost most of their old heartlands and are now in electoral nuclear winter. Calling events “defining” often overstates the significance of what took place. This time this and all the other superlatives one can think of are completely justified. We have not seen the like in Britain for generations. A longer-term political realignment is now likely taking place that could reshape our politics for years to come.
The red of the Labour Party reflects the electoral blood-letting that took place on December 12-13, 2019. Why did the Labour Party lose? They lost because of Brexit—and their failure to follow the wishes of the voters. They lost because of Jeremy Corbyn, and all he represented. This is borne out again and again by polling and the people on the street. Labour lost because they took their Midland and Northern heartland voters for granted. As Roger Scruton writes, “The greatest enemy of the Left is reality.” Labour lost because they valued ideological purity over reality. Those around Corbyn, in the parliamentary party and in the activist group Momentum represented a socialist cult whose ideas and worldview held their traditional supporters in contempt. Corbyn’s attitude towards Britain, its culture, traditions and place in the world, was that of a surly high-schooler who hates his parents and despises those around him for their backwardness and lack of commitment to changing the world.
Is it so surprising that someone who can barely conceal his distaste for everything so many millions still hold dear was unpopular on the doorstep? Who would have thought that someone who seemed to have greater affection for terrorists and dictators more than his own country would be a less than attractive choice? This is the effect of ideology on those it ensnares: it blinds them to their own failing and paints as defective and deficient those who do not follow them blindly towards the brighter tomorrow that never comes. This blindness is demonstrated by the inherent inability on the part of Corbynites to accept responsibility for their own pathetic failings, instead pointing the finger at anyone (including the Jews) but themselves.
In sum, as ex-Labour MP John Mann put it on Twitter, “The Labour Party was created to empower the working class. The workers were empowered with a referendum . They used their power. Labour ignored them. That’s it.”
The Corbynite utopianism fed into a simmering rage at those who dissented from their program of bringing heaven on earth, a rage intensified by the nagging fear that this will never be realized. Those who disagreed were castigated or purged from the party, those outside the party were lambasted as fascists, while Jews of all political persuasions were attacked simply for being Jewish. Jews were called Zionist Nazis while Labour supporters themselves engaged in Nazi tropes and genocidal language. The anger and bitterness of the Corbynite cult was on display for all to see during this election. The inherent instability of the coalition that now makes up the Labour party arguably played into this resentful anger. The mixture of old-Left socialism represented by Corbyn and his close allies alongside a mix of students, woke Brahmin liberals, and ethnic minorities is not something one can build a governing party on. In sum, as ex-Labour MP John Mann put it on Twitter, “The Labour Party was created to empower the working class. The workers were empowered with a referendum . They used their power. Labour ignored them. That’s it.”
The win for the Conservatives was crushing. Their victory is the greatest outright majority for a political party since Tony Blair left office. Since 2010, we, in Britain, have had one indecisive election after another, with hung Parliaments and bare majorities. Now, we are back in majority government territory.It is very rare for a party to win a fourth election. The last time was in 1992, when John Major succeeded Margaret Thatcher. Further, the last time any party changed prime ministers and increased their majority was when Harold Macmillan won in 1959. We’ll return to him later.
Honoring democratic results, whether one likes the result or not, is central to a functioning democracy.
Johnson repudiated both his predecessors, David Cameron and Theresa May, by running on leaving the EU and honoring the referendum result, come what may. Honoring democratic results, whether one likes the result or not, is central to a functioning democracy. When people feel some votes matter more than others, discontent grows. The Brexit impasse left many feeling like not only did their voice not matter to Westminster politicians in normal political discourse—but that their political choices and cultural norms were based in ignorance and bigotry and so could be ignored by the supposedly superior technocrats whose job it apparently was to administer decline and ignore, pacify, or denigrate their retrograde constituents. All it took was someone to listen and deliver. It’s not hard to see why that appealed to so many long-time Labour supporters.
Johnson ran on a platform that not only recognized that democracy must be upheld but, also, that the political winds were changing direction. He, therefore, also buried the zombie-Thatcherism of the last couple of decades. As Matthew Goodwin has repeatedly written, it is easier for the Conservatives to move slightly left on economic issues than it is for Labour to move right on cultural issues. Johnson’s speeches as newly elected leader, along with the Conservative party manifesto, reflected the changing shape of British politics. Gone was the double economic and social liberalism of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. While a metro-liberal himself, Johnson at least recognized that many, many people felt economically and culturally disenfranchised by this double-edged liberal sword that cleaved apart professions and communities, rendering people searching for decent employment and a sense of belonging in a world that seemingly worked against both and further blamed those who lacked these for their failure.
Johnson’s rhetoric calls to mind that of Benjamin Disraeli, who spoke of two nations who didn’t know each other and who viewed each other with suspicion and distrust. Disraeli saw the job of conservative government as knitting together a divided country, by restraining rather than destroying free markets and smoothing the jagged edges of industrial capitalism. This seems to be the direction Johnson is heading in, which reflects where we are: chaos rather than stasis, a tyranny of insecurity rather than of stability.
Johnson’s paeans to leveling Britain up have been balanced by his acceptance and affirmation of people who value place and continuity, who wish to remain in or near the towns, villages and communities where they were born, grew up and find solace and support. The acceptance on the Right that political decisions played a large role in decimating these communities has been a long-time in coming and is a welcome sign. A move away from seeing people as atomistic, entirely self-choosing individuals who are happy to move for movement’s sake, who, of course, want to be entrepreneurs and who are happy to discard that which made them who they are, towards a more community oriented conservatism seems to be taking shape.
Returning to Harold Macmillan, alongside this is a move away from a fundamental free-market oriented approach towards one which sees a role for the intelligent use of the state, when it comes to desperately needed infrastructure development, for example. While we must ensure that this does not lead to overly-statist managerialism that kills any innovation, this move is another sign that Johnson and those around him recognize that times change. While Thatcher’s efforts to deregulate and set free our moribund economy were a response to her circumstances, ours are different and therefore require a different answer. This is the essence of conservatism, carrying the lessons of the past with you and applying them to the issues of the day, learning from empirical experience. Beautiful theories that seek to describe a world wholesale while providing supposed solutions for all times and all places are lovely until they run into reality, such as Scruton suggested. Then, ideologues who cling to these beautiful ideas become less than beautiful themselves when their unchanging theories fail to meet the challenges and realities at hand. Unchanging beautiful theories, whether social or economic, lead to less than beautiful losers at elections.
Johnson is faced with a tricky balancing act between his increasingly working-class, communitarian constituents and his libertarian, individualist, free-market fundamentalist think-tank brigade who think the answer to everything is more choice, freedom, and tax-cuts. Whether he can keep both his communitarian and individualist supporters on side remains to be seen. However, it is beyond doubt that we, as a society, now value security over unbounded freedom that leads to disorder, that leaves people feeling lost and disorientated in a world forever on the move and wracked by ceaseless upheaval that cares little for those who care more for their shared culture than just the nation’s GDP.
Johnson and the Conservatives must reconcile the cultural conservatism of their new supporters (who value law and order, hard work, patriotism and community) with their remaining, more liberal middle-class “Shire” supporters in the South. This will be a challenge. However, it has been done before, and it can be done again if they have the will and the political wisdom. As always, we must remember that governments are made of men, and men are flawed; so government is flawed. We must approach the possibilities before us with a degree of humility and respect for what lies ahead. That said, the opportunity that has been presented to Johnson and the Conservatives is one that must be grasped. If it is, the realignment that so many have talked about will come to pass and reshape British politics for a generation. The Conservative Party under Boris Johnson has routed Labour and scored an astonishing victory. Now, the hard work begins.
Henry George is a freelance writer living in the UK. He holds an MA in War Studies from King’s College London.