The party is returning to its tribal homeland
Many have been taken by surprise with the ardour with which Theresa May and her party have embraced Brexit. Their determination is unsettling to committed remainers and to the naturally cautious, as well as to those in Ireland and Scotland dealt duff hands by England’s prospective departure.
Why is this happening? Is there a way back at all? Here is my take:
It’s hard to imagine now, but the Conservative Party (CP) once ruled the world. Or as much of the then world that was the British Empire, which was a lot. Yes, the parties holding office alternated between the Whigs and the Tories, but this was a ruling class with the aristocracy dominating.
But then, deeply discontent with their manner of rule, the colonies rejected the Conservatives and became independent. This hurt Winston Churchill, among many of his party, who saw the Empire as much part of Great Britain as Surrey.
Until the 1960s at least, the Church of England was known as the Conservative Party at prayer. Then the CoE rejected the CP and became independent of mind. The bible had a quite different view of humanity from Mrs Thatcher’s bastardisation of Hayekian economics. How awful.
Scotland rejected the CP long ago, as first the party’s vote shrunk to very little and then the vision of self-determination took hold. Hardly surprising: it was treated much like an occupied country for 18 years, instructed from afar and useful only to test out such gems as the poll tax. And Scotland does have a mind of its own.
Such unusual modernists as Edward Heath flirted with and then joined the rest of Europe. But, the party’s soul, its perpetual anti-EU wing, had to be pacified with the promise of a referendum by a prime minister not expecting the parliamentary majority to accede to this, and, along with the rest of the established politicians and media, failing to recognise the depth of public discontent. Sufficient of the citizenry grasped the only opportunity it had to protest at its left-behind lot.
To the surprise of many, and despite the rationale for remaining and the obstacles to leaving, the CP has now emotionally left, embracing Brexit with a sudden fervour, immediately curious.
Brexit has become the future for the CP. Power has always been its overriding priority. Being elected to government takes precedence over all else. We saw how quickly the party got its ducks in a row after the internal mayhem and back stabbing of the referendum.
It has never had the qualms, reticence, or fixation with proving its moral superiority that has so lumbered the Labour Party. Labour continues to look a gift horse in the mouth, wallowing in its own nostalgia, whilst the Conservatives have the power the create their own version.
But for the failure of governance within the Labour Party, unable to change its leaders when necessary — Kinnock, Blair, Brown, Milliband, and now Corbyn — the Conservatives would not be in office and we would not be in this particular fix. But they are and we are.
Theresa May may be playing a long game, knowing that tactically the government has to be seen to be following the ‘will of the people’, no matter how bewilderingly expressed, thence to allow a ‘week in politics’ to pass before plucking another referendum out of the hat to allow a balanced decision to be made.
The last country that will have it
Regardless of your pro or anti-Brexit preference and of whether it turns out to be a success, failure, or damp squib, a referendum on the actual terms of departure (preferably accompanied by public deliberation using independently produced information and assessments) would be entirely in keeping with the ‘will of the people’ thesis. Harold Wilson would have pulled that one off.
But my sense is that the soul of the Conservative Party is far happier on its own, ruling the last country on earth that will have it. It will hang on to First Past The Post to secure its continuing majority and watch while its, thus far, only alternative party for government continues to fail to come to terms with the modern world, unable to leave its proud history where it belongs: in the history books.
When Theresa May announced the revival of grammar schools at the height of the Article 50 turmoil, I wondered ‘why on earth?’ It may have been a diversionary tactic, but I think it more a statement of intent, a return to the ‘golden’ days of England expressed through such symbols as selective education, tough welfare, inherited wealth, small state, the mythical and narcissistic ‘special relationship’ with the US, and the one true god: the private sector.
Look out for warm beer and cricket.
Unless something extraordinary happens, my forecast is that England will leave, taking Wales with it — where else can it go? It has its only Parliament but with less powers than Scotland. Its predominant southern economy is inseparable from that of the South West and Midlands of England. The Conservative vote as a proportion increased at the last election. The quest for full independence in Wales is quiescent.
Scotland may carve out its own destiny — tricky of course, with an armed border the prospect along a new Hadrian’s Wall — but the SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon has now called for a second independence referendum.
Which brings us to Ireland, a country that has spent a long while rejecting the CP, the South achieving independence nearly a century ago and the North finally settling into power sharing in 1998 (and now in need of a new settlement). It is worth recalling that the Conservatives in Westminster could once count on the Northern Ireland Unionists for its majority. Such loyalty ceased about 30 years ago.
It receives little coverage in England, but people in Ireland know well the huge issue of the North-South border, open now and a key part of the peace settlement and for the development of economic and social integration without political unification. But a continuing unbarred border would leave the back door to England wide open for EU migrants. A fenced, patrolled, and checked border would resurrect old divisions with unknown consequences.
Is there an elegant solution out there? Some sort of semi-unified Ireland? Or another way?
The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 did have some consummate politicians working on it. Whatever you may think personally of Tony Blair, Mo Mowlam, Peter Hain, and Peter Mandelson, they formed an extraordinary multi-skilled team to pull off that deal, with others. A similar coup is needed now. But it’s also worth noting that, without the skills or the interest, the CP could never have produced the Good Friday Agreement.
They will be remembered mostly for the opposite – internment and the warmongers’ ‘never negotiate with terrorists’.
The soul of the CP has no interest in Ireland. The border will be a long way down the negotiating list and will likely end as a To Be Decided fudge, at best borrowing from the Good Friday Agreement’s ‘constructive ambiguity’ clauses.
With Ireland, the Empire, the Church, continental Europe, and Scotland gone, what, who or where is left to rule? Well, its country of origin and where its soul resides. No one wants the Conservative Party except (some) of England.
Which then leaves us, who must look to the future even if it’s like looking into the past. Don’t expect u-turns, accommodations for neighbours, or even a guilty conscience for past foul-ups.
This is a party returning to its tribal homeland, leading the country into retirement, unhindered by a functioning opposition, surfing the waves of a fixed electoral system. Plan for the fall-out.
Ed Straw is a writer and campaigner to change the system of government and democracyLike this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.