The strange death of Tory England

 25th May, 2024

The question is, shall we perish in the dark, slain by our own hand, or in the light, killed by our enemies.

Lord Selborne, in the House of Lords, 10th August, 1911 1.

In a perceptive Spectator article2, Ed West well summarised the context in which Rishi Sunak decided to call an election in six weeks’ time: in his view, the Tories’ post-Brexit immigration policy was their biggest mistake. It meant the worst of both worlds for the country and for Tory coalition building, alienating both a large section of voters for leaving the EU, and the many cultural conservatives they picked up in 2019 who saw the referendum as a vote on immigration.

The very likely, landslide defeat — indeed probably a defeat of 1945 proportions — to which Mr. Sunak will have led the Tories is but the last act of a sequence initiated by the 2019 general election called by Boris Johnson, and by his defenestration by the liberal-left faction that has gradually come to dominate the British establishment: the latter was, until the 1970s at least, more evenly balanced politically; but individuals sharing the same obsessively-progressivist political mindset have shut their bolt on every facet of it — much in the same way that the Whigs did in the 1830s — with the connivence of the Blair administration after 1997.

Over the last four decades or so, the liberal-left successfully came to dominate all the country’s great institutions — the universities, the armed forces, the police, the judiciary, the broadsheet press, the public schools, the established Church, arguably even the Court itself. Perhaps its most perverse success was when David Cameron embarked on a policy, via the so-called A-List, of imposing candidates who were not Conservative in the traditional sense in order to diversify the party. The Economist well summarised the context in which this fateful choice was made:

[…] the Conservative Party is having an argument about why Mr. Cameron did not win an outright majority at the 2010 general election. The prime minister’s allies are certain the election was lost because the project of detoxifying the Tory brand was incomplete: people wanted change from Labour but did not trust the Conservatives to deliver it. On the right, the consensus is that the election was lost by talking too much about modernising gimmicks, and too little about core issues, such as immigration, tax or Europe 3.

The roots of this phenomenon are more ancient than most observers would think. George Orwell, in his 1941 Essay The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius, had already perceptively noted that

England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality. In left-wing circles it is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution, from horse racing to suet puddings. It is a strange fact, but it is unquestionably true that almost any English intellectual would feel more ashamed of standing to attention during God save the King than of stealing from a poor box 4.

What The Economist, David Cameron and the self-proclaimed modernisers did not grasp was that, as Orwell pointed out, people like their country5 — not just in Britain, but the world over. Attempts to dilute Tory values, which are deeply interwined with the traditional British values Orwell describes, were bound to baffle the vast majority of voters, who like Britain and British values and, by the time of the Brexit referendum, had already become tired of being told that they were worthless.

Yet by winning an eighty-seat majority for the Tories on a clear manifesto commitment to get Brexit done, Boris Johnson put that trend into reverse. He implicitly received a mandate from electors, foremost among them the white working-class Red Wall voters, not just to get Brexit done, but to defend traditional British values.

Mr. Johnson’s 2019 success in turning out the Red Wall for the Tories deserves to be counted among Britain’s fundamental electoral realignments, putting it on a par with the shifts that occurred in 1906 — which saw a major shift in British politics, with the Liberal welfare reforms and New Liberalism gaining popular support over the Conservatives’ more traditional policies; 1945 — with electors endorsing Labour’s vision for post-war reform and the welfare state, and setting the stage for transformative changes like the creation of the National Health Service; 1979 — which moved Britain away from the post-war consensus,ushering in a new era of British politics focused on free-market economics, deregulation, and reduced trade union power under Thatcher; and 1997 — with the Blair administration implementing radical constitutional changes, including, inter alia, the creation of a Supreme Court, giving the European Court of Human Rights the power to make binding decisions in the UK legal process, ending the automatic right of hereditary peers to sit in the House of Lords, devolving significant powers to elected entities in Wales and Scotland and, last but not least, unleashing a massive immigration wave, including significant numbers from New Commonwealth countries.

The historic realignment, however, was not to be. The Tories’ implicit, but very clear mandate in 2019 was to put the liberal-left policy shift that had reached its climax under Blair into reverse. Nowhere was the electorate’s expection greater than in the field of immigration; and and in that field as in every other, successive governments proved in turn unable, indeed often also unwilling, to carry it out.

One’s purpose here is not to gloss over the numerous mistakes that marred Mr. Johnson’s tenure as Prime Minister, which focused on his shortcomings in two fields: firstly his handling of the COVID-19 crisis — with criticism for delays in response and awareness of the scale of the pandemic; and secondly scandals and allegations of corruption, such as inappropriate WhatsApp messages with a Conservative Party donor regarding funding.

More fundamentally, although paradoxically this did not generally feature among those of his weaknesses most discussed in the media, his record on immigration, unquestionably the issue that most concerned Red Wall voters, is mixed. He supported a points-based immigration system to prioritize skilled workers and take back control after Brexit. This aimed to reduce overall numbers and limit low-skilled immigration. Yet despite a reputation for populist rhetoric, analysts suggest Mr. Johnson’s overall immigration policy was more liberal than perceived, with some increases in visas and relaxed rules in certain areas — and the figures for net migration after Brexit almost beggar belief, giving the impression of an administration that has lost any serious intention of controlling the inflow.

Annual estimates of immigration to the UK (excluding British citizens)

Source: IPS-based: for 1991 to 2009: ONS, …
Source: IPS-based: for 1991 to 2009: ONS, Table 2.00: Long-term international migration time series; and for YE Dec 2010 to YE Mar 2020: ONS, provisional estimates of longterm international migration, year ending March 2020. Experimental estimates: ONS, Long-term international migration, provisional:YE June 2012 to YE June 2023, Table I. Note: Both IPS and experimental estimates come with substantial uncertainty.The figures generally quoted by the press are for net migration, which factors in departures, most of which are British citizens. The figure for immigration excluding returning British citizens, however, has now passed one million per annum.

The responsibility for this, of course, does not lie solely, or even primarily, at the political level. The civil service, especially the Home Office, and the judiciary, have consistently worked to thwart any attempt to control numbers, with decisions by the Strasbourg court being perhaps the most effective obstacle to reasserting control. Yet when the simple idea of making UK statutes prevail over the European Court of Human Rights in immigration matters, or if necessary to revert to the situation prevailing before Labour enacted the 1998 Human Rights Act, where we were fully members of the European Convention on Human Rights, without its decisions being able to prevail over Uk statutes, around one hundred Tory MPs signalled their refusal to countenance it.

In any event, the liberal-left establishment was seriously alarmed by Mr. Johnson’s 2019 triumph. It sensed that this was a man capable, despite his bumbling, disorganised work methods and his frequent gaffes, of putting everything they had achieved since 1997 into reverse. He had to go. It seized the opportunity provided by the Covid-19 crisis to defenestrate him, after a sustained press vilification campaign that was essentially based on the fact he had attended a party during lockdown.

After the brief and disastrous parenthesis of the Liz Truss premiership, Rishi Sunak, whose natural instincts are those of a centrist rather than a traditional Tory, was never likely to succeed in breaking the mould gripping Tory policy at the end of David Cameron’s premiership, where his three predecessors failed: indeed the rather baffling decision to bring back a specially ennobled Lord Cameron as Foreign Secretary provided some evidence there was no serious intention of doing so. Since entering 10 Downing Street the Prime Minister has kicked the can down the road on practically all policy issues that required him to make tough decisions or to displease any part of the liberal-left establishment, while filling the void with gimmicks, such as draft legislation to progressively ban smoking.

Yet the electorate do not, of course, trust Labour to do any better than the Tories on any of these subjects. Thus the possible death of Tory England such as may well be induced by electoral obliteration in July, while it will shrugged off by the liberal press as an inevitable consequence of changing mores and the gradual evaporation, now reaching its climax, of the deference that characterised British society until the 1990s, is still arguably stranger than the death of Liberal England at the turn of the twentieth century: voters do not believe the Socialists and Sir Keir Starmer will govern competently — they are merely no longer prepared to give the Tories a blank cheque that is then used to further entrench the liberal-left policy framework inherited from the Blair regime.

It is not unlikely that the Socialist administration that will, almost certainly, come into office in July will serve two terms, especially as the Labour Party is considering lowering the voting age to sixteen and extending the franchise to European Union nationals (Commonwealth nationals, who are not regarded as foreign in English law, and Irish citizens can already vote in general elections). This proposal aims to provide full voting rights to all UK residents and, more cynically, to make it almost certain that Labour will secure a second term.

During the next ten years, Labour will act swiftly and decisively to entrench yet further the progressivist legislation they enacted in the late 1990s: Sir Keir Starmer’s background as a human rights lawyer makes it likely that any attempt to control immigration will be abandoned and a swift path to citizenship offered to immigrants. Anti-Semitism, which has seen a strong resurgence on the left of the Labour Party, since the October 7 Hamas atrocities and the resulting war in the Gaza Strip, will compel the Leadership to align the UK with Israel’s most vociferous opponents. The Labour Party is also considering imposing a 20 per cent value added tax on public school fees. While concessions to the Scottish National Party are unlikely, given the electoral advantage that accrues to Labour from Scotch constituencies, it is likely to betray the Unionist majority in Northern Ireland by accommodating Eire’s increasingly naked ambitions to annex the six counties that chose to stay in the United Kingdom in 1922.

While the resulting damage to the Constitution, to our national traditions, and to the fabric of British society will be considerable and probably partly irreversible, the iconoclastic and extreme nature of Labour’s current policy framework gives some hope that the Tories will return to office by 2034. To do so, however, they will need to avoid the trap into which they fell under David Cameron, and all his successors excepting Boris Johnson, of blaming defeat and unpopularity in the polls on their alleged toxicity, lack of diversity or hostility to Europe. Should they continue that strategy which prevented them, after thirteen years in continuous office, from enacting even a single major Tory policy, the Conservative and Unionist Party, which has continuously existed in its present form since 1834, and traces its roots directly to the Tory Party of the Restoration, may be obliterated entirely. England’s natural party of government will have ceased to exist — and the world will be a much poorer place for it.

There are many figures in the Party whom the grass roots like and who could pave the way for a return to office. Kemi Badenoch and Suella Braverman spring to mind. Yet for traditional Tory values to have a future in England, Conservatives will need, paradoxically, to fully realise that the struggle between progressivism and tradition is not one that is fought on our shores in isolation. It is part of a much wider, worldwide context in which the Left is taking control of the most prestigious institutions, shaping younger generations to despise their national traditions and engage in the politics of hate and in which concern for the environment, the alleviation of poverty and the extinction of countless endangered species are not tackled seriously, but rather used as pretexts to enact ever-increasing radicalism and political extremism.

The violence that the Left has unleashed in the main countries of the West, in our own country, but also in the white Commonwealth, the United States and in France, cannot be tackled if conservative forces do not coordinate their response: the Tory Party needs to join forces with its natural allies throughout the world, not just right-leaning parties in the Anglosphere, but also conservatives in Western and Eastern Europe and in Israel. Unity will be key to reversing the disastrous path of radical progressivism, and returning the world’s great democracies and their allies throughout the globe to the sanity of liberal democracy, with freedom of thought, speech and religion for all, and a healthy dose of constitutional checks and balances.

Only thus will the peoples of the West retain their traditional awareness, rooted in its Judeo-Christian spiritual roots, of the risks entailed by man’s natural tendency to err, recognition of which is evidently the most defining characteristic of conservatism: this must surely be key to preventing the West’s enemies, both without and within, from ruining the civilisation our ancestors sacrificed so much to build, and which we yearn to pass on, intact and if possible improved, to our children.

  1. Dangerfield, G. The Strange Death of Liberal England. 1935. Second Edition, Capricorn Books, 1961, ↩︎

  2. West, Ed. How Bad Will a Labour Government Be? The Spectator, 24 May 2024,↩︎

  3. The Economist. David Cameron Is Not Too Posh. The Economist, 4 Apr. 2012,↩︎

  4. Orwell, George. Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters: My Country, Right or Left, 1940-1943. Edited by Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus, vol. 2, Penguin, 1970,↩︎

  5. On this subject, v. an interesting article, arguing that Orwell’s 1941 The Lion and the Unicorn is a brilliant, deeply flawed essay [that] has lessons for modern times: Smith, Noah. Orwell’s the Lion and the Unicorn. Noahpinion, 27 July 2021,↩︎