John Matsusaka contends that the challenge of democratic populism can only be met with more democracy.
When the UK’s famously accurate Exit Poll came through at the stroke of ten on Thursday 12 December, I felt blessed relief, not joy. Relief that the great good sense of the British public had ensured a Marxist political party would not sit on the government benches or install its leader in Number 10. Relief as the Tory Shires and Wales plus the North and Midlands joined hands — much as they had done when voting Leave in 2016 — and threw up a cordon sanitaire around the country’s Jews.
My partner and I had trusted enough to my election forecast to put a bottle of champagne on ice, but neither of us expected a Conservative landslide. It took a good 10 minutes of staring at the BBC’s stunned talking heads, mouths open, before we remembered the booze and poured our drinks. No need to use my dual citizenship to transfer our UK pensions into an Australian superannuation fund. No need to sell up (and emigrate) before Labour’s crippling capital gains taxes were enacted into law.
Britain awoke on the Friday morning after the election from a Beckettian fever dream: nobody came, nobody went, and nothing happened as parliament paralysed itself over Brexit and the country looked on in horror, or shame, or bemusement. It had got that way that BBC Parliament routinely topped telly ratings as everyone watched a three-year-all-seasons pantomime and small children took to emulating the Speaker’s loud and distinctive shouts of ORDERRRR! in schools and playgrounds across the nation.
Soon, of course, came the reckoning. Labour proceeded to implode in public while Boris Johnson hotfooted it to Sedgefield — Tony Blair’s old constituency, now turned Tory — to reassure electors in what had been Labour’s “Red Wall” that he knew their votes were only lent to the Conservatives over Brexit, crackpot socialism, and the Corbyn leadership group’s indulgence of bonkers conspiratorial crankery. The Conservatives have inadvertently reassembled the 19th century Benjamin Disraeli coalition of cloth caps and top hats against cosmopolitan liberalism, which means it really is a case of One Nation or bust. Grimsby: Twinned with the Bullingdon Club quipped Matt the Telegraph cartoonist as the political earthquake slowly subsided.
The extraordinary result came about because the electorate in England and Wales has polarised into hostile Leave or Remain camps while Scotland completed the polarisation started in 2014 into Yes or No on the question of independence. This is part of what political historian Professor Stephen Davies describes as “a political realignment,” where questions of collective identity come to matter more to voters than the extent to which the state intervenes — or fails to intervene — in the economy.
Drawing on Davies’s analysis, if parliament did reflect the country and its political parties were labelled accordingly, there would be four of them, all with strong geographical bases: Radical Remainia, Liberal Remainia, Brexitshire, and Leaverstan. This is what made predicting the scale of the Tory win so difficult: the emerging realignment turned safe seats held by all parties into marginals and marginals into safe seats in a completely unpredictable way. Across all four Home Nations there are now many more marginal seats, most of them held by the Conservatives but only because they won so comprehensively. Those Red Wall seats that did not fall have Tories nipping at Labour’s heels. In Scotland, meanwhile, the Scottish National Party (SNP) won handily but there are many seats where either Tories or Liberal Democrats (LibDems) are breathing down the nationalists’ necks.
Radical Remainia is made up of younger, university-educated voters. They live in London, major metropolitan areas, and university towns. They have a strong foothold in Scotland. They are concerned about the environment (even if they don’t personally join Extinction Rebellion protests), often engage in what is called “identity politics”, and favour both immigration and significant economic redistribution. They are consistently and almost uniformly anti-war but (in England) combine this with active dislike for their own country. It’s a tribute to the fundamental benignity of Scotland’s civic nationalism that, in 2019, Radical Remainia cast most of their ballots for the SNP, almost wiping Labour out — it holds only a single Scottish seat. Labour — contrasted with the SNP, as many Scottish voters pointed out on the doorstep — has become “the nasty party”.
Liberal Remainia voters live in South East England and the M4 corridor, with a sprinkling in Scotland and Northern Ireland. They are affluent, professional, university educated, and employed in sectors with significant international exposure. They are more pro-market and fiscally conservative than the inhabitants of Radical Remainia and not particularly committed to wealth redistribution. They tend to favour “humanitarian intervention” and do not see eye-to-eye with Radical Remainia on this point. Both Remainia groups are, of course, “cosmopolitans” or “globalists” (to use the political argot developed in the wake of the 2016 referendum and the election of Donald Trump).
In both England and Scotland, many of them voted LibDem; in Scotland, some voted SNP. Crucially for the Tories, a significant number voted Conservative, thanks to Boris winkling a deal out of the EU at the last minute. Bits of Liberal Remainia — while still bloody annoyed Leave won in 2016 — were willing to accept the result as long as a reasonable deal was secured and No Deal averted. The very extremism of Labour’s Manifesto also meant quite a bit of Liberal Remainia stayed home.
Brexitshire voters also live in South East England and the M4 corridor, with a dusting elsewhere in Wales and the West Country. They are demographically similar to Liberal Remainia voters although there is a greater preponderance among them of private sector employment and post-school qualifications in STEM or skilled trades rather than humanities or social sciences. They are pro-market, uninterested in economic redistribution, tend not to be bothered by immigration, but are strongly patriotic. Their nationalism — while supportive of HM Forces — does not extend to “vanity wars” like Iraq, Libya, or Syria on the basis that intervening over there leads to unwanted refugees over here. In order to repel the threat from Nigel Farage’s Brexit party, the Tories decided to become “the Party of Leave” and so ensure they retained custody of Britain’s political right. For this reason, and almost without exception, Brexitshire voted Conservative.
Finally, we come to Leaverstan. These are working-class voters in small towns and older industrial regions in the North, Midlands, and Wales. They also dominate in coastal areas. They are the least likely of any of the four groups to be university-educated. They are opposed to immigration, intensely patriotic in much the same way as Brexitshire while supporting significant economic redistribution. They compete with Radical Remainia when it comes to professing undying love for the National Health Service. Both Brexitshire and Leaverstan fall on the “nationalist” side of the post-Trump political divide, in opposition to cosmopolitanism or globalism. Leaverstan deserted Labour in droves, lending their votes to the Tories and collapsing Labour’s Red Wall, sometimes with abject horror at what they were doing. In some seats, voting Tory was too much for them and they voted Brexit Party instead. There were many seats — think Hartlepool and Barnsley — where Farage’s outfit got between the high teens and 30 per cent. These are people who voted Leave, are utterly pissed off with Labour, but fundamentally anti-systemic. If they have a core politics, it’s “Hang the paedos, fund the NHS”.
This came about because Labour tried to ride two horses at once, something you simply cannot do. The attempt to appeal to both Leaverstan and Radical Remainia and so hold its electoral coalition together meant voters reached into Labour’s chest cavity and tore out its heartlands. Meanwhile, it proved easier for the Tories to move left on economics than it did for Labour or LibDems to move right on culture or immigration, which meant the Conservatives were able to draw together Brexitshire and swathes of Leaverstan.
That said, some of the most polarising behaviour engaged in by anyone on either side came not from Labour’s much maligned “Momentum” pressure group but from upper-middle-class Liberal “Remainiacs” — sometimes former Conservatives plus a goodly smattering of Labour’s politically homeless Blairites — who were never going to be persuaded by any deal, no matter how generous. A significant number of them really do think Northern and Midlands Leaverstan only voted as they did because they live in places where pigeons fly upside down because there’s nothing worth shitting on. An even larger number pretend that socially and economically similar Brexitshire doesn’t exist.
When Liberal Remainia’s signature outfit — the “People’s Vote” organisation — collapsed in acrimony and mutual resentment during the election campaign, the Great British Public was treated to the spectacle of wealthy metropolitan poshos and their PR hirelings locking each other out of various fancy London offices, serving writs on each other, shouting, and generally channelling the People’s Front of Judaea. It was as though, along with the tomfoolery that forms part of every UK general election, People’s Vote decided to put on a pantomime.
Even worse for Liberal Remainia — and particularly for Jolyon Maugham QC, its singularly entitled Prince of Lawfare — was a post-election incident on Boxing Day where he took to Twitter to announce to the planet that he’d disturbed a fox in his garden and beaten it to death with a baseball bat while wearing his wife’s “too-small green kimono”. The lack of self-awareness involved here is near total (the UK, recall, banned traditional “hunting with hounds” amid immense public controversy), and Maugham finished up on the front page of every newspaper in the land. For Leaverstan, watching all this was to know true joy, like seeing Jeremy Clarkson get his Aston Martin clamped.
Mind you, the Liberal Democrats — who really should have capitalised on Remain sentiment, especially in London — ran a dreadful campaign. Not only did Jo Swinson epitomise everyone’s stereotype of the shrieking feminist harpy, but the LibDem “revoke Article 50” policy became disastrous as soon as Boris secured a deal: it only held water when No Deal looked imminent. Then — in the midst of her general carry-on — Swinson came out for trans self-identification, forcing the BBC to scrutinise the policy with some care because it formed part of an official Manifesto. Needless to say, this did not go down well and played horrendously on the doorstep. Swinson even contrived to lose her own seat.
I’ve written elsewhere about the limited appeal of technocratic, managerialist policies and how they often combine the worst elements of both paternalism and illiberalism. Wonkery is popular in London and the media but not elsewhere. Stephen Davies’s candid advice for the LibDems is to ditch it, rediscover their founding principles, and “go back to being simply the Liberal Party”.
The poor LibDem campaign led directly to Labour’s sole electoral gain. The wealthy South-West London constituency of Putney tossed out its Tory MP and turned red, with the LibDems splitting the Liberal Remainia vote while Labour claimed all of Radical Remainia. Perhaps this was on the basis that people in Putney are rich enough to afford Labour’s policies. Needless to say, Putney, I am judging you. A constituency stuffed with the best-educated and most advantaged people in Britain proved the old dictum that some ideas are so preposterous only an intellectual could believe them.
Reuniting the Disraeli coalition and reducing Labour to a hysterical student-politics-inspired rump presents serious problems for the Conservatives, however, and these cannot be hand-waved away. Shortly after masterminding Leave’s victory in the 2016 EU referendum, Dominic Cummings, Boris’s éminence grise, pointed out candidly that the Tory Party broadly, including many of its MPs, did not care about losers in the game of life or Britain’s beloved NHS. “That is what most people in the country have thought about the Tory party for decades,” he said. “I know a lot of Tory MPs and I am sad to say the public is basically correct. Tory MPs largely do not care about these poorer people”.
Cummings may be widely despised on the liberal left, but he is just as adept at punching bruises on his own side, and here he has a point. That Boris agrees with him is notable, and is one reason the Tories have tacked left on economics. Both men believe Leave’s victory in the 2016 referendum was an undertaking to the left-behind that the Tories would pull their heads out of their collective arse and govern for everyone. Now, of course, the party’s immense election victory means it must bind up the wounds the referendum and subsequent existential polarisation opened in the body politic. This will not be easy, and almost certainly requires more than money.
A hint of the problem is disclosed by Labour’s feeble attempts — all with a view to deflecting attention from its own anti-Semitism problem — to accuse Boris and Co of “Islamophobia”. Now, of course, this concept doesn’t really exist. As liberal Muslim radio DJ Maajid Nawaz points out, the term “conflates blasphemy with bigotry” and is “backed by Islamists”. However, I’m not sure the “anti-Muslim bigotry” or “hatred” Nawaz suggests is present among Tories is really a thing either, although I do know what does exist: contempt.
And since I’ve been a Tory for as long as I can remember, I can say with some confidence the contempt comes from the same place Cummings spotted with pre-Boris Conservative attitudes to both the NHS and the poor. Islam is widely seen as a religion for welfare bums and child sex offenders, the sort of people that life’s winners can simply write off. I’m not alone in having heard gags — when some terrorist sits on his bomb and produces a lethal own goal — about how all Muslims fail GCSE chemistry and therefore need to find competent explosives mentors in the IRA. Indeed, so pervasive is this attitude it formed the basis of the plot to Chris Morris’s terrorist satire Four Lions.
Of course, if the Tory Party’s shadow-self is a heartless lack of concern for life’s losers and their institutions, Labour has a far worse problem with demonstrable loathing for life’s winners. This more than anything lies at the root of its anti-Semitism. Hostility to Israel or concern for Palestine is only a proxy, which is why Labour is so riven with baffling conspiracy theories about Jewish power. As early as 1997, American legal academics Daniel Farber and Suzanna Sherry observed that the “woke” critical race theory now pervasive in Radical Remainia opened the door to both anti-Semitism and hatred of “model minorities” more broadly. In Beyond All Reason, they wrote:
The radical theories inescapably imply that Jews and [East] Asians enjoy an unfair share of wealth and status. In addition, the radicals cannot easily explain Jewish and Asian success […]. Their theories also play into the historic dynamics of prejudice against Jews and similarly successful minority groups. Because of their relative success and their group identities, Jews, Chinese, and other groups have always been attacked by the “have-nots” (not to mention some of the “haves”). These attacks are generic reactions against the success of minority groups—reactions that existed long before the radical multiculturalists. The Enlightenment idea of merit provided a partial defence to these basic social antagonisms. Even though the radical multiculturalists may care nothing about Jews one way or the other, their theories have the potential to expose Jews to traditional attacks by removing the shield of Enlightenment values.
The Conservatives must govern for everyone, winners and losers and muddling-through-ers alike. This is going to be difficult, even with that huge majority — indeed, perhaps because of it. Many of the pit-towns-without-a-pit that turned blue on December 12 are down on their uppers because Margaret Thatcher deliberately broke the nexus between energy and labour during the Miners’ Strike of 1984-5. On one hand this means Britain’s energy generation is commendably green: the UK’s per capita CO2 emissions are almost 40 per cent lower than Germany’s, for example. On the other, patching up the awkward Tory legacy in the North and Midlands and Wales is, as my late father used to say, “going tae cost a bit”.
We must once again be the party of One Nation.