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The death of the urban Tory
Cities around the western world are emptying of conservatives
It’s largely forgotten now, but political polarisation is written into the very fabric of London. In the 18th century, when rivalries between Whigs and Tories were at their most intense, different West End squares were built so that the two groups could live among their own kind.
Hanover Square in Mayfair was built for Whigs to live cosily together while, further south, St James’s Square was a home for Tories. This was close to the Cocoa Tree coffee house in Pall Mall, their unofficial meeting place, where in the 20th century workmen found a bolt hole so that they could make a quick escape if the authorities turned up.
At the time the Whigs were the party of London merchants, and the Tories that of the country, where they enjoyed widespread support from the rural population. They had once been seen as dangerously close to the old Jacobite dynasty, hence their fear of being arrested, but as that issue receded their popularity in the country at large became stronger. The Whigs were an out-of-touch metropolitan elite, sipping on their fancy ‘coffee’, but this didn’t stop them ruling the country for decades, nor shaping its political and historical narrative.
Two or three political realignments later, we have arrived to where we started again. As of today the City of Westminster, home of those fashionable West End squares as well as the seat of government itself, is no longer controlled by the Conservatives, as seismic an event in the great realignment as the loss of Kensington was in the 2017 election.
In fact the whole of London is emptying of Conservatives, the party losing Wandsworth and holding onto just three boroughs. It’s not just London: the Tories have no councillors in most large cities now.
As with many social patterns, in this we are following the United States, where Bill Bishop coined the phrase ‘The Big Sort’ to describe how Americans were becoming more polarised by geography, and which Will Wilkinson described as the formation of ‘communities of psychologically/ideologically similar people.’
This has resulted in cities becoming one-party enclaves, as progressive values become the norm, and conservative-minded people leave. My own parliamentary constituency, in north London, was from its formation in 1983 a suburban Tory seat but shifted between three different parties during the 80s and 90s; at the last election Labour had a 20,000 majority. Labour has now run my borough, Haringey, for 51 years, and the last time the Tories won it, back in 1968, they also took Hackney, Lambeth, Lewisham and in total 28 of London’s 32 boroughs. Truly a different world. Today they do not even fully-field candidates in some wards.
This is similar to the US, where ultra-rich urban areas are now heavily Democrat. After the 2018 mid-terms, the Republicans barely had a single urban congressional district. after losing Staten Island in New York (by far the least densely-populated part of the city).
Yet outside of the big cities, Labour has not done very well. Indeed, the big divide in British politics is density (as well as age). One of the biggest signifiers of whether someone votes Tory is if they have a car or not, and if they have a car, they are much more likely to own their home, and to have a family. All those factors increase a voter’s propensity to vote for Right-wing parties, and in Britain they are in decline, pushed by rising population, higher house prices, family costs and land scarcity.
Conservatism is our default state, which is my people who tend to be apolitical are essentially small-c conservative, and perhaps why alcohol makes us more right-wing, returning us to factory settings. Liberalism is novel, and might be seen as an evolutionary response to urbanisation. Liberalism is associated with traits adapted to city living: higher levels of trust and a wider circle of trust towards strangers and out-group members, greater innovation and invention, helped by the agglomeration effect, more sexual adventurousness and promiscuity, and also higher levels of mental illness (liberals and city dwellers are both more likely to be mentally ill).
Cities change the way we behave, making us more novelty-seeking, even in naming patterns and more invention; today, Democrats win overwhelmingly in counties with the highest proportion of patents. City-living is associated with higher tolerance and greater wealth. It is no surprise that liberalism as a philosophy took hold in urban areas like London, Amsterdam, Edinburgh and Philadelphia, while conservatism, as Russell Kirk put it, ‘always has had its most loyal adherents in the country, where man is slow to break with the old ways that link him with his God in the infinity above and with his father in the grave at his feet.
But perhaps modern progressivism, including its often abrasive intolerance for dissent, is also a product of extreme urbanisation.
The nature of urban living is changing. It’s not just that record numbers of people live in cities now — in England that has been the case for some time — but modernity has also made the traits associated with urbanisation far more extreme. Cities have long been linked with lower fertility, more expensive housing, more education and higher levels of diversity (another big factor in British political voting patterns, and another reason for Tory decline in London). All these factors have accelerated in recent years, so the London of 2022 is just way more ‘urban’ than the London of 1968.
And as we’ve evolved from urban to ultra-urban living, so politics has evolved from liberalism to modern-day progressivism, which is called by many names but which I prefer to think of as runaway liberalism.
The Big Sort has certainly contributed to polarisation. While 27 percent of Americans in 1976 lived in counties with at least a 20-point margin of victory for one candidate, in 2016 a full 60 per cent did. In Britain the percentage of safe seats increased by 50 per cent just from 2015 to 2017. More safe seats means more politicians with polarised policies, because they need to win over the party activists rather than the wider electorate, and the party activists are, well, different.
On top of this, it has also unbalanced the composition of the media, with outlets overwhelming staffed and based in big cities. The density issue is partly why so many people were shocked by the Brexit result — because half a million voters live in postcodes where 90% of people voted Remain (and a large number of those will be in the media).
The paradoxical thing about modern cities is that they are in some ways the least tolerant places. If you live in a big city now, the chances are that your friendship circle is far less diverse in terms of background, education and political views than if you live in a small town.
A 2019 study found that in big cities, people had the fewest friends with different views to them, and had the worst opinions about people who disagreed. Contact theory has been shown in many settings to improve peoples’ views of different races, and it’s surely true of politics too. If you never meet people from the out-group, you become more hostile to them and start to believe the worst.
The number one most intolerant place in the US, according to the study, was Boston, which rather ruined William Buckley’s famous line that he’d rather be ruled by the first 2,00 people in the Boston phonebook than the faculty of Harvard.
I imagine that a similar thing would be found in Britain; the most intolerant place would probably be in London, probably in one of the handful of north London constituencies where they actually voted for AV, which top the number of signatures for those fatuous online petitions, and where Remain won over 80%. In fact, I wouldn’t at all be surprised if it was my constituency.
Although social media has been blamed for ruining politics, by encouraging the most extreme elements, even in real life huge numbers of progressive voters live in neighbourhoods where no one disagrees with them.
City living is more progressive, it is more diverse, but it is also micro-segregated and extreme, with liberté always rubbing up against égalité. For all that the capital’s politicians like to gloat about the city’s openness and tolerance, London is the Brazil of Britain when it comes to inequality. Just walk around Westminster, not just the seat of government but home to vast amounts of global wealth, and you will be overwhelmed by the heart-breaking sight of homeless people everywhere.
The same is true across London, and is seemingly just a feature of how we live now. The most progressive and in many ways modern part of the Western world, California, also has the most extreme inequality, with San Francisco described as ‘a region of “segregated innovation,” where the rich wax, the middle class wanes, and the poor live in increasingly unshakeable poverty.’ Other parts of California show such extremes of wealth that medieval diseases like typhus have returned.
Although huge inequality offends the sensibilities of many people, it is very much ‘part and parcel’ of modern urban life and those conditions in which progressivism flourishes and where conservatism goes to die.
It’s 12 years since the Tories ended Labour rule and their record in government is pretty poor. They have performed badly on the economy and crime, and even Brexit is not turning out as its supporters hoped. Worst of all, though, is the essential passivity at the heart of this strange regime, the complete lack of interest in shaping the country, something Tony Blair’s government were quite passionate about doing. All the demographic patterns are moving away from Toryism as their policies help push us towards greater density, higher housing costs, more expensive family formation and an inevitable progressive majority.