The Weekly Standard: Handing Britain To Jeremy Corbyn To Own the Libs

Me at the Weekly Standard.

I wish I’d bothered to learn more poetry when I was younger so that I could think beyond Yeats’s done-to-death ‘Second Coming’ when musing British politics right now. Perhaps in 2018 it is better explained in meme form, as the dog in the burning house muttering ‘This is fine’, or the sweating man forced to choose between two buttons: ‘Renege on Referendum Promises’ and ‘Destroy the economy and Tory party’.

After close to 200 years of existence the Conservative Party might finally be breathing its last, bitterly torn in two over Europe. The European Research Group, led by the aristocratic, traditionalist Catholic, father-of-six Jacob Rees-Mogg, openly speak of betrayal following Prime Minister Theresa May’s compromise proposal earlier this month. The party’s smaller group of Europhile MPs talk of a government of national unity alongside centrist Labour members, among these ‘wet’ Tories the aristocratic Nicholas Soames, grandson of Winston Churchill. Labour, meanwhile, is split into three factions – the pro-Brussels socially liberal majority, the hard Left who have captured the leadership (Eurosceptic but for entirely different reasons), and the party’s pro-Brexit social conservatives, represented by only 2 MPs but still speaking for a large if shrinking number of their voters.

The two-party system that has endured a century appears to be crumbling but the 2016 referendum revealed how shallow many people’s philosophical base actually was. The Left doesn’t care for democracy. Indeed the Guardian recently published a piece criticizing the universal franchise, while the Right is perfectly happy to wreck the country’s finances to win an argument. Or to “Own the Libs,” as they say these days. One of the most disconcerting things, from a conservative point of view, is watching so many of my political co-religionists turn into Maoists, intent on radicalism and revolution, interested only in distant, vague prospects of a better future and blind to the immediate, far larger, chances of catastrophe.

Conservatism is by nature averse to risks and is based on the principle that huge, radical changes are almost by definition unwise, whatever direction they take. And while the Leave vote was a gamble, the “hard Brexit” version being called for by Tory rebels looks like Russian roulette with five bullets in the cylinder.

Polarization tends to develop its own momentum, and what was off the table even two years ago now seems mainstream. There was always a Tory strain of Euroskepticism but it crystallised in the late 1980s with growing centralization and the onward rush of the Maastricht Treaty which, in 1993, turned the European Community into the European Union. Back then, hostility was largely directed towards political aspects of the E.U., the principal gripe being that Britain had meant to join a “Common Market,” not a super-state. Which was true enough. Back then, the Euroskeptics merely wanted a new relationship, as Liam Fox said in 2012, “one based on an economic partnership involving a customs union and a single market in goods and services.”

Just six years later the same Liam Fox now calls such an arrangement a “betrayal”—and he’s certainly not the only one who’s hardened his stance. . Some of us nervously supported Leave on the understanding that a Conservative Party led by fairly intelligent people would lead us into a ‘soft’ Brexit, accepting that it was not possible to reverse much international harmonisation and that we would have to accept many standards laid down in Brussels in order to avoid tariffs and barriers. These rules certainly reduce democratic accountability and national sovereignty, but the economic costs of exiting them would be staggering. Yet we seem to have been left behind as things fall apart and Tory Leavers propose a Brexit far harder than anything imaginable in 2016.

Euroscepticism in the Tory party only grew with the 1990 political assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Europhiles. Like Obi Wan Kenobi, this made her stronger than ever, forging a cult of betrayal and a determination by the Tory ‘bastards’ (as her successor John Major called them) that they would get revenge.

But some Eurosceptics saw the party as too inevitably compromised and formed instead a number of tiny, fringe groups to continue the fight against Brussels. Only months after Thatcher’s removal a Liberal Party-supporting academic called Alan Sked founded the Anti-Federalist League, which in 1993 renamed itself the United Kingdom Independence Party. Ukip, as they eventually became known, were not even the largest anti-EU movement in Britain at the time, that honour going to James Goldsmith’s Referendum Party. At the 1997 General Election Ukip received 0.1 per cent of the vote.

That day ushered in Tony Blair, and with him four million newcomers to an island which, until the Second World War, had experienced only tiny trickles of people over the previous millennium. Immigration was soon running at 500,000 a year, in many places radically altering the demography of towns that had never experienced such change, even with the first wave of post-war, Commonwealth migration in the 1950s and 60s. Much of Labour’s motivation was financial, for indeed the great bulk of evidence does point to free movement being an economic bonus, but there were also cultural, emotional reasons too; multiculturalism was exciting and progressive, diversity was the future, any restriction or barrier racist and sinful. The problems associated with multicultural societies, those of political division, conflict and mistrust, what Enoch Powell called ‘the haunting tragedy of the United States’, could all be overcome, the hang-up of a shrinking number of moral failures.

I wrote a book about it, the gist of which was that this was an essentially utopian idea, and that hoping groups of people would happily share a country was as deluded as the earlier belief that they might share possessions. In it I wrote: ‘As diversity increases, democracy weakens. Faith in democracy declines when people see that they cannot make a difference, and mass immigration, a policy clearly and consistently opposed by most people and yet which no mainstream politician will speak against, has shaken the public’s trust in politics. Since politicians will not listen to people’s concerns, they come to the conclusion that politics is pointless.’

Large numbers of 1997 Labour voters simply dropped off the radar afterwards, never to appear at a polling booth again until 19 years later. Indeed New Labour’s great social experiment was unpopular from the start, with public concern about the issue of migration rising in tandem with actual numbers, contrary to widespread assumptions that the public are ill-informed or simply whipped up by the media. (Although in every country people’s perception about how many migrants there actually are is wildly out).

And so Ukip began to find a new function. Today in Britain people associate the rising salience of immigration in the 2000s with the huge, sudden arrival of Poles and other central Europeans late in 2004, yet under Blair EU migration only accounted for a minority, as little as a quarter of the total. White Poles, working in mainly service jobs where they had a great deal of contact with Britons, were paradoxically more visible than the many south Asian brides who were able to come here after Labour relaxed family migration rules, slipping into increasingly segregated urban areas in London, the midlands and north.

Ukip’s big breakthrough had come in the June 2004 European elections, only weeks after Poland’s accession, when they increased their seat total from 2 to 12, winning over 15 per cent of the vote. It was largely a response to non-EU migration, which had already visibly increased since 1997, and rising tension. In the summer of 2001 there were race riots across the north of England, and after September that year concerns about Islamic extremism naturally rose, accelerating after the Tube attacks in 2005. By then the large numbers of white immigrants arriving had to a certain extent de-racialised the issue and so what had once been the subject ‘no one was allowed to talk about’ became almost tediously ubiquitous.

Previous to Blair Ukip been a small and eccentric band of Thatcherite libertarians, but the party soon managed to carve out a niche as a relatively non-toxic anti-migration movement. It became increasingly lower-middle and working class and so moved away from libertarianism, adopting a more national conservative ideology, perhaps better described as Poujadist. At the 2014 Euro elections the party finished top, winning over 26 per cent of the vote, and a panicked David Cameron promised a referendum on EU membership.

Although most Leave supporters cited ‘sovereignty’ as their reason for voting, they would have come nowhere near 52 per cent without the issue of immigration, helped by the EU’s complete inflexibility over free movement between its 28 member states. The Vote Leave slogan, ‘Take Control’, had the implicit message ‘of our borders’. And yet, ironically, Ukip voters are far less agitated by continental Europeans arriving than by migration from the developing world. This is something both Remainers and Leavers agree on, in fact.

Along with Jamaicans, for whom Britons have a sentimental attachment, Poles are among the most popular immigrant group in Britain. Even in very ‘leavey’ English seaside towns people say the same thing about the Poles, hard-working, beer-drinking people ‘just like us’.

This is not simply white people favouring other white people, although that obviously plays a part. Migrants from western and to a lesser extent eastern Europe are far more beneficial to the British economy than those from poorer countries, a huge variance between nationalities that makes talk of ‘immigrants’ as a single block meaningless.

Likewise, and more controversially, people’s perceptions of different migrant populations correlate with how much crime that group on average commits, part of a body of evidence showing that stereotype perception is generally accurate. Aside from Romanians, most European nationalities in Britain have low offence rates.

The social costs of European migration are low; the Polish influx will not lead to second-generation radicals or ghettos, nor gang problems made difficult to address by racial politics, or a costly integration and diversity industry, never mind the unsettling and alien cultural practises we’ve become accustomed to, such as forced marriage and female genital mutilation.

By any measure Polish migration in Britain has been pretty successful. On the other hand many people in trades, quite reasonably, have viewed them as economic rivals, placed here by a heartless ruling class to push wages to the bottom through open borders. All of these feelings drove a sense of anger and despair that resulted in June 2016 when, as John Lydon of the Sex Pistols put it afterwards, ‘the working class have spoken’, the Leave total pushed beyond the 50 per cent mark by large numbers of people who had not voted in years. Indeed it was probably the biggest display of British working class muscle since 1945 when they booted out Winston Churchill in a Labour landslide (a decision which also probably cost the economy dearly).

The working class have also ‘taken control’ of the Conservative Party. In a great historical twist, the vote has transformed the Tories into the Brexit party, drastically changing their voting base. While in 2010 they won 30 per cent of voters from social classes C2D, today it polls between 42 and 44 per cent of that demographic, while the party has lost a huge number of middle-class, liberal ‘Remainers’, probably forever.

As of last year Prince William’s Kensington Palace home is represented by a Labour MP, the first time in history; meanwhile Mansfield in Nottinghamshire, described by D.H. Lawrence as an ‘utterly disheartening colliery town’ and solidly Labour since 1923 – they won close to 70 per cent in 1997 – swung to the Tories. And so the low tax, laissez-faire party of Margaret Thatcher is most likely gone forever, ironically killed off by the Eurosceptic cult that surrounded her.

And now the Tory Right is prepared to split the party, so handing Downing Street to the socialist Jeremy Corbyn, and/or risk the potential economic catastrophe of a no-deal Brexit, in order to cut the sort of immigration that Britons worry about least. And while all this is happening non-EU migration, the type that concerns people the most and led to the growth of Ukip, has actually gone up!

And all for an ideal, of free trade outside the EU and a return to pre-globalisation sovereignty, that seems wildly utopian and, well, un-conservative. But at least we get to Own the Libs.

Read it there.

Comments so far

  1. I think that was unfair to Liam Fox. Firstly his opinions on the EU in 2012 were, er, six years ago and a lot has happened since then. Secondly staying in a customs union would indeed be a betrayal of the Brexit vote, regardless of one’s own personal opinions about it. Also ‘hard Brexit’ is really just ‘Brexit’, just as ‘Crashing out of the EU without a deal’ is really just ‘Leaving the EU without a deal’. Now, blowing up the Channel Tunnel, stopping all ferry links and not allowing any planes from EU countries to use our airspace or land; THAT would be a ‘hard Brexit’.

What do you think?