openDemocracyUK: Opinion

Why does England vote Tory?

Progressives will never dominate English politics without confronting Churchillism.

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
21 June 2020
A street party to commemorate Elizabeth II's Diamond Jubilee.
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Rui Vieira/PA Archive/PA Images

The most important question in British electoral politics is almost never asked. Why does England usually vote Tory?

If you look at opinion polls on policy, most people in England are almost as left wing as most in Scotland and Wales. Most want to renationalise public services, redistribute wealth and increase spending on public services.

Likewise, on most issues, people in England are nearly as socially liberal as people in Scotland, supporting women’s right to choose an abortion and LGBTQI rights, for example. Even in supposedly conservative Northern Ireland, polls show widespread support for women’s and LGBTQI rights.

There are often said to be different attitudes to immigration, but that’s not particularly borne out in the data: the perceived divergence is better explained by the refusal of most of Scotland’s political class to partake in migrant bashing than by differences of attitude among the respective populations, and England isn’t as hostile to migrants as the tabloids would have you believe.

This shouldn’t be surprising: across the Western world, most people are broadly socially liberal social democrats.

Which takes us back to our question. While people in Scotland and Wales tend to vote for parties which broadly reflect their policy preferences, why do people in England and Northern Ireland consistently vote for parties which don’t? Why do so many English people vote Tory despite disagreeing with the Tories on most major issues of the day, any given day?

Interestingly, this isn’t a new phenomenon. The modern Conservative Party was founded by Robert Peel in 1834. Since then, most of those who’ve had the vote in England have generally voted for it, while most of those who have had the vote in Scotland and Wales have usually voted for their various rivals du jour.

It is, though, an unusual phenomenon. With its dominance of English politics over nearly two hundred years, the Conservatives are often described as the most successful political party in the world.

If we want to understand this strange habit that English people have of voting for politicians with whom they largely disagree, it’s worth looking in more depth at English social attitudes, and particularly at the few areas where they do diverge from Scotland. 

The most obvious and widely reported of these is the EU. As Anthony Barnett warned before the referendum, Brexit was driven by England, and can only really be understood as an English cry for help.

Screenshot 2020-06-21 at 10.30.54.png

Similarly, Trident nuclear weapons show a statistically significant difference in opinion.

Perhaps more significant, though, are two other differences. The first is that English voters overwhelmingly think that the empire was a good thing, while Scottish voters narrowly think it was bad. The second is that there is significantly less support for the monarchy in Scotland – 53% vs 69% for Britain as a whole, according to one recent poll

Organised enthusiasm for the Windsors is also much weaker in Scotland. During the 2012 Queen’s Jubilee, there were 9,500 street parties in England and Wales, but only 60 in Scotland, mostly organised by the Orange Order.

If we want to understand why England votes Tory, this basket of issues seems to point to the answer. Each of them has in common that they are an icon of Anglo-British nationalism. And the Conservatives are seen as the party of Anglo-British nationalism.

Labour has always wanted to be seen as Anglo-British as well, and played a key role in creating a ‘British nation’ after Empire, as David Edgerton recently explained in his ‘Rise and Fall of the British Nation’.

But as long as the idea of Britishness is tied to the monarch – and therefore the class system – and Empire – and therefore racism – the Tories were always going to win the struggle to represent it. 

The deep desire to make Britain ‘Great again’ which drives this nationalism takes form in a whole collection of policies: Brexit and the desire to return to imperial glories is the most obvious. Trident, the bling Britain got for ‘giving up’ up India, is the most extraordinary: it is being renewed at vast expense despite being technologically redundant, only because of an obsession with clinging white-knuckled to the past. 

But the double helix in the DNA of these issues is sentimentality about the empire, and support for the monarchy, especially as the House of Windsor completed its transition to TV and tabloid monarchy.

It’s this feeling that makes England Conservative (even if not generally conservative): the Tories are the party of Anglo-British nationalism and Empire, the party of the ruling class. And the underlying message in much of Anglo-British nationalism is that posh people – and the monarchy first of all – ought to be in charge. That is, after all, who ran things when Britain was ‘great’.

This is why David Cameron and Boris Johnson were considered ‘prime ministerial’ while John Major, Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband weren’t. It’s why the tabloids attacked Corbyn not for his economic or social policies, but for his supposed failure to genuflect sufficiently to the Queen and his unwillingness to commit to the mass slaughter of nuclear war.

In the 2019 election, Corbyn came unstuck on two issues whose dominance can only really be understood when we think about the character of Anglo-British nationalism. 

With Brexit, this is perhaps obvious. With antisemitism, less so. But it’s worth reflecting that no other form of racism has so dominated an election campaign in the past, despite numerous heinously racist campaigns; a phenomenon which makes sense when we think about the fact that Anglo-British nationalism was born-again in WW2, redeemed from past crimes through the UK’s role in defeating Hitler and ending the Holocaust.

We need to talk about Churchill

What’s fascinating about all of this isn’t that it’s true. After all, nationalism is as much the dominant political ideology of our age as capitalism is the dominant economic system. We live in a world of nation states, to which billions of people feel loyal. What’s interesting is that ‘the British’ never talk about it. 

In Scotland, there are endless Twitter barnies about the character and defining features of Scottish nationalism. In France, the idea of Frenchness is regularly dissected. In Germany, it is a deep matter of concern.

But most of the conversations about British electoral politics are a sophisticated attempt not to discuss the character of the defining force which shapes it: Anglo-British nationalism. 

Over the last half decade, this has begun to change. The Scottish independence referendum forced Englishness and Britishness to mumble their own names. The Brexit referendum helped some of England’s liberals to better understand the country they live in. The decline of Anglo-Britain has meant that Anglo-Britishness has started to become visible, no longer such an overwhelming force that it blends into the background.

And in the past couple of weeks, it’s taken another few steps towards the spotlight. As well as being a flash of artistic genius and magnificent act of liberation, the toppling of the Colston statue unleashed a vast process of pedagogy.

By shifting the focus of British audiences watching Black Lives Matter protests from America-watching to self introspection, it jolted millions of people into an unprecedented process of teaching and learning. 

Reni Eddo-Lodge’s brilliant history of recent British race politics – Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race – became (astonishingly) the first book by a Black British author to top the best-seller charts, with the next four slots also filled by Black authors’ books about race in Britain, representing the front carriages in a long pedagogical train sweeping the country.

Of course this process is politically polarised. I lurk in community Facebook groups across the country, and I’ve rarely seen them all ignite at the same moment with the same ferocious fight as in the last fortnight. But the opposite of being controversial is being ignored, and once the thesis and antithesis are thrashed out, a new uneasy synthesis will emerge, England will have a better understanding of itself. And politically, that’s a good thing.

I write all of this because last week, I published an excellent essay on openDemocracy by the always fascinating academic Kalpana Wilson, which I gave the provocative title ‘Churchill must Fall’, though it covers much more ground than the one man.

When I tweeted it, a number of progressives, including Observer columnist Nick Cohen and the brilliant anti-austerity economist Simon Wren Lewis, responded to the effect that this was falling into a trap. The right is desperate to turn an awkward conversation about race, racism and Empire into a flame war over Churchill. 

The short response is that it’s not my job as a journalist to do what’s useful to the electoral prospects of the Labour Party. But setting that aside, I think this is a mistake.

Churchill is the founding father of modern Anglo-Britain. His radio broadcasts over the course of World War Two shifted from addressing an imperial ‘we’ to an archipelagic ‘we’, reinventing Britishness as located not across millions of square miles of colony, but in these North Atlantic islands. 

His personal story is the story of modern British nationalism – the gassing of Kurds, the starving of Bengalis, the Mau Mau concentration camps; and the defeating of European fascism, the post-war rebuilding, the famous qualified defence of democracy.

While Thatcher is recent enough that the battles about her time in office are well remembered, Churchill – equally controversial in his era – has been turned into the guard dog of Anglo-British nationalism, the hero in the mythical national story. 

While the pandemic may finally move Britain on from Thatcherism, steps taken away from what Anthony Barnett has called Churchillism are just as big a prize. And that’s impossible without addressing the man himself, for his myth is the national myth, the memory of him is the false memory of ourselves.

Flame wars are inevitable

There is no non-controversial way to do this. Milan Kundera said that “the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting”, and in the age of social media and rolling news, that struggle is always going to include a flame war.

For decades, England’s centre-left has avoided this conversation. And over decades, the right has always summoned it in time for a potentially close election: 1983 and the flag-waving of the Falklands War, 1992 and the Gulf War, 2010 and Gordon Brown being too Scottish, 2015 and Ed Miliband being too willing to listen to Scottish people, 2019 and Brexit. This is the grip that the papers have on England, the cross-series plot which keeps the nation in thrall and in line. 

The good news is that now is the perfect moment to pull at this thread. The UK is probably half a decade from its next general election. A global movement is ensuring that at the core of the conversation is a cry so reasonable that no one can deny it and still claim to be a good person, but so radical that it demands transformation of our entire political and economic system: the statement that Black Lives Matter. Most people have progressive instincts, and facing the truth about the imperial past, believe it to be foul. And, for the first time in centuries, most British people alive today were born after the fall of the Empire.

There can be no better time than this for a long overdue process of national learning about England, Britain and Empire. There is no other way to do this than through the polarised process of online argument and this means there is no way to avoid the subject of Churchill. It may be awkward but it is also deeply rewarding: whether or not you agree that Churchill must fall, we must surely agree that we have to end the silence about what he really stood for.

The alternative is accepting the dominance of an Anglo-British nationalism which will always lead people to vote Tory. And that’s the real trap.

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