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The strange death of Tory England

With membership of the UK Conservatives having effectively halved in the past seven years, the future is that of a 'zombie party' - parochial, partisan and incapable of providing democratic representation. As Cameron and Osborne continue to court the City, Tory support is increasingly shifting from England as a whole to the South of England. 

The Conservative Party was once the party of Britain and a British-wide party. They were the main force of emotional, instinctual, and lest we forget, intelligent unionism, which contributed much of the glue and credos that gave the UK its sense of shared values for so long.

We can no longer say this about the Tories. They are a British-wide party no more, a fact bringing far-reaching consequences for British politics and democracy and with it the future of the union.

This account rose to prominence in the 1980s with Thatcher’s English nationalism. In 1979 the Tories won 339 parliamentary seats and an overall majority of 43 seats. In 2010 they managed 307 seats and were 19 seats short of an overall majority. Over the same period in England their parliamentary support remained constant: 306 seats in 1979 and 298 in 2010. In Wales they won eleven and eight seats respectively, with the big difference being Scotland’s 22 Tory seats in 1979 and a solitary Tory in 2010. Underneath these figures, however, the Tories are no longer a party of all of England: they have become a regional party of the South of England.

It was not always thus. In 1979 the Tories could still win representation in Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield and Newcastle, along with four seats in Edinburgh and even a solitary Glasgow seat (Hillhead). Today those Northern, Midlands and Scottish cities elect not one single Tory MP between them.

The props of Tory England are withering and disappearing. Empire has long gone, racism is in retreat if sadly still with us, the association of Protestantism and Britishness no longer holds, and even the new Tory messages are problematic. A further wave of free market deregulation as the answer to the economic crisis doesn’t wash with most voters. And even the new xenophobia of Euroscepticism, given added ammunition by the euro crisis, risks being outflanked by Nigel Farage’s populist UKIP.

Tory membership has already fallen from a peak of three million in the 1950s to one million in the 1980s. It has subsequently, under David Cameron’s leadership, fallen from an already low base of 300,000 in 2005 to between 130-170,000: an effective halving of the Tory Party in the last seven years.

Tory officials feel that the membership – aged, unrepresentative, living in the past – is set to decline below 100,000 and could easily fall to a small, even more angry, paranoid, right-wing rump, at war with modern times.

The Conservatives’ future prospects and direction could be an unpleasant shock for many. The ‘progressive conservatism’ of Cameron and Osborne might now be seen as threadbare to many, but behind it was a Tory detoxifcation strategy and modernisation which has ended up stillborn. Large parts of the party’s grassroots were never won over to the need for any of this, and have never warmed to Cameron, viewing him as 'not right-wing enough'.

With last week’s inevitable postponement of House of Lords reform, the party has revealed itself as opposed to democracy and change. And as the party shows with its futile attempt to push through parliamentary boundary changes for its own narrow benefit we should remember that they have a history of constitutional gerrymandering (remember the abolition of Strathclyde Regional Council and a whole tier of Scots local government; likewise the GLC and English metropolitan authorities). The Tories believe the British constitution is their own special property to do with what they like.

The future holds the prospect of the Tories becoming a ‘zombie party’, more and more divorced from reality and shaped by its own partisan obsessions. This will entail embracing an unapologetic and dogmatic failed Anglo-American capitalism which does not deliver for most people, instead producing middle-class mass anxiety, widespread poverty and exclusion, and an entitlement culture in the super-rich.

In this they will be in the company of their cousins the US Republicans who have become prisoner to corporate finance and ideological zealots. If they lose the 2012 Presidential election with ‘moderate’ Mitt Romney these forces will use it as an excuse to head into a distant far-right orbit.

The Tory future is one of very few members, atrophied grass root associations, and a professionalised, paid politics: the party reduced appropriately to an offshoot of Serco and G4S and the free market vandalism politics they have personified.

This will produce an unapologetic South East regionalist party – one which sees the self-interest of the global classes as a quasi-religious ideology of the winners which it will lecture, hector and inflict on the rest of us.

This will be a politics for the City, by the City, funded by the City – a caricature of the measured Tory politics of the Macmillan and Home era – but the inevitable result of Thatcher and Cameron.

A survey by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has shown that 51% of Tory Party funding now comes from the City and 27% from the narrow world of hedge funds, financiers and private equity firms. In the year from the 2010 election, 50 Tory donors each gave a minimum £50,000 qualifying for special treatment and access: membership of the Tory Leader’s Group and a face-to-face meeting with the Prime Minister.

David Cameron’s leadership of the Tories has become synonymous with his friendships with Rebecca Brooks and Andy Coulson, with the ‘Notting Hill set’ and the ‘Chipping Norton scene’, which represent the coming together of old and new money in a coalition to get business done, sweeping away old fusty attitudes and celebrating their own power, privilege and status.

London Mayor Boris Johnson’s rise is the friendly version of this future Tory Party: populist, gesture politics, while right-wing and defending the City of London to the end and at the same time growing increasingly intolerant of the slightly more mundane country out in the provinces.

This morphing of the Tory Party into a very different kind of beast is one that will have major implications for democracy, for anyone to the left of the new right-wing zealots, and also for the union. Whatever your view of the latter in Scotland and the rest of the UK, we have to come together to stop them. 

About the author
Gerry Hassan is author of Scotland the Bold: How Our Nation Changed and Why There is No Way Back published by Freight Books, £9.99.

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