Category Archives: UK Politics

The post-election liberal narrative is hopelessly wrong

There seems to be a popular liberal narrative emerging about the present state of British politics which is largely summed up by (1) the Tories have got us into a mess over the past couple of years and (2) they, especially Theresa May, should apologise for getting Britain into this mess.

Utter bilge.

There may be a number of things Mrs. May needs to apologise for - a poor campaign, an overly insular leadership style, the loss of a number of Conservative seats - but all these apologies need to be directed purely at the Tory party that she leads and its candidates.  Further, an acknowledgement that she has learned lessons from the election and will seek to adapt her premiership to suit those would be helpful and politically adept.  But an apology to the country?  What a fruitless, pointless, unnecessary exercise that would be.

I presume the apology in question that liberal commentators have in mind would be along the lines of saying sorry for calling an election.  Really?  In a democracy?  The election may have been called for opportunistic and rather venal reasons, but the idea that we should somehow ration the amount of democratic engagement at the polls that the people should participate in is ludicrous and reeks of political class elitism. Mrs. May's motives in calling the election may have been ever so ignoble, but in the end she remained at the mercy of the voters.  Hubris did indeed come to rest at her door as a result, and she may wish to ponder many lessons from this, but we should not be demanding apologies from a wounded leader for the decision delivered by the people in an election.

Neither should there be an apology for calling another election in a few months if one is needed.  We are a democracy.  It is the people's right and responsibility to hire and fire their political leaders, and if that has to be done on a more regular basis until the people become satisfied with their collective decision then so be it.

There is an extraordinary feeling afoot, and it is embedded in the post-election liberal narrative, that calling elections too often is a Bad Thing.   We may be a democracy, harbouring rights that have been fought and argued for over many decades and which are still denied to the majority of people in the world, but we really shouldn't ask people to listen to political debate and hobble along to a polling booth too often.  It is the ultimate elitist nonsense, and it caters to a terrible view which suggests that we should cravenly give in to the anti-politics brigade who believe that a national political discussion shouldn't be allowed to get in the way of everyday lives to often.

This is the same view that we hear expressed about the referendum held last year which led to the Brexit process.  Now as it happens I am no fan of referendums, but I can't deny that they are the ultimate expression of the popular will on a particular issue.  It is a virtue of democracies that the popular will for change doesn't need expression in a revolution because it has a ballot box to use. 

The sub-text of much of this criticism, of course, is that the vote didn't go as liberal commentators wanted.  Rather than blame the people, however, it has become easier - though a lot more cowardly - to lay the blame at the feet of the leaders who dared engage the people in such a momentous decision.

If there is a "mess" in British politics then the responsibility lies squarely with the voters.  They have had the chance, more than they have ever had before, to direct events.  They have chosen to do so in a messy and sometimes indeterminate way.  But that is democracy, and we get the one we deserve because we are intimately involved in it.  Don't like the leaders?  Then do more than just vote.  Do more than just write well-paid columns about how bad it all is. Take some responsibility and get involved.  Stand, argue, persuade.

As it happens, I don't think the result of Thursday's election was a bad one.  It has yielded a humbled government, more willing to moderate its previously inflexible approach on Brexit, more willing to operate on a collective basis, more willing to appreciate the aims and aspirations of the voters who chose to withdraw their support.  This is what democracy should do.  The voters also, by a smidgeon, determined that they wanted the same government to continue in office.  For all his and his allies' blow-harding, Jeremy Corbyn didn't win and has no chance of forming a government with the present parliamentary make-up.  He hasn't got the numbers.  Because the voters didn't give him the numbers.  And yes, the DUP do actually count as a legitimate party.  Enough people in a part of the UK voted for them to send ten of their representatives to parliament.  They get the same rights as every other representative and that is the right, under the full scrutiny of voters who will be asked to deliver another verdict again at some point, to support or deny the biggest party its political programme.  

This isn't a "mess".  It's democracy in action and I'm sorry so many liberal commentators aren't very happy with it.  It doesn't require an apology from the prime minister.  The only people you can demand an apology from are the British electorate, and they are simply exercising the right hard won by their ancestors to nudge the government whichever way they want.  Live with it.



Lessons from an election

1.  Don't take the electorate for granted.  Theresa May's party (she abdicated the Conservative name for the duration) did this twice.  It assumed everyone would ignore the opportunistic nature of the election, and that they would then happily respond to a patronising campaign of empty slogans.  Turns out they didn't.

2.  Every vote matters, even under First Past the Post.  Young voters complained about Brexit, but their complaints carried little weight given the fact that many didn't vote in that ill conceived referendum.  This time they voted, and the change has been palpable.

3.  Traditional campaigning still matters.  Theresa May's party thought they could win this with a big data machine and by programming, without variation, key phrases into the political dialogue.  They thought they could avoid real voters with impunity, whether in televised debates or in the streets.  Jeremy Corbyn suffered a media monstering, but built up support through a consistent round of old fashioned rallies.  Crowds matter, it seems, and he was able to appeal to a decent proportion of the electorate through these rallies.  We're a democracy, and he met people.  Somehow it seems to work.

4.  Manifestos should not be insulated efforts.  Whatever the fine aims of Theresa may's manifesto, it was drawn up quickly by a tight group of May loyalists who failed to road-test it within the wider party.  It then backfired.  Surprised?

5.  Leaders should be able to campaign.  As everyone is noting, this election was entirely the product of Theresa May's desire.  There was no reason at all to call it, and certainly not the one she gave.  In consequence, though, one might have expected her to show some campaigning vigour and ability.  Alas, when calculating her election gamble, she failed to factor in her own dislike of campaigning.

6.  When you have a venerable party with all its traditions and brand, use it.  Theresa May's team confined the party name to a footnote and insisted that all of her candidates do the same on their official campaign literature.  Prospective MPs once called Conservatives simply became people "standing with Theresa May".  Once the electorate decided they had their doubts about Theresa May, there wasn't anywhere else to turn.

7.  We are a parliamentary system, not a presidential one.  See 6 above and remember that for all the dominance of party leaders, constituency candidates do still stand on their own merits as well.

8.  The "vision thing" still matters.  When all was said and done, there wasn't much of a discernible vision behind the May campaign.  "Brexit means Brexit" was as empty a slogan as has ever been uttered on a campaign trail, coming as it did with absolutely no enhancing narrative or vision at all.  Compare that with Labour's ability to appeal to a range of people with a clear vision of what needed to be done for Britain.  Agree with it or not, it gave the impression they were thinking about what to offer.

9.  Personalities are important.  Theresa May would have obviously been a dominant figure even without the quasi-presidentialism of her campaign. just as Jeremy Corbyn was on the other side.  The problem for May is that she failed to project any warmth or spontaneity and appeared to actively avoid contact with ordinary voters.  In a modern democracy it isn't possible for a leader to survive without a decent skill at communications.  May utterly lacked that.  Contrast her with the cheerful and positive Ruth Davidson, leading something of a Tory revival in Scotland.

10.  Is politics being re-set?  There is a case for this.  The election has seen the return of two-party politics, the effective icing of another Scottish independence referendum, and the likelihood of a more pragmatic, Europe friendly Brexit.  Are we coming through a nightmare period, for all the veneer of chaos that exists today?

Lessons from an election

1.  Don't take the electorate for granted.  Theresa May's party (she abdicated the Conservative name for the duration) did this twice.  It assumed everyone would ignore the opportunistic nature of the election, and that they would then happily respond to a patronising campaign of empty slogans.  Turns out they didn't.

2.  Every vote matters, even under First Past the Post.  Young voters complained about Brexit, but their complaints carried little weight given the fact that many didn't vote in that ill conceived referendum.  This time they voted, and the change has been palpable.

3.  Traditional campaigning still matters.  Theresa May's party thought they could win this with a big data machine and by programming, without variation, key phrases into the political dialogue.  They thought they could avoid real voters with impunity, whether in televised debates or in the streets.  Jeremy Corbyn suffered a media monstering, but built up support through a consistent round of old fashioned rallies.  Crowds matter, it seems, and he was able to appeal to a decent proportion of the electorate through these rallies.  We're a democracy, and he met people.  Somehow it seems to work.

4.  Manifestos should not be insulated efforts.  Whatever the fine aims of Theresa may's manifesto, it was drawn up quickly by a tight group of May loyalists who failed to road-test it within the wider party.  It then backfired.  Surprised?

5.  Leaders should be able to campaign.  As everyone is noting, this election was entirely the product of Theresa May's desire.  There was no reason at all to call it, and certainly not the one she gave.  In consequence, though, one might have expected her to show some campaigning vigour and ability.  Alas, when calculating her election gamble, she failed to factor in her own dislike of campaigning.

6.  When you have a venerable party with all its traditions and brand, use it.  Theresa May's team confined the party name to a footnote and insisted that all of her candidates do the same on their official campaign literature.  Prospective MPs once called Conservatives simply became people "standing with Theresa May".  Once the electorate decided they had their doubts about Theresa May, there wasn't anywhere else to turn.

7.  We are a parliamentary system, not a presidential one.  See 6 above and remember that for all the dominance of party leaders, constituency candidates do still stand on their own merits as well.

8.  The "vision thing" still matters.  When all was said and done, there wasn't much of a discernible vision behind the May campaign.  "Brexit means Brexit" was as empty a slogan as has ever been uttered on a campaign trail, coming as it did with absolutely no enhancing narrative or vision at all.  Compare that with Labour's ability to appeal to a range of people with a clear vision of what needed to be done for Britain.  Agree with it or not, it gave the impression they were thinking about what to offer.

9.  Personalities are important.  Theresa May would have obviously been a dominant figure even without the quasi-presidentialism of her campaign. just as Jeremy Corbyn was on the other side.  The problem for May is that she failed to project any warmth or spontaneity and appeared to actively avoid contact with ordinary voters.  In a modern democracy it isn't possible for a leader to survive without a decent skill at communications.  May utterly lacked that.  Contrast her with the cheerful and positive Ruth Davidson, leading something of a Tory revival in Scotland.

10.  Is politics being re-set?  There is a case for this.  The election has seen the return of two-party politics, the effective icing of another Scottish independence referendum, and the likelihood of a more pragmatic, Europe friendly Brexit.  Are we coming through a nightmare period, for all the veneer of chaos that exists today?

AS Politics: Party Divisions – the Conservative Party

The problem with examining Conservative Party divisions is that we tend to still be using out of date terminology.  The party has moved on from a Thatcherite/One Nation division (if it ever really existed in one) not least because the times have changed.  No Conservative leader seriously disputes the need to maintain Thatcherism's principal legacy of a privatised economy and lower taxes (a legacy that even social democrats like Tony Blair undertook to essentially preserve).  The headline issue that split the Conservatives in the post-Thatcher years was Europe, although there was also debate around liberal versus conservative social attitudes and the extent to which public services like health and education should be submitted to the rigours of free market medicine.

The key to determining the direction of the Conservative party lies with its leaders and the best way of understanding Conservative divisions is probably via them.  Unlike its main rivals, the Conservatives are driven to an extraordinary degree by the men and women who lead it.  While Conservative grassroots members are broadly right-wing, often putting them at odds with more liberal minded leaders, they are also fundamentally loyal.  They do not have pretensions to directing the parliamentary party, even if they now expect a say in how it is led (although such a say is rare - only Iain Duncan Smith and David Cameron became leaders as a result of a grassroots vote).

Party historians date the Conservative Party back to either Robert Peel or William Pitt the Younger.  Pitt embodied the free trade philosophy that has remained part of the party's policy DNA (leading to a substantial internal divide at the beginning of the twentieth century) while Peel was an early social reformer.  Peel's cabinet included William Gladstone while his backbench MPs included Benjamin Disraeli.  Gladstone took his economic liberalism to the Liberal Party after the repeal of the Corn Laws split the party, while Disraeli eventually came to articulate what he called a One Nation vision for the Conservatives.

One Nation Conservatism - a somewhat inchoate, pragmatic blend of paternalism and specific government action to benefit the working poor in the interests of national harmony - came to dominate the Conservative Party for much of the twentieth century.  However, it was encountering problems under Edward Heath and it fell to Margaret Thatcher to provide something hitherto unknown for Conservatism - an ideology.  The liberal conservative Ian Gilmour had noted that "the wise Conservative travels light" but such lightness of travel wasn't benefiting them by the 70s, so Mrs. Thatcher brought back a form of Gladstonian liberalism in economic thought - essentially a promulgation of the virtues of the free market and private ownership - and married it with traditional Tory social conservatism.

Whilst opposed by liberal, or One Nation, Conservatives such as Gilmour on account of its negative impact upon working class communities (notably miners and traditional manufacturing workers), Thatcherism became the dominant Conservative ideology in the latter part of the 20th century.  Economic liberalism, in the form of a small state, low tax vision, was not seriously questioned although social attitudes did become a battleground between liberals and conservatives.

David Cameron became leader in 2005 and sought to modernise the Conservative brand without seriously changing its policies.  He coined the term "Big Society" for his 2010 election manifesto (an updated version of One Nation Conservatism), though in practice this amounted to little specific in terms of policy.  He also sought to focus more on 'Green" issues and social liberalism to soften the Conservative image; his embrace of gay marriage was a success for social liberals but put him at odds with a still significant socially conservative membership of his party.  He pursued some further devolution of powers away from Westminster, to a proposed "Northern Powerhouse" (the hobbyhorse of his key ally and Chancellor George Osborne) and the metro mayors elected last May - a lingering legacy.  There was also a feeling that his desire for a formal coalition with the Liberal Democrats was in part motivated by a need to have a liberal firewall against his own more right-wing back-benchers.  In government, however, he and Osborne found themselves nonetheless pursuing an austerity agenda in the light of the 2008 financial crisis that wouldn't have looked out of place under Mrs. Thatcher herself.

Like all Conservative leaders since Thatcher, Cameron was faced with a Europe problem, which he resolved by promising a referendum.  He can hardly have foreseen that this referendum would spell his own precipitate political end just a year after winning an independent majority for his party in the 2015 election.

And so we come to Theresa May.  Her speech on taking office seemed to mark the outlines of a form of One Nation Conservatism, and the 2017 Conservative manifesto - which more than many of its predecessors is the work of the leader's small coterie, notably co chief-of-staff Nick Timothy - seems to have embedded this further.  Characterised by some as "Red Toryism", May's manifesto actively promotes the idea that the state can be used to further the public good.  It talks of the "good that government can do" and rejects what it calls "the cult of selfish individualism". It wants public schools to set up state academies, promises to maintain the workers' rights that are currently embedded in EU law and even rejects the idea of ideology as "dangerous".

In her determination to use the state to protect workers and provide government oversight of businesses, May echoes some of the activist agenda of Disraeli (or more accurately his Home Secretary Richard Cross).  In identifying herself as the emblem of conservatism and thus the nation, the only person trusted to negotiate our exit from the European Union,  there are echoes of Stanley Baldwin's "Safety First" agenda in the 1930s, although they lack his sense of ease at the state of the country.

In the modern age of an expansive state, however, which has often been the target of Conservative determinations to reduce it, May has also arguably carved out a new brand of Conservatism.  One which seeks to utilise the state rather than attack it, and do so in order to widen the appeal of 21st century Conservatism to those who are not people of wealth or rank.  The so-called "just about managing" that she identified in her first speech.  Shorn of the Brexit veneer, she could be seen as the most left-wing Conservative premier yet.  This is why a High Tory like historian Andrew Roberts is so worried, as he argues in this piece, suggesting that she is not really a Tory at all. 

The Conservatives are the most pragmatic and flexible of democratic political parties.  It is one reason why they are still in business after more than two centuries.  How long lasting the May changes will be are of course dependent on the level of endorsement she gets from the electorate, and a couple of weeks before the election itself that isn't looking quite so rosy.

AS Politics: Party Divisions – the Conservative Party

The problem with examining Conservative Party divisions is that we tend to still be using out of date terminology.  The party has moved on from a Thatcherite/One Nation division (if it ever really existed in one) not least because the times have changed.  No Conservative leader seriously disputes the need to maintain Thatcherism's principal legacy of a privatised economy and lower taxes (a legacy that even social democrats like Tony Blair undertook to essentially preserve).  The headline issue that split the Conservatives in the post-Thatcher years was Europe, although there was also debate around liberal versus conservative social attitudes and the extent to which public services like health and education should be submitted to the rigours of free market medicine.

The key to determining the direction of the Conservative party lies with its leaders and the best way of understanding Conservative divisions is probably via them.  Unlike its main rivals, the Conservatives are driven to an extraordinary degree by the men and women who lead it.  While Conservative grassroots members are broadly right-wing, often putting them at odds with more liberal minded leaders, they are also fundamentally loyal.  They do not have pretensions to directing the parliamentary party, even if they now expect a say in how it is led (although such a say is rare - only Iain Duncan Smith and David Cameron became leaders as a result of a grassroots vote).

Party historians date the Conservative Party back to either Robert Peel or William Pitt the Younger.  Pitt embodied the free trade philosophy that has remained part of the party's policy DNA (leading to a substantial internal divide at the beginning of the twentieth century) while Peel was an early social reformer.  Peel's cabinet included William Gladstone while his backbench MPs included Benjamin Disraeli.  Gladstone took his economic liberalism to the Liberal Party after the repeal of the Corn Laws split the party, while Disraeli eventually came to articulate what he called a One Nation vision for the Conservatives.

One Nation Conservatism - a somewhat inchoate, pragmatic blend of paternalism and specific government action to benefit the working poor in the interests of national harmony - came to dominate the Conservative Party for much of the twentieth century.  However, it was encountering problems under Edward Heath and it fell to Margaret Thatcher to provide something hitherto unknown for Conservatism - an ideology.  The liberal conservative Ian Gilmour had noted that "the wise Conservative travels light" but such lightness of travel wasn't benefiting them by the 70s, so Mrs. Thatcher brought back a form of Gladstonian liberalism in economic thought - essentially a promulgation of the virtues of the free market and private ownership - and married it with traditional Tory social conservatism.

Whilst opposed by liberal, or One Nation, Conservatives such as Gilmour on account of its negative impact upon working class communities (notably miners and traditional manufacturing workers), Thatcherism became the dominant Conservative ideology in the latter part of the 20th century.  Economic liberalism, in the form of a small state, low tax vision, was not seriously questioned although social attitudes did become a battleground between liberals and conservatives.

David Cameron became leader in 2005 and sought to modernise the Conservative brand without seriously changing its policies.  He coined the term "Big Society" for his 2010 election manifesto (an updated version of One Nation Conservatism), though in practice this amounted to little specific in terms of policy.  He also sought to focus more on 'Green" issues and social liberalism to soften the Conservative image; his embrace of gay marriage was a success for social liberals but put him at odds with a still significant socially conservative membership of his party.  He pursued some further devolution of powers away from Westminster, to a proposed "Northern Powerhouse" (the hobbyhorse of his key ally and Chancellor George Osborne) and the metro mayors elected last May - a lingering legacy.  There was also a feeling that his desire for a formal coalition with the Liberal Democrats was in part motivated by a need to have a liberal firewall against his own more right-wing back-benchers.  In government, however, he and Osborne found themselves nonetheless pursuing an austerity agenda in the light of the 2008 financial crisis that wouldn't have looked out of place under Mrs. Thatcher herself.

Like all Conservative leaders since Thatcher, Cameron was faced with a Europe problem, which he resolved by promising a referendum.  He can hardly have foreseen that this referendum would spell his own precipitate political end just a year after winning an independent majority for his party in the 2015 election.

And so we come to Theresa May.  Her speech on taking office seemed to mark the outlines of a form of One Nation Conservatism, and the 2017 Conservative manifesto - which more than many of its predecessors is the work of the leader's small coterie, notably co chief-of-staff Nick Timothy - seems to have embedded this further.  Characterised by some as "Red Toryism", May's manifesto actively promotes the idea that the state can be used to further the public good.  It talks of the "good that government can do" and rejects what it calls "the cult of selfish individualism". It wants public schools to set up state academies, promises to maintain the workers' rights that are currently embedded in EU law and even rejects the idea of ideology as "dangerous".

In her determination to use the state to protect workers and provide government oversight of businesses, May echoes some of the activist agenda of Disraeli (or more accurately his Home Secretary Richard Cross).  In identifying herself as the emblem of conservatism and thus the nation, the only person trusted to negotiate our exit from the European Union,  there are echoes of Stanley Baldwin's "Safety First" agenda in the 1930s, although they lack his sense of ease at the state of the country.

In the modern age of an expansive state, however, which has often been the target of Conservative determinations to reduce it, May has also arguably carved out a new brand of Conservatism.  One which seeks to utilise the state rather than attack it, and do so in order to widen the appeal of 21st century Conservatism to those who are not people of wealth or rank.  The so-called "just about managing" that she identified in her first speech.  Shorn of the Brexit veneer, she could be seen as the most left-wing Conservative premier yet.  This is why a High Tory like historian Andrew Roberts is so worried, as he argues in this piece, suggesting that she is not really a Tory at all. 

The Conservatives are the most pragmatic and flexible of democratic political parties.  It is one reason why they are still in business after more than two centuries.  How long lasting the May changes will be are of course dependent on the level of endorsement she gets from the electorate, and a couple of weeks before the election itself that isn't looking quite so rosy.