FLC093, The New Geography of British Politics, 11th March 2003

Free Life Commentary,
Issue Number 93
11th March 2003

The New Geography of British Politics:
by Sean Gabb

During the past few months, Steve Davies and I have been discussing the future of the Conservative Party. I use the word "discuss" advisedly, for what I thought was a debate has turned out simply to be an exploration of different emphases within a position that we happen to share. Steve thinks that my concentrating on personalities is often at the expense of realising that the ground has shifted on which politics in this country take place. I think that personalities are perhaps more important than he does. But it seems we are agreed on fundamentals. He accepts that all the political parties are dominated by unimaginative blockheads, and I that the geography of debate has shifted so that much inherited from the recent past is no longer relevant.

Now, it may be that I have read Steve's very persuasive analysis, accepted it, and then insisted that it was mine all along. Anyone suspecting this I refer to a Free Life editorial from 1998—"Thoughts on the New Geography of British Politics", issue No.28, September 1998. A paragraph from this reads:

Some time around 1990, there was an earthquake in political terms. It had something to do with the collapse of the Soviet Empire—though I suspect that this was just as much an effect of some deeper cause as it was a cause in its own right. It was not like the tremors of 1917 or 1945, that threw down ancient structures and swept away multitudes of their inhabitants. It was rather a great violent upheaval that changed the appearance of the land on which the structures had been raised. Mountains were levelled, and valleys raised up. Rivers were diverted from their course. New barriers appeared between peoples who had for generations lived peacefully as neighbours, cutting them off from one another, cutting ties of common interest, even confronting them with issues that divided them. Other barriers were smashed down, forcing new neighbours together, requiring them to lay aside previous differences and to develop habits of cooperation in the defence of newly common interests.

Since then, without forgetting or retracting any of this, I have tended to focus on the personalities in the Conservative leadership. But my discussion with Steve has brought it back into active thought, and I will now write more on it. I have no doubt that Steve will produce his own essay on the subject, and that this will reflect his own interests and show much greater attention to matters of statistical fact. But what I now say, even if prompted by it, is not just a development of what he has been saying in the last two issues of Free Life.

It is, I think, insufficient to compare what is happening now in British politics with the upheavals of the 1920s. Those were undoubtedly profound. They tore the Liberal Party into at least three fragments, and established Labour as one of the two parties of government, and greatly strengthened the Conservative Party. But, while profound, these did not sweep away all the landmarks of debate. They are better seen as the completion of a set of changes that began in the 1870s—when Disraeli and Salisbury first defined their party as the defender of established order against an increasingly statist Liberal Party. The effect of the Great War was mainly to hurry the changes, and to replace the Liberals with Labour as the main vehicle of destruction, and to substitute arguments over economic socialism for the land controversies of the 1900s. But any politically aware Englishman who had fallen asleep in 1900 would not have been astonished beyond comprehending had he woken in 1930 and read the newspapers. Much had changed in the interval, but much else had not. There was a new party with a new challenge, but there were still two main parties—one for and one against the established order. The changes we are now facing in the geography of debate are astonishing beyond everyday comprehension. It is a collapse of the entire party system, and with it of the old grammar and vocabulary of political debate.

We cannot compare this with the changes that took place between about 1910 and 1930, or even with those between 1846 and 1867. The nearest precedent I can call to mind is the political revolution of 1760.

For 70 years before then, English politics had been dominated by a single issue—whether the Hanoverian succession should hold or the Stuarts be restored. With this apparently simple dynastic issue stood the legitimacy of the Revolution Settlement of 1689—which had brought changes in the whole political, social and financial structure of the nation. Whigs and Tories defined themselves by what they thought of this Settlement. It was not an issue debated every day in or outside Parliament, but it provided the framework within which all other debate was constructed. For example, both Tories and radical Whigs opposed the Walpole Government's proposed excise. In general, they hated the corruption, the sinecures, the lack of official passion for anything, the frequent mediocrity of the Ministers. They voted together, and often used the same language of opposition. But they could never combine. For all they agreed on the everyday issues of politics, they were divided on the most important question of all—and were that even if they tried not to discuss it.

Then in 1745, a Stuart restoration was shown to be impossible. Then in 1760, it was shown to be unnecessary. Except for the occasional trip, the King across the water would always stay there; and now the King here both spoke English without an accent and "gloried in the name of Briton". No one seems to have expected what happened next. The Whigs were soon out of office and old Jacobites in.

The Whig publicists after 1760 were right that there had been a sort of Stuart restoration. But it was not the sort they had feared. There were no Catholic priests slipping in and out of the Palace, no loss of religious toleration, no repudiation of the national debt. Denouncing Ministers like Sir Francis Dashwood as former Jacobites was an irrelevance. Nothing once said for or against the Protestant succession now meant anything. Bonds that once united now had vanished, together with old causes of division. The immediate result was political chaos. With its defining issue gone, the party system had collapsed. In its place, we see something like the politics of personal connection described by Sir Lewis Namier. I think his analysis somewhat overdone. Undoubtedly, though, the old connecting threads of ideology had gone. The arguments that soon arose over the powers of the Crown gave our literature some of its greatest political oratory. But, looking back, Dunning's famous motion – "that the power of the Crown has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished"—seems to miss the point. What we now see during the period is the increasing growth of cabinet government. Even the American War, for all its passion and cost in blood and money, was a dispute less over what the King could do than between the relative status of the various parliamentary bodies within his dominions: there might have been no Declaration of Independence had George III overruled his Ministers in London and accepted the legislative equality of the colonial assemblies with the Westminster Parliament.

It may be writing off three decades of fruitful political experience, but political debate as it has been normal in England at least since the 1670s—and perhaps even the 1540s—seems to have jumped from the 1750s to the 1790s across a great chasm. From arguments over the Glorious Revolution to those over the French Revolution we move through a political wilderness without the landmarks of party. Only in the 1790s was there a new defining issue, around which the parties could reform with new meanings given to the old names of Whig and Tory.

Even then, by the way, the old mental categories may have died slowly. When I was an undergraduate browsing in my university library, I came across an early edition of the Vindicia Galliae of Sir James Mackintosh. This was the most able, though not perhaps the most interesting, reply to Burke's Reflections. There was an errata inserted at the front, showing that the typesetters and proofreaders in the 1790s had several times let "Jacobite" stand when the author had wanted to say "Jacobin".

Since about 1990, we have faced a similar dislocation of party debate. Until then, we all knew where we stood. I, for example, could turn out regular polemics, denouncing the Thatcher Government for its police state laws, and could have friendly discussions with civil libertarians of the left. But we always knew what side we had taken. Our discussions, however friendly, always took place across a clear political boundary. I always voted Conservative, and they Labour. What divided us was our different positions on socialism. Yes, many Conservative politicians were decidedly "wet" on economic policy. Some Labour politicians were feeling their way to a greater acceptance of the market. But we all knew who was on one side and who on the other; and this fact gave a settled shape to our political life.

All this has now gone. We are still using the old terminology of abuse—throwing words at each other like "lefty" and "right wing extremist". But these have lost whatever meaning they once had. Using them now is like calling someone a Jacobite in 1795: they retain some pejorative force in the mind of the user, but do not connect with the real debate that others are having or feeling their way toward. It is relevant that Peter Mandelson and Stephen Byers are unpleasant and untrustworthy men, but not at all that the former used to belong to the Communist Party or the other to some Trotskyite sect. It is relevant that I and Perry de Havilland of the Samizdata blog are reasonably decent people and get along quite well personally. But it is no longer relevant that we used to be on the same side in the 1980s. On most of the issues that matter nowadays, we seem to be on opposite sides. The Libertarian Alliance was never more of an alliance than it must be today. At the same time, though, we can afford to be an alliance. We are not trying to stand for office on a united programme.

Though disorienting, the party collapse after 1760 was not so bad as the one we are now facing. Parties in those days were loose coalitions, and politics were more often local than national. Politics could still carry on after a manner with parties replaced by shifting connections based around personalities like the elder Pitt or Lord Rockingham or the King. But our whole modern Constitution and all our habits of political thought are based on the assumption of two great parties divided by some overriding issue. Without such an issue, little wonder politics has become a matter of corrupt place hunting relieved by obsessions with frequently trivial single issues.

This is the problem now faced by both main political parties. It has been harder so far for the Conservatives than for Labour. They are out of government, with no jobs or pleas of administrative need to hold them together. The biggest issue of the day, this being the European Union, has divided them within themselves rather than from Labour. Above all, their leaders have not the flexibility of mind to let them know what has happened. Iain Duncan Smith might have been a decent leader of the Party in the 1960s—he might easily have been better than those who did lead the Party. But his mind is still set in the past—his mind and those of all around him, not excluding his "modernising" opponents. He is the equivalent of some Newcastle Whig in the 1760s calling on the dwindling band of his faithful to beware of the Pretender.

Labour, we can presently see, is in hardly better shape. Since 1997, the Party has been held together by a combination of opportunism and a careful balancing of now incompatible ideologies. Time and the growing fact of economic failure and, of course, this projected war with Iraq are pulling it apart just as surely.

So, what is to be done? Steve and I are agreed that the answer is for at least the Conservatives to remake themselves so that they stand on one side of some clear and overriding division in this new century. We seem to agree that this division is between those who want a free and independent nation and those who do not. But, as I keep saying, ideas need to be perceived and then articulated before they can have any positive effect. I do not think we can wait 30 years for a new generation of political leaders to reshape the parties. The ideas are there, and so probably are the votes. All we lack are the politicians. Is there anyone in or near the Conservative leadership with the imagination to see what has happened, and with the courage to take advantage of it? The answer so far appears to be not.

© 2003 – 2017, seangabb.

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