A revolution is taking place in Britain. Call it populism by default. To outsiders—and many insiders—the political house seems to be on fire. Brexit is the proximate cause, but the changes occurring are more profound. An enormous political realignment is afoot, sidelining Britain’s cosmopolitan and liberal elite, which has been supereminent ever since Margaret Thatcher destroyed its working-class enemies more than a generation ago.
The first signs of realignment came on the left, when Marxist Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the recently defeated Labour Party. Once Corbyn was in place, the new youth wing—now called “Momentum”—turned on the old guard and started a political purge of the party’s centrists. As the Labour Party expanded, the Conservative Party continued to decline. This time last year, the Labour Party had a total membership of 540,000 people, while the Conservative Party had only 124,000.
Shrinkage on the right has had the same effect as expansion on the left: The Conservative Party has hardened ideologically. In the 1990s, there were about twenty anti-EU MPs. On March 30, 170 Conservative MPs signed a letter urging a No Deal Brexit.
The British elite, right and left, did not want Brexit, and insofar as the vote was lost, they have wanted a soft Brexit. At the same time, the Conservative Party base was overwhelmingly in favor of Brexit. The majority of the Conservative Party’s seats are held in England, which voted to leave the EU, while Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain. Recent polling suggests that 64 percent of Conservative Party members want a No Deal Brexit, while only 29 percent support a softer option. Theresa May was doomed because her power is divided.
Britain’s political future is unclear. Either a full-on Brexiteer leads the Conservative Party into the great unknown, or the country faces a series of potential constitutional crises. It’s easy to imagine a collapse of the government, an intervention by the monarch, a highly divisive general election, or an even more divisive second referendum.
There is no point in trying to predict the future. But we can say something definite about the present: The bipartisan liberal elites—the Blameron set—usually aim for a centrist, stabilizing position that allows the London wealth-generation machine to keep running. Today, they appear to be pushing for instability, a fanaticism of the center, as Pierre Manent puts it. The Financial Times recently published an editorial in which they fantasized about the possibility of a politically viable Brexit deal that would amount to very little change. Uncharacteristically, they resorted to name-calling—calling No Deal Conservatives “Brexit Bolsheviks.” Meanwhile, former Conservative Cabinet Minister Chris Patten called the opponents of soft Brexit “economically illiterate jihadis” and claimed that the sovereignty they sought was “mythical.” This rhetorical low point for the British liberal establishment shows that it has no real base of power.
Today’s Labour Party explicitly dislikes establishment liberals, particularly their free-market policies, foreign adventurism, and their ties to the financial sector. But the Labour Party broadly supports their cultural project. Indeed, in terms of their cultural attitudes, Corbynites are a direct outgrowth of Tony Blair’s Labour reinvention of Britain during the 1990s. This creates an odd tension. Britain is fragile, and relies heavily on its financial sector. A radical Labour government would be catastrophic. But odds are strong that most of the Blameron grandees will accept dhimmi status in today’s Labour, recognizing that Corbyn’s people will continue that multicultural project and confident that, once the socialists wreck the economy, the people will call for their return to power.
The trajectory is less clear for the Conservative Party. Given Thatcher’s legacy, the Tories should be supporters of the free market and the financial sector. Not a few have been trumpeting that Brexit will increase free trade and financial market opportunities. Any Tory who wants to gain power has aligned himself with immigration restrictionists. The economic fallout of Brexit can be managed, but it will require acknowledging that free market principles must be harnessed to political goals.
The Blameron set can work under those conditions. But there are indications that Brexit has opened the way for a Conservative Party that intends to take stances on cultural matters at odds with the liberal establishment. One of its leaders, Jacob Rees-Mogg, is a Catholic traditionalist. In interviews, he says he wouldn’t let his personal views into the policy discussion, which makes sense if you look at his elite peers: city-dwelling liberals who support everything from abortion to drug legalization.
But socially conservative issues are popular among voters, immigration restriction being the most important—especially to Brits outside of metropolitan areas. Law and order is also important given the breakout of crime in the post-Blair years. Neo-traditionalism is not breaking out in England (which is why Rees-Mogg protests the privacy of his convictions). But there’s a truculent mood abroad, one that dislikes the liberal and cosmopolitan culture created by the Blameron set. Insofar as this mood intensifies and provides electoral energy to the right, the British establishment will sniff at the Conservative Party, deeming it unworthy of their loyalty.
Thus the present muddle. In Great Britain, a Marxist Labour Party enjoys widespread support while almost no powerful person historically associated with the Party would agree with its major tenets—much less its plan for the country. Meanwhile, Conservative Party leaders act like nationalists in order to gain electoral support, while subjectively they think themselves free trade liberals.
In both cases, the country’s leaders are abandoned by the people. The British people do not want Blair, Cameron, or what the Financial Times is selling. They want anyone who promises to bury what they don’t want. Thus Corbyn, whose popularity rests solely on what he is not. Thus May’s demise; she had neither the desire nor backing in her Party to kick the Blameron set in the teeth, as Corbyn promises to do.
Britain’s crisis is populism by default. It is occurring because those that generate the ideas—the universities, the media, and the other elites—now fail to win the loyalty of the nation. They are trying desperately to defend a system that is no longer defensible.
If the Conservative Party comes through this crisis intact, it will have to become a nationalist party, pure and simple. This means bucking Blameronianism on all fronts, not just economically with targeted industrial policy, but also with Yob-friendly cultural policy. The former goes against City of London interests. The latter is almost impossible for establishment leaders who quite frankly think most people living in Great Britain are fairly useless—deplorables, as the Americans say. The Conservative Party is more likely than not to fail, even as it has a strong basis among voters. The leaders simply can’t countenance what’s needed to serve the interests of those whom they purport to lead.
If they do not do so, the populist frustration will likely swing toward Labour. As it gains power—probably in alliance with the Scottish Nationalists—we will see some coherent ideas enacted. The financial services industry will be attacked; the Scottish will vote to leave the Union and join the EU; the pound sterling will sink; and the slow decline that the British economy has experienced since the 1970s will greatly increase in pace.
Yes, under this scenario the Blamerons will return to power, as they foresee. In due time the wrecked country will rebel against the socialists and voters will place themselves in the guardianship of the Great and Good who will promise to restore property values and tone down the hectoring. But there won’t be much of a country left to govern.
Count me among those who dread this outcome. I hope the Conservative leadership comes to recognize how ill-served the country is by its establishment and begins to chart a clear path of national renewal.
John William O'Sullivan writes from Dublin, Ireland.