18. Conclusion: Nationalism as a Counterweight to Identity Politics

Being ‘down with the kids’ has turned the Tories into a laughing stock

Column in the Spectator criticising the Conservative party for trying to appear ‘woke’. Published on 13th April 2019.

The news that 83 per cent of Conservative voters are over 45, compared to 53 per cent of Labour voters, is depressing. That was a finding of a poll carried out by Hanbury Strategy for Onward, a right-of-centre think tank that’s just produced a report called ‘Generation Why?’. More alarmingly, Hanbury discovered that the ‘tipping point age’ — the median age at which a person is more likely to vote Conservative than Labour — is 51. That’s up from 47 at the 2017 general election and 34 just beforehand. ‘Yikes!’ as Lynton Crosby might say.

No doubt the Tories’ close identification with Brexit and its stumbling attempts to get over the finish line have contributed to this dire state of affairs, but its cack-handed attempts to appear politically correct can’t have helped. I’m thinking of the proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act, the government’s insistence that companies disclose their ‘gender pay gap’, and Theresa May’s ‘race disparity audit’. Trying to get ‘down with the kids’, like a vicar swinging his hips at the church disco, is a guaranteed way of turning yourself into a laughing stock in front of the younger generation. According to Hanbury, just 4 per cent of voters under the age of 24 are intending to vote Conservative.

For some MPs who fancy their chances in the forthcoming leadership election, the answer is to become even more woke. No, seriously. Penny Mordaunt, the front-running woke candidate — incredibly, there’s more than one — welcomed Onward’s report and said it showed how important it was for the Conservatives to try to appeal to ‘young women’ and other ‘marginalised’ groups. Newsflash Penny: it’s young men that are becoming increasingly ‘marginalised’, not young women. In 2017, 30,000 more women were admitted to university in Britain than men. The lowest–achieving demographic in our schools are white boys, many of them marooned in the north-east or coastal areas like the Isle of Wight. (Between 2015 and 2017, 700 people applied to Oxford from the north-east, compared to 9,200 in London.) I don’t suppose Penny thinks the Conservatives should do much to win them over. Creating an advisory panel on LGBT health issues, which Mordaunt has just done in her capacity as Minister for Women and Equalities, probably isn’t going to cut it.

One of the reasons embracing the diversity and inclusion agenda won’t bring this lost generation into the Conservative column is because the only young people likely to notice these woke gestures are either at university or recent graduates. And we know from polling carried out after the last election that they voted Labour in overwhelming numbers. Among graduates of all ages, Labour had a lead of 15 per cent in 2017, and among 18- to 34-year-olds it is now 45 per cent. That hasn’t always been the case — as recently as 1979, having a degree or A levels made you 17 per cent more likely to vote Tory. You can speculate about why this sea change has taken place, but I daresay it’s connected to the fact that, among university staff, left-of-centre voters now outnumber right-of-centre voters by a ratio of 7:1, up from about 2:1 in 1976. Whatever the reason, supporting the Tories means being part of a tiny, hated minority in British universities, second only in the demonological hierarchy to Brexit voters.

No, it is among less educated young people that the low-hanging fruit is to be found. One of the more optimistic findings in the Hanbury-Onward poll is that marginally more young people who have completed an apprenticeship would consider voting Conservative than Labour. Why? Again, we can only guess, but I suspect it’s because they haven’t been press-ganged into joining the Social Justice cult by Marxist university lecturers and, as a result, are still members of the reality-based community. Less optimistically, the Hanbury-Onward poll found that 18- to 24-year-olds rank Labour ahead of the Tories in every policy area, but those issues on which Labour enjoys the smallest leads include taxation, crime and immigration. When they’re asked about their values, as opposed to which party’s positions they prefer, they turn out to be quite right-of-centre.

In this light, the Conservatives’ best hope of appealing to young people is not Penny Mordaunt or any other woke candidate, but Liz Truss, the only unapologetic Thatcherite in the horse race. She understands the genuinely ‘marginalised’ people of this country — her constituency is in Norfolk — and seems to truly believe in the UK’s potential. But my foot’s already halfway out of the door. Come 23 May, I’ll be voting for the Brexit party.

There’s space for a new party in British politics, but not another SDP

Column in the Spectator arguing that another party that’s centre-left on social issues and centre-right on the economy is not what Britain needs. Published on 23rd February 2019.


I was 17 when the Labour party last split, in January 1981, and for a variety of reasons got quite caught up in the moment. It was partly because my father, the author of the 1945 Labour manifesto, was close to the Gang of Four — the original band of defectors — and was one of a hundred people named as supporters of the breakaway group in a full-page ad in the Guardian. But really I was just swept up by the general enthusiasm for the new party that seemed to affect vast swaths of the middle classes. If you recoiled from the economic policies of the Conservative government, which prioritised reducing inflation over full employment, but were equally querulous about the leftward shift of the Labour party, the SDP was an appealing alternative.

I never went as far as becoming a member — I wasn’t a joiner in those days — but was enough of a supporter to join my father on a trip to Warrington in Lancashire to campaign for Roy Jenkins in a by–election about six months later. Jenkins had resigned as a Labour MP in 1977 to become president of the European Commission and, along with Shirley Williams, was one of two members of the Gang of Four without a seat. On the way up in my father’s Vauxhall, he explained that Jenkins didn’t have much hope of winning — Labour had held the seat with a majority of more than 10,000 in 1979 — but the SDP’s leaders felt it was important to field a candidate if the party was going to be taken seriously as a political force.

I was nervous about knocking on strangers’ doors, particularly with my eccentric father beside me. He looked like a left-wing intellectual straight out of a J.B. Priestley play: corduroy jacket, knitted tie, horn-rimmed spectacles. He was naturally rather shy — he had a stiff, awkward way of standing, with his hands clasped too tightly behind his back — and this impression was accentuated by a slight stutter.

I, by contrast, was a fully fledged New Romantic, with floppy hair, harlequin trousers and a puffy shirt. What would the good burghers of Warrington make of this odd couple? The fact that our candidate was a lisping, worldly bon vivant — Jenkins was famously fond of clawet and enthused about the gweat vawiety of westaurants in Bwussels — probably wouldn’t help.

‘Don’t worry,’ my father said, as we approached the first gate. ‘The people here aren’t like our neighbours in London. You’ll be amazed by how warm they are.’

Sure enough, the first door was opened by an elderly gent who couldn’t have been friendlier. He’d been a Labour voter all his life, but wasn’t impressed by Tony Benn or his political allies in the trade union movement. Then again, he didn’t much care for the liberal, cosmopolitan values of the SDP either. He wasn’t keen on the Common Market and was worried about immigration. My father tried to persuade him to vote for Jenkins to send a message to Labour that it was headed in the wrong direction, and when we left we put him down as a ‘maybe’ on the canvas return sheet.

This set the pattern for the rest of the day. Everyone whose door we knocked on was happy to see us and listened politely as my father made his pitch. But the SDP just wasn’t causing the same excitement in Lancashire as it was in the sitting rooms and open-plan kitchens of north London. We encountered plenty of disillusionment with the Labour party, but it was from traditional working-class voters who were more concerned about its drift to the left on social issues than about the economy. They were the sort of people who, 35 years later, would vote to leave the European Union (Leave beat Remain in Warrington by 55 per cent to 45 per cent). If there was headroom for a new political entity in the north of England in 1981, it was for a party more like Ukip — left of centre on public services like the NHS, but right of centre on crime, immigration and welfare.

Jenkins lost by a few thousand votes, but went on to win a by–election in Glasgow Hillhead the following year. My flirtation with the SDP ended with the Falklands War, after which Margaret Thatcher could do no wrong in my eyes, and my father eventually re-joined the Labour party. I expect there will be an initial surge of enthusiasm for the Independent Group too, but it won’t last, and for exactly the same reason. There’s space in British politics for a populist alternative to the two mainstream parties, but this won’t fill it.

We are being destroyed by tribalism. Let’s get rid of it

Column in the Spectator about Amy Chua’s book Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations. It was published on 10th March 2018.

Amy Chua’s latest book, Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations, is a difficult read for anyone who is concerned about the current state of British politics. Chua is an American law professor and her previous book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, was about the effectiveness of the Asian approach to bringing up children. In that book, she praised her own parents for giving her a sense of pride in her Chinese heritage, claiming that one of the reasons Asian-Americans are more successful than other ethnic groups is because they feel that to fail would bring shame on their community. In Political Tribes, she takes a different tack, arguing that the ascendancy of identity politics on the right and the left of American politics is threatening to destroy the Republic.

Before discussing the rise of tribalism in the US, she devotes a chapter to Hugo Chavez’s electoral success in Venezuela and attributes it, in part, to the fact that he wasn’t a member of the country’s light-skinned social and political elite. For years, educated Venezuelans maintained that racism didn’t exist in their country because everyone is a mestizo — mixed blood. However, that ignores the fact that Venezuelans of African and indigenous heritage are, for the most part, poorer and less successful than Venezuelans of European heritage, a form of hierarchy known as sociedad de castas.

Chavez succeeded because he was a rarity in Venezuelan politics, a dark-skinned candidate. He had, in his own words, a ‘big mouth’ and ‘curly hair’, which he liked to draw attention to because they proved he had African ancestry. Chavez won the presidential election in 1998, and the three subsequent elections, because he rejected the myth that Venezuela was a multi-cultural paradise and looked and spoke like the vast majority of the electorate. He was victorious because he took on the liberal elite, exacerbated simmering racial tensions and mobilised the silent majority by appealing to their sense of tribal identity.

Chua argues that what happened in Venezuela is now happening in America, with Trump galvanising the white majority instead. And just as Venezuela is now teetering on the brink of becoming a failed state, America could go the same way if this tribalism is allowed to go unchecked.

Chua has plenty of bad things to say about Trump, but she also blames the politically correct professional class for creating a cultural climate in which white people increasingly feel as if they have no choice but to embrace the identity politics of the progressive left. Imagine you’re a white working-class American who is constantly told that it’s OK to feel proud of your racial identity if you’re non-white, but if you’re white you should ‘check your privilege’. Sooner or later you will reject that message and embrace a political candidate who tells you to feel the same pride in your heritage as the other races do.

Chua’s analysis is hardly original — conservative voices have been decrying the decline of universalism in American politics for decades — and it’s difficult not to see it as excessively alarmist, particularly if you read it alongside Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now. Chua ignores the part that Chavez’s socialist policies played in destroying the Venezuelan state, as well as Pinker’s charts and graphs showing how life is slowly getting better for the mass of ordinary people. The Republic will probably survive Trump’s presidency.

But as an explanation of why American politics has become so sectarian and polarised, Chua’s analysis feels spot-on. And it is increasingly relevant to our politics as well. Since the election of Jeremy Corbyn, who has exacerbated the rise of identity politics on the British left in spite of being white, male, heterosexual and privileged, and the EU referendum, the UK has begun to fracture into a welter of warring tribes.

That’s the context, I think, in which I was recently attacked by Labour MPs and their outriders in the media for being a ‘misogynist’, a ‘homophobe’ and, bizarrely, ‘despising working-class children’. As Chua says, politics should not be about an ‘in group’ trying to de-legitimise and shame members of an ‘out group’ by calling them names. Rather, it should be about the clash of ideas — about justice and fairness and the trade-off between freedom and equality. And the more tribal our politics is, the less rational and enlightened public debate has become.

Voting Remain is an act of heartless snobbery

Column in the Spectator arguing that voting for Brexit is the best way to heal the divisions in British society. Published on 14th May 2016.

One of the interesting features of the Brexit debate is that it has laid bare a schism in British society which runs much deeper than the conventional Labour-Conservative divide. On the one hand, we have the prosperous, educated elite, mainly based in cities and university towns, who are liberal on social issues, pro-immigration, believers in free trade and internationalist in outlook. On the other, we have the white working class, clustered in areas of economic stagnation, particularly seaside towns, who are socially conservative, anti-immigration, suspicious of free trade and staunchly nationalist.

This isn’t a perfect summary. Dan Hannan, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove fall more naturally into the first category, whereas Scottish and Welsh nationalists are mainly pro-EU. But it’s broadly true. Two years ago, the political scientist Chris Hanretty ranked all 650 British constituencies according to how likely they were to support Brexit. The five least eurosceptic are Edinburgh South, Manchester Withington, Edinburgh North and Leith, Bristol West and Hornsey and Wood Green, whereas the five most are Clacton, Castle Point, Great Yarmouth, Christchurch and Blackpool North and Cleveleys.

On the face of it, this is a good argument for Remain. ‘Clacton-on-Sea is going nowhere,’ wrote Matthew Parris in an infamous Times column about Ukip’s only seat. ‘This is Britain on crutches. This is tracksuit-and-trainers Britain, tattoo-parlour Britain, all-our-yesterdays Britain.’

He is right, up to a point. Brexiters are less educated (only 15 per cent are graduates, says YouGov, against 37 per cent of Remainers) and older (Clacton has the highest proportion of retirees in England and Wales). These elderly, uneducated, lumpen proles are dying off, goes the argument, so why pander to their Little England prejudices? It would be crazy to risk trading links, renege on international obligations and clamp down on immigration just to make a bunch of losers feel less out of place in the modern world. (Parris: ‘A Britain that has forgotten the joys of Ken Dodd, meat pies, smoking in pubs and the Bee Gees.’) Whereas a vote to Remain is a vote for the Britain of tomorrow: young, educated, multi-ethnic, pansexual and cosmopolitan.

But is that really a good reason to stay in? It’s a peculiarly heartless argument and sits oddly with Europhiles’ self-understanding as the nice guys. It’s a toxic mixture of snobbery and ad hominem: let’s vote Remain because the people who want to Leave eat too much cake, to channel Emma Thompson. Swap white working class for another demographic (African-Caribbean, for instance) and it’s straightforwardly racist, though good luck trying to persuade the police to take a charge of anti-white racism seriously. They’d probably arrest you for being ‘offensive’.

In fact, I think the growing chasm between the winners and the losers from globalisation is a reason to vote Leave. The Europhiles naively imagine that in 30 years the whole country will look more like them. But as mass immigration continues and more and more menial jobs are done by robots, Britain will come to look more like Clacton, not Edinburgh South, and the white working class will be joined by members of other ethnic groups.

For a glimpse into the future, take a tour of America’s rust belt, where communities like Port Clinton, the subject of Robert Putnam’s book Our Kids, have come to resemble a post-apocalyptic dystopia. The rich are happily married with successful, college-educated children and live in gated communities protected by security, while the poor sprawl out over sink estates, unable to sustain relationships or hold down jobs, prone to alcoholism and substance abuse, passing on their problems to the next generation like poisoned heirlooms.

For Britain to avoid this fate, the metropolitan elite must take some responsibility for the residents of England’s depressed seaside towns, not scorn them. And they’re more likely to do that, to feel the tug of moral obligation towards their fellow countrymen, if they identify as Britons first and Europeans second. Nationalism, for all its shortcomings, creates a shared sense of belonging that’s essential if the haves are ever going to give a helping hand to the have-nots. Let’s embrace the people who’ve been left behind by globalisation by voting Leave on 23 June, not cut them adrift by voting Remain.

Obama, Cameron, and the day of the ‘Remains’

Op ed for the Wall St Journal about President Obama’s intervention in the EU Referendum. Published on 22nd April 2016.

The debate about whether Britain should remain in the European Union or leave (“Brexit”) took a dramatic turn Friday when President Obama broke off from wishing Queen Elizabeth II a happy 90th birthday to lecture the British people about which way they should vote in the EU referendum on June 23.

In a joint news conference with Prime Minister David Cameron, who has staked his political future on Britain’s voting “Remain” rather than “Leave,” Mr. Obama was full of surprises.

For one thing, he admitted that it had been his call to remove the bust of Winston Churchill from the Oval Office when he first became president. That was a jaw-dropper, because until now the White House has maintained that the decision was taken before Mr. Obama took up residence and was no reflection on the president’s attitude toward Britain or its “special relationship” with the United States. Only a month ago, Ted Cruz was accused of “lying” when he repeated this story. So it was good of the president to clear that up, although unlikely to endear him to his British audience.

The biggest shock, though, was his affirmation of something the pro-EU camp has been claiming and which is usually dismissed as typical of “Project Fear”—the disparaging name the Leave side has given to the Remain campaign. Earlier this week, George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and Mr. Cameron’s closest ally, claimed that Brexit would cost each British family £4,300 ($5,760), a figure written off by his opponents as scaremongering. But Mr. Obama seemed to confirm Mr. Osborne’s pessimistic analysis when he said Britain, if it leaves the EU, would be at the “back of the queue” if it had to negotiate a separate trade deal with the U.S. That sent shock waves through the Brexit camp, which has long maintained that America’s exports to the U.K.—$56.35 billion in 2015—are so valuable that a new trade agreement would be quickly negotiated.

Just how much impact Mr. Obama’s intervention will have is hotly debated. According to a YouGov poll last week, just 4% of the British people believe that Mr. Obama opposes Brexit because he thinks it would be bad for Britain rather than for America. The majority believe that Mr. Obama is urging us to stay in because our strong ties to the U.S. mean the EU will be more pro-American with us in it, not because he thinks Britain will be better off. Another poll, by contrast, gives the president a 91% approval rating among the “Don’t Knows,” a sizable portion of the electorate.

The most common objection to Mr. Obama’s intervention is that it’s hypocritical because America guards its own sovereignty so vigilantly. But at the news conference he talked about the need for nation-states to “aggregate their power” to “multiply their influence,” and he claimed that the U.K. “magnifies” rather than “diminishes” its influence by pooling its sovereignty with other European countries.

That suggests Mr. Obama believes America would benefit from similar arrangements with its neighbors—that it should be more “transnational,” to use his word. Certainly, his efforts to accommodate millions of illegal immigrants suggest that, if it were politically possible, he might well countenance an open border with Mexico. Not hypocritical then,, but uncharacteristically candid.

But this, too, may be helpful to the Leave side. It is precisely because I’m skeptical about the blurring of the boundaries between nation-states that I’m in favor of Brexit, and I suspect that’s true of others as well. It’s not just that our democracy and self-determination are inextricably linked and it’s harder to hold lawmakers to account in a “transnational” institution like the EU, where the laws that apply to all 28 member states are drafted by unelected “commissioners.” It goes deeper than that—a sense that something important is lost when we surrender control of our borders. We’re not just pooling our sovereignty, but a part of our identity as Britons too.

The Remainers believe that basing our sense of who we are on blood and soil is regressive and inevitably leads to international conflict, something the EU was set up to prevent. They welcome a loosening of patriotic ties, which they believe allows for more self-invention, something Mr. Obama has praised in the past. But it is naïve to think that a decline in nationalist sentiment always goes hand in hand with peace, love and understanding. Once our personal identity is divorced from our nation’s customs and institutions, we become more susceptible to toxic ideologies, not less—and the Whabbism that has radicalized so many young European Muslims is a case in point.

Ultimately, it is because we have such a strong attachment to the values that both our nations share and which are bound up with our shared history—democracy, limited government, freedom of speech, religious tolerance and the rule of law—that those of us on the Leave side are so skeptical about further European integration. We believe that Brexit won’t just strengthen Britain, it will also strengthen our special relationship.

Emma Thompson’s wrong about the EU and cake

Column for the Spectator on Emma Thompson’s description of the UK as ‘a tiny little cloud-bolted, rainy corner of sort-of Europe, a cake-filled misery-laden grey old island’. It was published on 20th February 2016.

At first glance, Emma Thompson’s intervention in the Brexit debate earlier this week didn’t make much sense. Asked at the Berlin Film Festival whether the UK should vote to remain in the EU, she said we’d be ‘mad not to’. She went on to describe Britain as ‘a tiny little cloud-bolted, rainy corner of sort-of Europe, a cake-filled misery-laden grey old island’. She added that she ‘just felt European’ and would ‘of course’ vote to remain in the EU. ‘We should be taking down borders, not putting them up,’ she said.

I think I get the bit about Britain being ‘rainy’. That’s true, obviously, and some people dislike our islands for that reason. Not sure that is the most persuasive reason for voting ‘in’ — will it rain less if we elect to stay? — but perhaps she’s worried that it will take her longer to get to her friend George Clooney’s house on Lake Como if we leave the EU, what with the end of free movement and so on. As any Eurosceptic will tell you, that’s a red herring, but it kind of, sort of makes sense.

No, the bit that confused me was her use of the phrases ‘cake-filled’ and ‘misery-laden’ side by side. Surely a nation that eats a lot of cake is, almost by definition, not miserable? I think it’s unlikely that the average Brit consumes more cake during a typical week than the average German, but even if that were true I don’t see how our love affair with cake makes us miserable. What’s going on in that voluminous brain of hers?

The only explanation I can think of is that she has a fixed idea about the sort of people who are in favour of Brexit — lower-middle-class, backward-looking, bigoted — and she thinks one of their characteristics, along with having lace curtains and using words like ‘serviette’ and ‘settee’, is that they eat a lot of cake. That would also explain the note of surprise when asked which way she’d be voting. Didn’t the questioner realise that all successful, Cambridge-educated, upper-middle-class women are in favour of the EU? Had he been living under a rock?

Thompson has come in for a fair amount of criticism since uttering these remarks — and rightly so — but she is hardly alone in suffering from such snobbery. As Orwell wrote about the liberal intelligentsia in England Your England: ‘They take their cookery from Paris and their opinions from Moscow.’ He continued: ‘In left-wing circles it is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution, from horse racing to suet puddings. It is a strange fact, but it is unquestionably true that almost any English intellectual would feel more ashamed of standing to attention during “God save the King” than of stealing from a poor box.’

Exactly this attitude — a sniggering contempt for the patriotism of ordinary people — was the subtext of Emily Thornberry’s famous tweet that got her fired from Labour’s front bench. And I’ve noticed it among my own social circle whenever Brexit comes up. It’s as though expressing any scepticism about our membership of the EU, particularly if it involves a concern about uncontrolled immigration, is a bit Non-U. On the surface, people claim to be concerned about jobs and the impact on our financial sector but really, deep down, they’re just advertising their membership of the educated elite. They’re not anxious about the consequences for the British economy. They’re anxious about being perceived as petit bourgeois.

It’s not surprising, then, that the cabinet is split along class lines when it comes to the EU. A majority of those in favour — David Cameron, George Osborne, Jeremy Hunt, Amber Rudd, Nicky Morgan — were privately educated, whereas most of those against — Iain Duncan Smith, Chris Grayling, Priti Patel — were state educated. Within the Conservative party, the schism over our membership of the EU is a proxy for the class antagonism between the different wings that’s always been present but rarely rises to the surface.

I’m not entirely immune to these influences myself. As a state-educated Tory, I identify more with the flag-waving, ‘Rule Britannia’ wing than the sophisticated, Europeanised types who dominate Cameron’s inner circle, and that’s partly why I’m a Eurosceptic. Unlike Emma Thompson, I think it’s entirely honourable to feel patriotic for tribal reasons, but rather odd to regard your membership of a British clique as requiring you to pour scorn on your country.


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Links and Further Reading

Yoram Hazony says that Montesquieu flagged up the tension between capitalism/commerce and nationalism in The Spirit of the Laws.

Will the Right Defend Economic Liberty? by Jonah Goldberg, The National Review, 2nd May 2019

Conservatism: An Intellectual Defence by Bo Winegard, Arc, 27th September 2018

The Future of the Nation by Daniel P. Schmidt and Michael E. Hartmann, City Journal, 21st September 2018

Socialism is so Hot Right Now by Jonah Goldberg, Commentary, 17th September 2018

America Desperately Needs a Healthy Conservatism by Andrew Sullivan, New York, 14th September 2018

The fake patriotism of the liberal Left by Paul Embery, UnHerd, 26th September 2018

Britain’s Populist Revolt by Matthew Goodwin, Quillette, 3rd August 2018