What if . . . the Confederacy had survived

With his visit to the United States overshadowed by his slip about Anglo-American relations in 1940, David Cameron will doubtless be hoping that his second visit to the New World, which begins next week, will be rather more successful. At least his trip to Washington meant a break from the incessant interrogation about the BP pollution scandal; by contrast, he is likely to face some tough questions when he arrives in the Confederacy's capital, Richmond. Downing Street insiders, however, remain confident, pointing out the close links between the Conservatives and the CSA's ruling Democratic Party. "Since 1861," a Tory minister with a taste for history tells me, "only one special relationship has really counted, and it's this one."

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What she is referring to is the famous Trent affair - a central moment in the history of the Confederacy, perhaps even a turning point in world history. In November 1861, months after the outbreak of the short-lived American civil war, two Confederate diplomats made their way to Havana and took passage on the British Royal Mail steamer Trent, which was heading back home. But only a day later, the ship was seized by the Union navy and the two men were hauled off into captivity.

By any standards, this was a breach of Britain's neutrality and the press, unsurprisingly, was ­outraged. It was time, said the ­London Chronicle, to quash "that spirit of senseless egotism which induces the Americans, with their dwarf fleet and shapeless mass of incoherent squads which they call an army, to fancy themselves the equal of France by land and Great Britain by sea."

Britain had already begun building up reinforcements along the Canadian border, worried that the conflict might spill north. All forces in North America were placed on a war footing. Even at this late stage, adept diplomacy might have averted disaster. Sadly, the Union's relatively obscure and untested president, Abraham Lincoln, has gone down in history as a terrible judge of men and motives. Convinced that Britain would not intervene, he refused to release the two prisoners and instead sent a highly offensive note to London. That was too much for the ultra-patriotic Whig prime minister, Viscount Palmerston. Britain, he told Queen Victoria, proposed to "inflict a severe blow upon and to read a lesson to the United States which will not soon be forgotten".

The war was over in six months. With so many troops tied up on its southern border, the Union struggled to hold back the 60,000 British forces pouring across the Canadian border, while the Royal Navy's blockade of the east coast meant that starving mobs were soon demonstrating in Boston and New York. By the spring of 1862, Union morale was cracking. When Lincoln collapsed under the strain, the vice-president, Hannibal Hamlin, conceded the inevitable and sued for peace.

In July 1862, British, Union and Confederate negotiators met near the front line in the obscure Pennsylvanian town of Gettysburg and hammered out a deal. The Confederacy became an independent nation. Its victory, as the new president, Jefferson Davis, told his people, marked "a new birth of freedom".

White wash

These days, revisionist historians often argue that the war was really about slavery, pointing out that the plantation system lasted until the 1950s and that the last Confederate slave did not die until 1992. That runs counter, however, to everything that textbooks used to tell us about Britain's role in winning liberty for the Confederates. Indeed, slavery is not mentioned at all on the Whitehall memorial to the fallen, just as the word never appears in any of the memorials in the booming city of Richmond. The last prime minister, Gordon Brown, made a point of visiting a former plantation during his final visit to the CSA, even shaking hands with anti-segregation activists, but Downing Street insists that this time there will be no repeat.

“The Confederacy has its problems and we don't want to exacerbate them," a spokesman says smoothly. When the microphones are off, the message is even clearer. The Confederacy, he points out, is one of Britain's closest allies: "Its men are fighting alongside ours in Central America, for goodness sake." Although the credit-fuelled boom has stalled, the Confederate Tiger economic miracle means the links between Richmond and London have never been closer or more important. "Sure, they have a few racial issues," the Downing Street man says. "But who doesn't?"

Dominic Sandbrook is a historian and author. His books include Never Had It So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles and White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties. He writes the What If... column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 09 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The first 100 days

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide