The fracking war shows how the Tory party has been captured by a recession-proof old guard

This is more than just a spot of local difficulty for the Conservatives. It is an existential challenge.

It could be a fete on a village green: the tea stall with home-baked cakes, the children’s play area, mellow music wafting over the rolling West Sussex countryside. In a shady spot, a group yoga session is under way.
 
This is Upper-Middle England relaxing on a bright Sunday afternoon in August – but with a difference. The scene is framed by placards and police vans. The green is really a narrow verge on the B2036 just outside the village of Balcombe. The main attraction is a gate that was inconspicuous until the land behind it was identified as a potential site for “fracking” – extracting natural gas by breaking sediments of rock with water and chemicals. Now the gate is guarded by a line of police officers. One of them tells me the festive mood is a weekend thing. “The atmosphere changes when there’s machinery going in.”
 
The Balcombe protest is an odd hybrid. The villagers don’t want fracking on their doorstep. Their cause has been taken up by itinerant eco-warriors. Along the road, the tents and battered camper vans of full-time activists are punctuated by the Land Rovers and Audis of local Sussex day-trippers. By the guarded gate, a retired villager in mustardcoloured corduroy trousers and burgundy sweater is chatting to a woman in psychedelic tie-dye. “We have to stop it here,” he says. “Otherwise it will spread. There are lots of places on the list for fracking. They’re saying it will go all the way to Tunbridge Wells.”
 
Tory England liked fracking a lot more before the discovery that it could happen in sedate southern Shires. The point was made with accidentally satirical candour by David Howell, a Conservative peer and former minister, when he suggested that environmental disruption should be reserved for “desolate” northern provinces.
 
The gaffe had added pungency because Howell’s son-in-law is George Osborne, the government’s main cheerleader for fracking. The Chancellor is persuaded that there is a pent-up energy boom waiting to be released from beneath the British soil. As a lifelong Londoner, he also carries a strain of metropolitan impatience with rural protectionism. Osborne is desperate to show that Britain’s economy is on the move. He wants cranes on the horizon, diggers in the fields and the smellof fresh asphalt in the air. David Cameron has a more instinctive feel for the countryside Tories’ dread of concrete.
 
What both men know is that there aren’t enough seats in the stockbroker belt to deliver a Conservative majority and that the party needs to woo a new generation if it is not to slip into terminal decline. It has no more than 170,000 members and their average age is 68.
 
It is an old conundrum. Conservatism atrophies when it becomes just about conserving things or, worse, wishing things would return to a fantasy of the way they are supposed to have been. Sensible Tories know that their party’s future will only be secured with a credible invitation to young people who aren’t well-off to join the affluent classes. They also know that the economy no longer works as an engine to reward the efforts of people on modest incomes with growing levels of comfort and security. Wages are stagnant, prices are rising, housing is unaffordable, saving is impossible.
 
The holy grail of Tory policy is some replica of the 1980 “Right to Buy” council houses, a scheme credited in Conservative lore with turning swaths of working-class Labour voters into proudly propertied Thatcherites. There is a reverential nod to that legacy in “Help to Buy”, Osborne’s scheme to boost home ownership with government- backed mortgages.
 
It is a pitiful tribute – its main impact is likely to be inflating prices, putting a house even further beyond the reach of families on low incomes. The intention is that new houses will be developed to meet the demand stoked by cheaper credit. That only works if there is somewhere to build. Since the greatest need is in the south-east, that means pouring more concrete into Tory backyards.
 
MPs for leafy constituencies say they are mired in frenzied local battles over new developments. The government’s efforts to relax planning regulations earlier this year provoked backbench fury. With Ukip poised to mop up Tory discontent, No 10 is sensitive to the charge of spraying bricks and mortar indiscriminately across the party’s electoral heartland. Once fracking is added to the mix, Cameron and Osborne are easily depicted in a conspiracy against all that is green and pleasant in England.
 
This is more than just a spot of local difficulty for the Conservatives. It is an existential challenge. For all the veneration of Thatcher, the Tories are miles away from repeating the Iron Lady’s record of throwing open the doors of stuffy Conservatism to new recruits.
 
The party has been captured by those who already have everything they need and whose main demand from politics is to be left to enjoy it in peace. Privately, senior Tories concede that many of their most stalwart supporters have been relatively untroubled by the economic turbulence of recent years. To the retired officer in his Kentish conservatory or the Surrey banker commuting into the City, it hardly felt like there was a crisis at all – at least, until Osborne’s diggers appeared at the bottom of the garden.
 
Those who avoided the pain are also very receptive to premature declarations (mostly by comfortably housed, well-paid commentators) that the ordeal is over, that lefty bleating about cuts was overblown and that normal service has been resumed. What they mean is that, for the lucky few, normal service was never really interrupted.
 
Yet elsewhere in Britain millions of people are being priced out of the middle-class dream. If they see Cameron taking the side of the minority who dodged the recession, they will feel priced out of ever being Tory voters, too.
Placards at the entrance of a drill site in Balcombe. Photo: Getty

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 12 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What if JFK had lived?

Show Hide image

Meet Anne Marie Waters - the Ukip politician too extreme for Nigel Farage

In January 2016, Waters launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). 

There are few people in British political life who can be attacked from the left by Nigel Farage. Yet that is where Anne Marie Waters has found herself. And by the end of September she could well be the new leader of Ukip, a party almost synonymous with its beer-swilling, chain-smoking former leader.

Waters’s political journey is a curious one. She started out on the political left, but like Oswald Mosley before her, has since veered dramatically to the right. That, however, is where the similarities end. Waters is Irish, agnostic, a lesbian and a self-proclaimed feminist.

But it is her politics – rather than who she is – that have caused a stir among Ukip’s old guard. Former leader Paul Nuttall has said that her views make him “uncomfortable” while Farage has claimed Ukip is “finished” if, under her leadership, it becomes an anti-Islam party.

In her rhetoric, Waters echoes groups such as the English Defence League (EDL) and Britain First. She has called Islam “evil” and her leadership manifesto claims that the religion has turned Britain into a “fearful and censorious society”. Waters wants the banning of the burqa, the closure of all sharia councils and a temporary freeze on all immigration.

She started life in Dublin before moving to Germany in her teens to work as an au pair. Waters also lived in the Netherlands before returning to Britain to study journalism at Nottingham Trent University, graduating in 2003. She subsequently gained a second degree in law. It was then, she says, that she first learnt about Islam, which she claims treats women “like absolute dirt”. Now 39, Waters is a full-time campaigner who lives in Essex with her two dogs and her partner who is an accountant.

Waters’s first spell of serious activism was with the campaign group One Law for All, a secularist organisation fronted by the Iranian feminist and human rights activist Maryam Namazie. Waters resigned in November 2013 after four years with the organisation. According to Namazie, Waters left due to political disagreements over whether the group should collaborate with members of far-right groups.

In April 2014, Waters founded Sharia Watch UK and, in January 2016, she launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). The group was established as a British chapter of the German-based organisation and was set up to counter what it called the “Islamisation of our countries”. By the summer of 2016, it had petered out.

Waters twice stood unsuccessfully to become a Labour parliamentary candidate. Today, she says she could not back Labour due to its “betrayal of women” and “betrayal of the country” over Islam. After joining Ukip in 2014, she first ran for political office in the Lambeth council election, where she finished in ninth place. At the 2015 general election, Waters stood as the party’s candidate in Lewisham East, finishing third with 9.1 per cent of the vote. She was chosen to stand again in the 2016 London Assembly elections but was deselected after her role in Pegida UK became public. Waters was also prevented from standing in Lewisham East at the 2017 general election after Ukip’s then-leader Nuttall publicly intervened.

The current favourite of the 11 candidates standing to succeed Nuttall is deputy leader Peter Whittle, with Waters in second. Some had hoped the party’s top brass would ban her from standing but last week its national executive approved her campaign.

Due to an expected low turnout, the leadership contest is unpredictable. Last November, Nuttall was elected with just 9,622 votes. More than 1,000 new members reportedly joined Ukip in a two-week period earlier this year, prompting fears of far-right entryism.

Mike Hookem MEP has resigned as Ukip’s deputy whip over Waters’ candidacy, saying he would not “turn a blind eye” to extremism. By contrast, chief whip, MEP Stuart Agnew, is a supporter and has likened her to Joan of Arc. Waters is also working closely on her campaign with Jack Buckby, a former BNP activist and one of the few candidates to run against Labour in the by-election for Jo Cox’s former seat of Batley and Spen. Robinson is another backer.

Peculiarly for someone running to be the leader of a party, Waters does not appear to relish public attention. “I’m not a limelight person,” she recently told the Times. “I don’t like being phoned all the time.”

The journalist Jamie Bartlett, who was invited to the initial launch of Pegida UK in Luton in 2015, said of Waters: “She failed to remember the date of the demo. Her head lolled, her words were slurred, and she appeared to almost fall asleep while Tommy [Robinson] was speaking. After 10 minutes it all ground to an uneasy halt.”

In an age when authenticity is everything, it would be a mistake to underestimate yet another unconventional politician. But perhaps British Muslims shouldn’t panic about Anne Marie Waters just yet.

James Bloodworth is editor of Left Foot Forward

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear