The year is 2033; the location is the site of the old Free Trade Hall in Manchester, which stands on the ground where the battle for liberal economics was won in 1846. It was a fight that split the British Conservative Party in two. But this day in 2033 it is the scene of a new contest. A riot is breaking out between the less well-educated and the discontented, who have been left out of social progress, and those whose better education has made them the winners in life’s marketplace.
That is the imaginary ending of Michael Young’s 1958 dystopia, The Rise of the Meritocracy, which is cited as a prophecy in “Brahmin Left versus Merchant Right”, a new working paper for the World Inequality Lab by Amory Gethin, Clara Martínez-Toledano and Thomas Piketty. Education, they argue much as Young did before them, has transformed politics. With a sweep of 21 established democracies (the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and western Europe) and data that span 300 elections since 1948, the World Inequality Lab authors have plotted and charted the political changes of our times.
They find that Young was almost right. Education counts but it is the left, rather than the right, which is becoming the party of the schooled. Between the 1960s and the 1980s, mainstream conservative parties drew their support from those who had a relatively higher income and a relatively higher education. By 2020, the core conservative vote resided among the less well-educated. The division is seen most conspicuously in those multiparty systems in which green and anti-immigration parties have flourished. The graduate population cleaves to the greens. Anti-immigration sentiment tends to be strongest among those with fewer, or no, qualifications.
The left in Europe has dissolved into fits of anguish and self-examination over a change in the currency of politics, from class allegiance to cultural attitude. Yet the political right is being transformed too. To be a conservative was never a matter of strict doctrine. It was always, to use Michael Oakeshott’s description, more of a disposition than a dogma. That flexibility has allowed parties of the moderate right to adapt better to global changes than parties of the moderate left. It has certainly been a successful strategy. Of the 19 general elections in Britain since 1951, the Conservative Party has won 12. The French Fifth Republic has hosted 11 presidential elections since it opened in 1958 and the political right has won seven of them. In Germany, the CDU has won 16 of the 19 elections for the chancellery since 1949. In the United States, of the 46 men who have been elected president, up to and including Joe Biden, 19 have identified as Republicans and a further seven, though formally unaffiliated, were conservatives in all but name.
Yet conservative parties have not been left untouched by political change. They may have adapted but that adaptation has not been without cost: the principal cost is that conservatism is being defined by its more extreme components. On 12 May the US congresswoman Liz Cheney was recalled from her post as the third-ranking Republican in the House of Representatives, and is now the poster girl for the nativist scream that has drowned out the sensible voices in her party.
In Australia the change in the leadership of the Liberal-National Party from Malcolm Turnbull to Scott Morrison was a significant shift to the right. As an immigration minister, Morrison won his popularity with an anti-refugee “Stop the Boats” policy. He governs with the active connivance and support of Pentecostal Christians who oppose same-sex marriage, immigration and the welfare state. In parliament Morrison proudly waved a piece of coal to show what he thinks about climate change.
In the multiparty electoral systems of Europe, formerly dominant conservative parties have yielded ground to the right. Everywhere politics is trying to deal with what Tony Judt called “one long scream of resentment” and everywhere the pivotal question is immigration. The reverberations began in February 2000 when Jorg Haider’s far-right Freedom Party of Austria entered the government. Its nasty rallying cry has become sadly common: to be against Überfremdung (over-foreignisation). Today, the National Front has replaced the Republicans as the repository of the right in France.
In the fragmentary politics of Italy, Matteo Salvini’s Lega party, which runs on an expressly anti-immigration, anti-Islamic, anti-EU ticket, has been in the government for years. In Spain the hard nationalist Vox party won 52 seats in Congress in 2019 on an explicit programme of vehement opposition to immigration, a desire to repeal legislation protecting women from violence, and a distaste for permissive attitudes towards abortion and same sex marriage. The conservative People’s Party has been dragged into these arguments with it.
In Germany the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) entered the federal parliament for the first time in 2017, though it has been losing support in recent months. Angela Merkel, who has held mainstream conservatism almost alone, refused to do business with the AfD, but there is no question that its success led to a hardening of the CDU’s stance on immigration. Nativist parties have been part of ruling coalitions in Denmark, Finland and the Netherlands.
One part of the case for a mainstream conservative party has always been that it can absorb, and therefore neutralise, some of the egregious elements on the fringe of every nation’s politics. The data from the World Inequality Lab, which tracks the winners and losers from the flows of global capital, show that this is not working any longer. In electoral systems that grant smaller parties easy representation, there is a sense among voters that they might as well get the real thing. As Marine Le Pen once said of Nicolas Sarkozy’s attempt to mimic her hostility to immigration, “now the river has returned to its own bed”. Le Pen won 10 million votes in the 2017 presidential run-off and she is level-pegging with President Macron in the polls with the 2022 contest looming.
The two countries that do not quite fit the pattern of western Europe are the US and the UK. It may be that the US is the harbinger for the change to come. In Europe conservative parties still recruit the bulk of their vote from the relatively well-off. By 2016 there was little difference in the income level of the average Democrat or Republican voter; income was no guide to allegiance at all. By 2020 the top 10 per cent of earners were more likely to be Democrats than Republicans. The shift to conservative attitudes, rather than a self-assessment of material interest, has gone full tilt in the Republican Party already.
The Conservative Party is not far behind. Go back to the 1951 UK general election, won by Winston Churchill. If at the time you had known the income and the occupational status of a voter, you would have been able to predict who they voted for. By 2019 the predictive power of social class had disappeared entirely. Somewhere hidden in his surface clowning, Boris Johnson has absorbed this point and responded to it. To anyone schooled in the more doctrinal left, the British Conservative Party can seem versatile to the point of emptiness. It is a party that has gone from a split over free trade in 1846 to late-Victorian imperial preference, to tariff protectionism under Stanley Baldwin, to rampant free-market capitalism under Margaret Thatcher, to a departure from the single market she helped to create.
In a way, Johnson has cheerfully cast aside everything that defined Tory governments for the past half a century. The party of business elevated sovereignty over economic interest. The party of the market insisted on leaving the largest free trade area in the world. The party of law and order raged against the judiciary and was cavalier even about its own compliance with the law.
Johnson’s brand of conservatism might be best understood as an English Gaullism. Serge Bernstein’s definition of Gaullism – neither left nor right, affirming sovereignty over the nostrums of class, a strong state and exceptionalism in foreign policy – sounds much like Johnson’s peculiar adaptation of conservatism. The closest to the usual tradition you can get is to say he is responding to circumstances that, as Edmund Burke wrote in Reflections on the Revolution in France, “give in reality to every political principle its distinguishing colour and discriminating effect”.
The distinguishing colour of British conservatism today is an alarming prospect for the left. It would have been impossible to imagine, a few years ago in the midst of George Osborne’s austerity programme, that a Tory chancellor would have been spending money freely in pursuit of an objective that despite its clunky name – levelling up – is a rebranded version of regional equality. Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, recently unveiled Great British Railways, which will bring back to the centre much of the control that was lost with the botched Tory rail privatisation. The Conservative Party has rarely been shy of using state power – Lord Shaftesbury’s Factory Acts of the 1840s and Benjamin Disraeli’s social reforms in the 1870s both commandeered great state power – but there is nothing in the recent vintage of the party that is at all like this. It is no wonder that the Labour Party is finding this Conservative government hard to counter. It has an objective – equality – with which Labour agrees and it is deploying a method – heavy spending and state intervention – that the Labour Party likes to think of as its own.
That is not to say that the fiscal conservatives have entirely disappeared. The Chancellor Rishi Sunak, despite what he is doing, likes to say he is one of the few fiscal conservatives left. The likes of Liz Truss and Dominic Raab have heritages of impeccable economic liberalism. Many of the Tory backbenchers are watching on rather puzzled as their government directs money to places other than the prosperous rural counties they represent. The fault line of the Conservative Party is still there. Yet for the moment the contradiction is being resolved on the side of state direction. That is because there is no appetite in the constituencies in the north of England and the Midlands for the market forces that have brought their towns to the pass they find themselves in today.
This insecurity is the mood of the time and it is something to which the Conservative Party has adapted. The tensions in the party have not gone away though, and there is danger lurking in the promise that the party is making. At least some part of the energy that fuelled the Brexit vote, and the migration of voters from Labour to Tory, was a frightened suspicion of change, a hope that security and comfort can come back into focus as they were in the good old days. It is a fond hope now, as it always is.
Conservative parties, unburdened by too much intellectual baggage, are responding to a request from their electorates to turn back the clock. But the structural forces that are changing the populations in the established democracies will be more powerful than the conservative desire to resist them. When it becomes clear that conservative parties have failed to stop the clock, the fear is that the immoderate right will be on hand to try a lot harder.
[see also: Tony Blair: Without total change Labour will die]
This article appears in the 26 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The new Toryism