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It’s beginning to feel like 1997 again

The last time Tories lost middle-class bastions like Tunbridge Wells, they were wiped out.

By Fergus Butler-Gallie

WS Gilbert once joked that “Basingstoke” was a word “teeming with hidden meaning”. To be at the receiving end of quips and stereotypes is the price that a particular type of town in the south of England (as well as, perhaps, Harrogate) pays for quiet respectability.

Perhaps no town has endured this trial quite as extensively as Tunbridge Wells. The one time spa resort nestles on the border between Kent and East Sussex: a setting too Betjemanesque even for Betjeman. That poet of a particular England did write about Tunbridge Wells, but only once, and reverently, rendering it almost a religious site, a mark of how perfectly it encapsulated his vision of a crinoline England:

Tunbridge Wells on a Lord’s Day morning
Rung from rest by the gospel bells
Climbs to light through the mist adorning
Towers and steeples of Tunbridge Wells.

So it remains in the imagination. The town more than any other which is a byword, the spiritual centre, for a polite, fussy and above all conservative England. It is Lourdes for bridge players, a Mecca of the blue-rinsed. Tunbridge Wells is English conservatism’s Sinai.

The town found fame when Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I, visited before and after the birth of the future Charles II. Modern conservatism might now struggle to make any reasonable link to its primordial Royalist-Tory state, but the link in Tunbridge Wells, where a mural of Henrietta Maria and Queen Anne adorns the station platform where passengers alight from the down train, is clear. Indeed the town became a shrine to causes and trends that it embraced just as they went out of fashion elsewhere and then clung to longer than anyone else. Spinsterhood, Anglo Catholicism, links to the Raj and other half-remembered totems of an English 20th-century past – all thrived in this corner of Kent. It was unsurprising then that Tunbridge Wells became a totem in and of itself: for conservatism, both small and big C.

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In some ways there is a reality to the semi-mythical past. The last time I visited a gaggle of men of a certain age watched and dozed while the cricket square on the common was laboriously rolled. At the newsagents in the Pantiles – still complete with large jars of sugared almonds and chocolate limes behind the counter, stocking pipe tobacco but no flavoured vapes – the Times and Daily Mail were sold out by lunchtime. The Guardian sat yellowing in the Kentish sun.

[See also: What could go wrong for Keir Starmer?]

But, inevitably, myth only takes us so far towards the truth of the town today. Tunbridge Wells doesn’t feel like a living museum. Today the town’s tourism website advertises “Brunch” as one of the primary attractions of visiting, speaking of new uses for the old problems of leisure and disposable income. Little creeping signs of a softer, more millennial modernity thrive amid the white clapboard – an artisanal stove shop which proclaims from a large poster, “Don’t be ashamed of your story it will inspire others”, that sort of thing. The spring that gave the town its fame and name is sandwiched next to a jazzy branch of the Futon company and an independent business offering luxury handmade collars for dogs. Impressive middle aged women still promenade, but in Lulu Lemon, not petticoats. Nor do they, it appears, vote Conservative any more.

As of the local elections on 4 May, the largest party on the council is those carrion crows of gentrification: the Lib Dems. Their candidate for the next Westminster election – Mike Martin, a charismatic former army officer – told me that the answer to Lib Dem success lies partly in the fact that the town is undergoing “a demographic change”. Rather than being the bastion of dowagerdom of old, the population is “connected, internationalist, educated, professional”. Just over a third of people here own their houses, Martin said, and, crucially, over 1,000 people a year move to the town from London.

On one level, it was ever thus. Tunbridge Wells has always been the preferred location in this part of Kent for fugitives from Metroland proper. It has always had a slight hint of London glitz – to me, growing up in another part of the county, with agricultural Tenterden or the railway town of Ashford as my metropolises, it seemed distinctly glamorous, courtesy of those who were “down from Town”. In the past, these London escapees voted Tory in Putney, Wandsworth or Primrose Hill. When they landed in Kent they brought their voting habits with them, and further secured the Tories’ fortress. The difference today is that they don’t vote Tory in London, and the country air is no longer capable of changing that.

Certainly the Tories have been punished here at the local elections: In 2019 they became the second party, behind the Lib Dems. This year wasn’t quite such the jamboree for the Liberal Democrats as 2019. Incumbency comes with its challenges and they won one seat but lost another, but they still did better than the Tories, who only managed to hang on to two of their four seats up for re-election. The real winners were the Tunbridge Wells Alliance, a gaggle of development sceptic independents who promise, loudly, to listen to residents. Still, worryingly for the Conservatives at Westminster, the last time a similar level of Tory discontent in “Sunny Tunny” occurred, once again with the Lib Dems running the council, it was the mid 1990s, just before the great chastisement of 1997.

Martin, therefore, was ebullient about the chances of turning the seat yellow (or rather “gold” as he gently corrected me) next year. It has been done before – by a millionaire tobacconist in the Liberal landslide of 1906 who was promptly replaced by a Tory again four years later. Martin was adamant the changes to the makeup of Tunbridge Wells make a Liberal win – tellingly, he said, people still call the party by its traditional name, just as, for many behind the brightly whitewashed doors of the Pantiles, Labour are still “the Socialists” – a more likely prospect.

This is partly a reflection of the more naturally liberal leanings of the demographically changed town: “economic confidence and social liberalism” are the watchwords for the residents of the new Tunbridge Wells, Martin assured me. Back in the ancient days of the Cameron era such priorities would have made these voters natural Tories. But it is also about values, especially in the town’s politer outskirts and out into the Wealden villages that pepper the Downs nearby. Respect for institutions runs high here – yes, the armed forces, the Church of England and the Crown but also, increasingly, the judiciary, the BBC and the NHS. On none of those fronts is the Conservative Party quite what it used to be: its relations with all six are, arguably, worse than they were 20 years ago. Martin hears a regular refrain on the doorsteps of these more naturally Tory areas: “We haven’t changed but they have.”

So there is, it seems, still an innate conservatism to this part of Kent. It just expresses itself in a different way. Could the fulminating colonels of old simply have metamorphosed? There is the “B” word factor, after all. Tunbridge Wells was the only borough in Kent to vote Remain in the Brexit referendum. It has always been a bastion of middle-class orthodoxy and that, as most polling shows, now only swings one way after the fracture of 2016. After all, the pro-EU lobby that is adamant that the Blue Wall will change colour is proportionately as old and monied as any veteran of the Indian Civil Service was likely to have been, and at least as angry at the direction the country is taking as any retired air commodore of the mid 20th century. Martin assures me that Brexit almost never comes up on the doorstep. Instead, he said, “it’s about honesty”. Conservatively inclined people are, shock horror, quite keen on moral probity.

Rishi Sunak is, Martin conceded, making up some ground and the good reputation of the local MP, Greg Clark, who had the whip removed by Boris Johnson, will go a long way at the next general election. Yet it would be hard to undervalue how damaging the Johnson and Truss adventures were to the governing party’s electoral brand here. After all, Tunbridge Wells is conservative. After 13 years in government, the extent to which the party that bears that name can still claim to be so remains to be seen.

[See also: Could disgruntled Tories really topple Rishi Sunak?]

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