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The closing of the conservative mind: Towards a new left conservatism

Why the democratic nation is coming apart

Countries are like families: they bequeath to us an inheritance of culture and language that names us and gives us a place in the world. Nationhood is the basis of democracy and the means by which people can come together to achieve self-determination. A country’s economy is shared, albeit unequally. And it is the means of uniting ethnic and cultural differences in a common life and history. Millions of citizens view the nation as providing their territorial security and sense of belonging.

The democratic nation is one of the great achievements of Western modernity. But today many citizens do not believe they have democratic representation, nor that they share in the prosperity of their country. They no longer feel sheltered from the forces of globalisation – disease, tumultuous flows of capital, Islamist terrorism, climate change, the movement of uprooted refugees and large-scale immigration. These trends transgress national borders and threaten the stability of communities.

This sense of insecurity has been heightened by the restructuring of class and economy within Western national territories by state policy and global market forces. The idea of citizenship as rights balanced by obligations to shared norms and rules has been usurped by the oligarchies of global finance. The new dynasties of wealth have no loyalty to country nor common good. Globalisation has lifted hundreds of millions of the world’s poor out of poverty. But in Western market economies it has resulted in labour-intensive manufacturing moving offshore. The local economies of industrial and provincial regions have collapsed and whole communities have been made redundant. New technologies have dispossessed the working class of reliable, secure work and its political representation and mutual organisations have been devastated.

In contrast globalisation has turned metropolitan cities into citadels of wealth (though with areas of great poverty too). Great surges of inward investment have generated the transformational forces of immigration, gentrification and commercial property development. Here a professional and managerial class has expanded with the growth of higher education and the knowledge, media and communications industries. Its status is derived from its cognitive power and its control of education and culture. In politics it is the class of the EU-supporting centre left and centre right. The rise of the digital economy and networked society has created an alliance between its progressive opinions and corporate power.

The banking crash of 2008 followed by the eurozone crisis intensified these class and regional inequalities. The austerity imposed by governments to counter budget deficits impoverished millions. Britain paid a heavy price. Only Greece, Ireland and Spain suffered worse austerity. By July 2015 chancellor George Osborne claimed to have cut £98bn in annual spending. Within national territories the new social geography of class power revealed a cultural divide that amounts to people living different kinds of lives almost entirely estranged from one another. Traditional political allegiances are breaking down. The democratic nation is coming apart.

The decline of the democratic nation

In Britain the political crisis of the democratic nation begins with the decline of an organised industrial working class. In The Rise and Fall of the British Nation (2018), David Edgerton describes how a British nationalism flourished between 1945 and the 1970s as the country was rebuilt after the Second World War. He associates this period with an “unusually strong” labour movement and the integration of the working class into the democratic system. Back then Labour was, in effect, a nationalist party. Its 1945 and 1950 manifestos were national programmes of economic development.

The British national economy became one of the three great capitalisms of the world during the 1960s. But Edgerton argues that from 1979 onwards it became ever-less important. A different economy emerged that returned to the cosmopolitanism and free trade of the Edwardian era. The German political theorist Wolfgang Streeck, writing in the Turkish Efil Journal last year, traces a similar decline of democratic capitalism. The 1980s was a period in which capitalism was freed from national government and national democracy. The result was the global liberalisation of domestic political economies and national policymaking. Capitalism now governed states. The impact, argues Streeck, has been national disintegration. “Markets had been embedded in states, now states came to be embedded in markets.”

When global markets were unleashed in the UK, old-style British capitalism was the casualty. The gentlemanly codes of the City of London were destroyed by a culture of greed. By 2000, the economic assets of the national economy, ranging from Premier League football clubs to ports and airports, to essential utilities such as water and gas companies, had been sold off to foreign owners. Unlike other OECD countries, the British government had relinquished democratic leverage over national economic development.

The experience in Britain was more extreme than elsewhere, but not unique. The liberal market ideology of the international economy treated national sovereignty as an obstacle to economic freedom. Global supply chains transformed economic and political international relations. “What drives global trade,” writes Adam Tooze in Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World (2018), “are not the relationships between national economies but multinational corporations co-ordinating far-flung ‘value chains’.”

For four decades a political consensus supported opening up national markets and integrating them into increasingly global markets. Globalisation promoted the corporation over the nation state and the market over democracy. The redistributive capacity of the nation state was diminished and the political realm of democratic nations weakened. Economic policymaking became evermore detached from politics. Society was treated as if it were an abstract space. In the words of Pierre Manent, it was occupied by “the unlimited rights of individual particularity”.

The new liberal market economy gave rise to a trans-partisan elite. Its right wing controlled the economy and its left wing controlled much of the wider culture. The idea of the national seemed anathema to “progress”. Claims of tradition and history, the meaningfulness of the past and of a cultural inheritance, and the local and communal affiliations that hold nations together, were dismissed as reactionary obstructions to newcomers and market forces.

Globalisation was a form of liberalisation. In combination with new information and communication technologies, the automation of work, high levels of immigration and governments’ laissez-faire attitude towards social integration, it eroded the ties that bind the people of a nation to one another. The seismic shocks of the banking crisis and its long, painful aftermath travelled along the new cultural and political fault lines of Western democracies, destabilising what were already deeply inequitable, often brittle societies.


It’s a London thing: Labour is increasingly a party of the metropolitan liberal middle class

Two nations

The American writer Michael Lind describes the United States as divided into two kinds of society and economy. The first is based in the large multi-ethnic global cities, which provide luxury services and producer services for industries such as finance, insurance, marketing and consulting. The cities are characterised by social liberalism and a caste system of extreme wealth alongside a largely immigrant, impoverished, service class. The second kind lies in the less economically stratified regions outside the cities. Here the economy is made up of goods-producing industries, factories, farms and mass-provision services. In these low density areas a radically different society has formed that is more conservative, native-born and white.

In France, Christophe Guilluy, a geographer and academic associated with the left, identifies a similar development. Two significant trends have led to the economic and cultural relegation of what he calls “peripheral France”. First, the geography of employment has been reconstructed. Workers no longer live where employment is created. And second, the concentration of property development in metropolitan centres has accumulated wealth and assets in the cities. Here live what Guilluy calls the habitués of “higher France”, a new liberal, bohemian class combining the elites and professions that captures most of the benefits of free trade and offshore production. Like Lind, he argues that the globalised metropolises have become the new “citadels” of the 21st century. A new kind of centre-left bourgeoisie has taken power. In the name of modernity, openness and even equality, writes Guilluy, “wealth, jobs, and political and economic power have been unobtrusively seized”.

Across democratic nations the elites and professional middle class in the metropolitan cities increasingly live a life detached from most of the rest of the country. The provinces, the “peripheral” spaces within cities, the urban hinterlands and ex-industrial regions have reacted against this concentration of cultural, economic and political power. The governing classes are accused of abandoning them to global capital and failing to safeguard national sovereignty. Protest is not principally organised around economic injustice and redistribution but in the name of local cultures and national democratic self-determination.

Many on the left accuse so-called populist voters of isolationism, xenophobia and of being nostalgic. They want to turn an open society into a closed one, it is said. But the argument is self-serving and deceitful. Populism erupts when sections of the population feel themselves unrecognised and excluded from political representation. Their target is “the elites” who exercise their power in the name of an open society, but who in fact monopolise the top of a socially immobile society. The new elites are largely protected from economic disruption and the social tensions of multi-ethnic communities by their wealth and class-segregated schooling. Their social liberalism disguises their class power and their social domination over minority ethnic groups who live alongside them in parallel cultures and extremes of economic and racial inequality.

Social democracy has become associated with the liberal culture of individualism, globalisation and the form of life of the new bourgeois class. It has ceased to stand for work, and it has stopped believing in the nation as a force for good. Centre-left parties are retreating into the cities and university towns that have become their political strongholds. Across Europe liberal social democracy is being routed (though there are signs of revival in Denmark, as well as in Spain and Portugal).

What the peripheral spaces, ex-industrial areas and provincial regions share are strong local bonds of community at risk from the loss of old ways of life. People fear the destruction of meaning and purpose in their lives. Their reaction is giving shape to a politics that is radical in standing for economic justice and redistribution, and conservative in yearning for a common culture and more, not less, national democratic sovereignty. The left has lost its connection to them and a radical right takes advantage with its stories of ethnic loss and white identity.

The recovery of the democratic nation

In Britain the urban hinterlands, small cities, towns and coastal and rural areas have been neglected. Austerity has hit these areas hard. Meanwhile, London has distanced itself from the rest of the country and it is in the wealthy metropolitan south-east that Labour’s political power increasingly resides. Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell, Keir Starmer, Diane Abbott and Emily Thornberry are all London MPs.

Long before Corbyn’s election as leader, Labour had lost its role as the party of the nation, hence its collapse in Scotland. As it struggled to adjust to the liberal economic order, it became a more Whiggish party with a cosmopolitan world-view. Its core vote consists of public sector workers, minority ethnic groups and the metropolitan, liberal middle classes. In 2010, under Gordon Brown, Labour lost the general election because growing numbers of lower-middle-class and working-class voters in the English towns and provinces viewed the liberal economic settlement as neither in their interest nor in the national interest.

Now the tectonic plates are shifting under the liberal market settlement of the last four decades. Its trans-partisan centrist politics is redundant. The 2016 European referendum was a confrontation between two incompatible interests of capital and democracy. Remain emphasised the economy, Leave national sovereignty. Each has become a political identity among large numbers of voters, creating a class cultural conflict whose fault lines cut across both major political parties. Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party is a product of this discordance. It is threatening the Conservatives and seeks to drive a wedge between Labour and its ex-industrial working-class heartlands.

Neither the Conservatives nor Labour appear capable of reinventing themselves. The ground is slipping away beneath them in an expression of longer-term demographic and sociological changes. Psephological evidence since 2010 has shown that an electoral majority in England can be built on a paradoxical politics that is radical on the economy, and conservative on national security, defence, and social and cultural issues. The Brexit Party’s Thatcherite constitution and pursuit of a small state is precisely the wrong politics. But Labour is being captured by the progressive politics and interests of the professional classes, with their obsession with identity liberalism. Can the party rebuild its coalition by telling a compelling story about England and the development of a national economy? To do so it will need to be both radical and conservative, and resolve this paradox in a recovery of the democratic nation. 

Jonathan Rutherford is a writer and a co-founder of Blue Labour

This article appears in the 28 June 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Restraining order