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10 February

Criticise Lee Anderson – but don’t be anti-northern

His reactionary views are distorting perceptions of the Red Wall.

By Sam Bright

No civilised society should be prepared to execute criminals. Not only does the death penalty fail to deter crime, it is an authoritarian overreach of state power. Yet the new deputy chair of the Conservative Party, Lee Anderson, expressed his support for it in an interview with the Spectator, conducted before his appointment. This flouts the UK’s democratic, liberal values and makes a mockery of the Tories’ supposed small-state convictions. 

Anderson is rightly being heavily criticised, but a chunk of this critique is misdirected – some voices on social media have claimed the views are indicative of a “neanderthal” mindset among northerners in England. Though some Tory MPs have been quoted as saying that he “talks to a part of the country no one else in the party does”, Anderson is not a prophet of left-behind Britain. He is a culture-war caricature – the latest in a long line of brash, hyperbolic figures who have distorted perceptions of post-industrial areas.

Anderson’s predecessors in this role were Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, who both claimed to speak for regional, working-class interests despite their southern, wealthy, privately educated upbringings. True, there is a silent majority in left-behind towns that are ignored by the establishment. But instead of genuinely representing these places, Farage stole the microphone and persuaded the press that he spoke for them, furnishing his fringe populism with a badge of popular authenticity.

Indeed, the Red Wall is not as regressive as Anderson, Farage and Johnson make it seem. As David Goodhart points out in his book, The Road to Somewhere (2017), most Brexit-inclined voters are in fact moderate: “decent populists”, as he calls them, who “have reservations about the drift of modern liberalism but are not, in the main, illiberal”.

In the latest British Social Attitudes survey, for example, a majority of people in the north and the Midlands (57 per cent and 56 per cent, respectively) are shown to either have “liberal” values or sit somewhere between liberal and authoritarian. The percentage in the south is only marginally higher, at 61 per cent. Economically, northerners are also more likely (61 per cent) to be left-wing than southerners (56 per cent).

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This is why the Conservative Party’s promotion of Ashfield’s fist-waving culture warrior is a politically stupid idea. Anderson will alienate southern, rural Remainers whose loyalty to the Conservatives is waning – and, without the binding ideology of Brexit, a project that is increasingly unpopular among those who supported it, his authoritarian rage will likewise repulse the decent populists of the Red Wall. 

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Sadly, however, Anderson’s remarks have activated pervasive anti-regional and anti-working-class sentiments. Social prejudice that lives on the intersection of class and region is deep-seated on these Isles, as those blessed with a regional accent will readily confirm. As Lauren White showed in 2020 – shockingly – even northern students at a northern university were subjected to this regional-class bigotry. This is why Anderson and his fellow caricatures have been able to get away with their act for so long. They have played the leading role in a pantomime that stubborn social prejudices have conditioned us all, even liberals, to swallow. 

Only by pulling off their disguise and by rejecting false depictions of post-industrial Britain, can we kick their reactionary campaign back into the 1950s where it belongs. 

[See also: What does Cameron think about the death penalty?]

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