The Brexit Election?

“Our enemy is illiberalism, but the worst traitors to the cause of liberty often go by the name of liberals”

Manchester Square
COVER ILLUSTRATION BY MICHAEL DALEY

Where is the front line of the West? If anywhere, it is here in Greenwich, where Standpoint has moved to Pepys House at the invitation of our friend and contributor, Patrick Heren. Here, Greenwich Mean Time set the international standard until 1972. The Greenwich Meridian is where time and space, the occidental and oriental hemispheres, meet at Longitude Zero. Here, at the Royal Observatory, the heavens were first accurately mapped three centuries ago by John Flamsteed, the first Astronomer Royal. Here, a thousand years ago, St Alfege, the Anglo-Saxon Archbishop of Canterbury, was martyred by Viking raiders. The site is marked by Nicholas Hawksmoor’s great classical basilica, restored after the Blitz, which replaced the medieval church where Henry VIII was baptised. Nearby in Deptford Christopher Marlowe was murdered; here too Tsar Peter the Great studied the naval shipyards. The Royal Navy, which had been restored after its humiliation by the Dutch by the diarist Samuel Pepys, was a decisive factor in the rise of the Anglosphere. Greenwich is both the geographical boundary and a unique symbol of the West. A magazine which defends Western civilisation cannot but feel at home in Greenwich.

That civilisation, meanwhile, is as embattled as ever. Its enemy is illiberalism, but the worst traitors to the cause of liberty often go by the name of liberals. The Liberal Democrats, for example, see nothing wrong in the self-hatred of the cultural elite that one of our contributors, the late Kenneth Minogue, describes in one of the essays collected in On Liberty and Its Enemies, edited by Timothy Fuller (Encounter Books, £21.80): “Western civilisation is technically prodigious [they suppose] but has failed to overcome prejudice, superstition (e.g. religion), bigotry, racism, imperialism, national selfishness, and other such evils from which only the wisdom of international organisations can save us.”

Among those who subscribe to this ideology are members of the faction who now seek to reverse last year’s referendum on the EU. They include former prime ministers: most prominently Tony Blair and his Institute for Global Change, but also David Cameron, who has embarrassed his successor by suggesting that the Tories must win the election “so that Theresa can . . . stand up to the people who want an extreme Brexit”. Behind the scenes, however, is a well-funded group calling itself Best for Britain, which supports pro-Remain candidates. Its supporters include Sir Richard Branson, who recently entertained Barack Obama at his Caribbean tax haven and who is worth £4.8 billion; Clive Cowdery, the insurance magnate and founder of the Resolution Foundation, which owns Prospect magazine; Gina Miller, the businesswoman whose legal action at the Supreme Court forced the government to allow a vote on Article 50; and the financier Stephen Peel. Best for Britain is officially registered at 11 Manchester Square, where Standpoint had its office for the past decade. This column will preserve its title as a mark of continuity.

Gina Miller spelt out their aims in a lachrymose piece of demagogy last month, threatening to punish an “inflexible”, “harsh”, “close-minded” and “robotic” Theresa May by mounting a campaign to urge tactical voting against Brexiteers. Given the wealth of its backers, Best for Britain could have a substantial impact on key marginals. Whether this is in the spirit of the spending rules laid down by the Electoral Commission has yet to be tested. This is the first time that Britain has witnessed anything like the American “super PACs”, committees that can raise unlimited sums to campaign in US elections, far outstripping the spending limits imposed on political parties.

The Prime Minister has made this the Brexit election, but Jeremy Corbyn seems determined to change the subject. Labour’s manifesto sets out a Five Year Plan for Socialism in One Country — ours. Mr Corbyn could never even have envisaged such a programme without Brexit, but he hopes the public will forget Europe in favour of class warfare. Polls suggest that nationalising railways and energy is popular, as is taxing the rich and banning zero-hours contracts.

Chuka Umunna (who, in the event of a Tory landslide, is Mr Corbyn’s most likely successor) has tried to steer the party back towards the “soft Brexit” line, fearing that otherwise Labour will abandon floating Remainers to the Lib Dems. But Labour’s Dear Leader — who has already cost the party dear — is determined to fight the election as if the Berlin Wall had never fallen. As weapons of mass destruction proliferate around the globe, Mr Corbyn’s unilateralism remains stuck in a groove. At Chatham House he spoke dismissively last month about the Atlantic alliance and the war on terror. The last 40 years might as well not have happened.

As for Theresa May, she is so much more popular than the Conservative Party that she can appeal to parts of the country that some of her Tory predecessors may never have heard of. Her studied vagueness on policy and refusal to debate on TV have drawn media criticism, but if the public trusts her, why should she make Mr Cameron’s mistake of giving hostages to fortune? There is something else. Mrs May has a hinterland: the Anglican liturgy, which informs her concern for such issues as suppressing the modern slave trade. Mr Corbyn would no more invoke the God of Israel than he would sing the national anthem. Mrs May is serious about reuniting a divided country; Mr Corbyn is in earnest when calling for punitive taxes on those earning £80,000 or more. The nation has its clearest choice for a generation. Let us hope that the voters of the present have learnt enough from the past not to blight the future.