Democracy triumphed in December’s election, but Scotland remains a significant Tory dilemma
On the Monday before the referendum on whether or not the United Kingdom would leave the European Union— June 20, 2016—Arron Banks, the main financial backer of Leave.EU, gave me lunch at his club in Mayfair; his two other guests were his business partner, Andy Wigmore, and Nigel Farage. The other three were far from assured that the plebiscite would vote to leave, so the mood was not entirely buoyant. I dissented: purely from conversations I had had while campaigning since the vote was called the previous February, I thought the coalition of Left and Right against our continued membership was formidable, and was hardening as the vote came nearer.
Banks, not one to be defeated, observed that if I was wrong the following Friday would be the first day of the campaign for another referendum. I told him I thought that would be a bad idea: and Farage agreed. He said he would simply leave public life if the vote went against him: and we convinced Banks that Leavers would look at worst like sore losers, and at best anti-democratic, if they started a new campaign having just lost one.
Had we known how ruthlessly our defeated opponents would seek to overturn or ignore what, three days later, turned out to be the Leave victory, I suspect we would all have been much less Sir Henry Newbolt (“Play up! play up! and play the game!”) about it. In the campaign for last December’s election the anti-democratic position became formalised. Those who propounded it were annihilated.
‘For the British, the best sort of patriotism includes a commitment to democracy, and love of country at its best is a love of liberty’
There are lessons in all of this for the political class, if they choose to learn them. The first, to use the language of political pundits and undergraduate politics students, is that the British people believe in democracy; and those who attempt to violate that value will be treated firmly. Value is the apt term to describe it; for what has also emerged from recent events is that, for the British, the best sort of patriotism includes a commitment to democracy, and that love of country at its best is a love of liberty.
The second lesson, to use the language of the saloon bar, is that the British people—particularly the much-reviled people of England—won’t have the piss taken out of them. That was precisely what many people thought the EU had been doing to Britain for years; and they thought it was anti-democratic, especially when it insisted on policies, such as free movement of people, that the Island Race found inimical to its own freedoms.
Because the forces of democracy in Britain commanded less attention from the broadcast media, and almost no sympathy from its main personalities, hardly anyone realised what a thrashing the anti-democrats would get in the election. Once it was administered, the resulting triumph was more than just the Conservative Party’s: it was the triumph of democracy itself over those who, in this instance, had regarded it as troublesome and subversive of the established order.
Even the most avid Remainers should take some comfort from the election result. The government is more geographically and socially diverse in its support than it has been at any time since Margaret Thatcher’s landslide in 1983. The Tories, especially in the era of Cameron and Osborne, looked like a party of entitled toffs with trust funds that appealed to sectional metropolitan interests and principally to the affluent. No-one can accuse this Conservative Party of having a sectional class interest; and the inclusion in the parliamentary party and in the government of so many women and members of ethnic minorities is simply more evidence of democracy properly at work.
It is perhaps right to be sceptical about the prime minister’s sudden embracing of one-nation Toryism; it seems to mean simply the spending of more money, to which Sajid Javid (if he survives the expected reshuffle) might seek to apply the brakes. But there is no doubt that not since 1979, and possibly not even then, has there been a parliamentary Conservative party that is so representative of the country. The Labour party may snipe about Old Etonians in the cabinet, but among those newly elected Tories are many who have enjoyed few privileges in their lives, and were therefore comprehensible and attractive to people who would normally have voted Labour.
For example, Mark Fletcher, who unseated 87-year old Dennis Skinner in Bolsover, went to a comprehensive school. His grandfather was a miner. Nearly three-fifths of Tory MPs went to a state school, compared with just over half in 2015. Jacob Young, the new 26-year old MP for Redcar, was due to do a Christmas Day shift at a chemical works where he has worked since leaving school. He turned up for it in order not to let his “mates” down. Even the most hardened leftist will struggle to make class war against such people.
The party may still be the only home for old Tory buffers, but it is for many more besides. It will retain the confidence of the public who put it in power only by keeping its promises to them, starting with the formalisation of Brexit. It will have to ensure that the NHS receives its proper resources, implement constitutional reforms (such as scrapping the iniquitous Fixed Term Parliaments Act), that something is done about social care, and encourage investment and economic growth in areas that have just voted Conservative for, in some cases, the first time in living memory.
The profound difficulty is that the election that reaffirmed the supremacy of democracy has also divided the United Kingdom. Does the democratic will of the Scottish people, who returned 48 Nationalist MPs out of a possible 59, outweigh that of the decisive plebiscite of 2014, or the view of the Parliament of the Union. In deciding whether or not to allow the Scots a second poll, the new Conservative government knows it has a reputation for upholding democracy that it must maintain. This will be far harder than dealing with the rights and wrongs of Brexit.