My home town of South Shield in the northeast of England last elected a Tory as its member of Parliament in 1834. Now the Conservative Party is likely to make historic gains in the national elections this week. Indeed, if that happens, it will be a testament to the rise of cultural identity and nationalism as a driving force in British politics in the modern era. As in the case of other countries, including the United States, it could mean rough waters ahead for the believers in free markets and open societies.
The Brexit saga has pushed nationalism and regionalism toward the fore in British politics. The neoliberal consensus that has guided British economic policy for the past three decades is now deeply unpopular. Jeremy Corbyn and his Labour Party have issued a radical socialist economic manifesto that is popular all across the country. Boris Johnson and his Conservative Party have countered with promises of an industrial strategy and higher government spending. Either of these paths would have been unthinkable nine years ago, but free markets today are under attack from all quarters.
Yet the populist economic manifesto of the Labour Party is unlikely to win over swing voters. It might lose ground across the northern heartlands, where the renationalization of industries favored by Corbyn is popular, as the chief concerns of swing voters have since shifted from the economy to cultural identity. Voters in the northern heartlands broke with Labour Party leaders and mostly choose to leave in the Brexit referendum. Voters there felt like the European Union had sucked away their opportunity and killed traditional industries such as fishing, and they resented how much wealth had gravitated to London. In many ways, they no longer identify with London as much as they never identified with the European Union.
This gives conservatives, who support Brexit, a major opportunity. In the Victorian era, the Tory Party talked about “one nation” conservatism, and it now seems to have reverted back to that principle, aided by the engaging personality of Johnson. As Paul Brand has reported from his conversations with northern Labour Party voters, they view Johnson as different from the Conservative Party they have long despised. His popularity there might outweigh the unpopularity of the Conservative Party in the heartlands.
The Conservative Party has sought to break with Thatcherite orthodoxies. Theresa May tried this with an industrial strategy and increased spending, but her instincts to balance the books led to some policies that seemed hard on older and rural people, who are natural Conservative Party voters. Johnson has now simply proposed much higher spending on the National Health Service and public services, while also canceling a tax break for corporations. Furthermore, the Conservative Party plans to restrict low skilled immigration after Brexit. This seems to be doing the trick so far.
The Labour Party has already seen its once stable coalition of northern working class voters, affluent educated urbanites, and ethnic minorities begin to fracture. As the northerners seep away, the Labour Party looks more and more like an alliance of London university lecturers and recent immigrants, further alienating the northern working class from its tent.
The bellwethers could be old coal mining towns like Sedgefield in County Durham. Like the rest of the County Durham coal fields, it has voted for the Labour Party since it began and was the safe seat occupied by Prime Minister Tony Blair. If it elects a Conservative Party member, or even if the result is close, that will almost certainly spell doom for the Labour Party.
The Liberal Democrats appear to have failed at establishing themselves as the “Remain Party” with the slogan “Bollocks to Brexit!” Voters who do not support Brexit have now largely rallied to the Labour Party, as the divide between the northern and southern coalition partners of the Labour Party grows even greater, while its leadership is already paralyzed over Brexit.
If the Labour Party avoids disaster in the British election, the country may be headed for another hung Parliament, along with more delays to Brexit that are likely to sharpen the identity divide further. If the Conservative Party wins, it will be deemed a victory for the soft form of nationalism and regionalism touted by Johnson. Either way, the British election presents a historic challenge to the defenders of free markets and open societies.
Iain Murray is a vice president at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. He was born in the United Kingdom then served in the British Civil Service.