The UK’s self-image must change post-Brexit – but to what?
By rights, the Conservative Party should have disappeared a long time ago. On the wrong side of the Reform debate before 1832, their opponents dominated the middle of the nineteenth century. That was in no small part down to divisions within the Tories but was also because the Liberals had a better vision to sell to a rapidly industrialising and urbanising Britain and to its newly enfranchised electorate. As the vote was distributed wider and wider – and hence further and further down the social scale – you’d think that a party of landed privilege would be left behind.
Instead, from Disraeli on, the Conservatives have been consistently better than its opponents at selling their vision of the concept of Britain to its voters and giving those voters a stake (even if at times only a perceived stake) in that vision. From the benign but mighty imperial force of Disraeli and Salisbury, spreading prosperity at home and civilisation abroad, to the Thatcherite revolution of a property-owning democracy freed from the shackles of the man in the ministry, electoral success has ridden not just on the back of effective government, important though that is, or off the fortune of splits in the opposition, though that too helped on several occasions, but on winning the battle of ideas as to what it means to be British.
That battle matters now more than usually. We are living in an era where the concepts of self-image matter to an unusual extent, and not just in Britain. Barack Obama won in 2008 by appealing to the light side of the concept of America: ‘yes, we can’. He appealed to the idea of a free nation that built itself into a global superpower by its own hard work, overcoming innumerable obstacles in its manifest destiny to bring peace as the world’s last great hope. Trump won eight years later by tapping into the reverse of that same exceptionalism, of a nation whose great and peculiar values and institutions were under threat from malign forces, foreign and domestic and which needed protecting.
These identities may be exaggerations of a partial truth – ones which turns a blind eye to inconvenient evidence or history – but they have enough truth in them to be believable to those who want to believe. And who doesn’t want to believe in something?
Which brings us to a problem facing the Conservative Party of today: it doesn’t have a clear vision of what Britain’s identity is, whereas Labour does. That’s not to say it doesn’t have policies or values – it does – nor even that May doesn’t have an underlying philosophy: again, she does and it’s one that she implied on the steps of Number Ten when she first became PM although it’s notable that she spent much most time in that speech identifying problems to fix – she will always be a pragmatic and practical politician.
Where, however, do the Conservatives find an image of Britain to sell to the country? As with everything political at the moment, the issue returns to Brexit. That Brexit must be delivered is a political necessity but the type of Brexit and the enthusiasm with which it is delivered remain unanswered questions – hence the difficulty the government has had in formulating a policy – because ultimately, it hasn’t settled on what it means to be a modern Britain in today’s world and today’s Europe outside of the European Union. Does it, as Andrew Adonis alleges, take up UKIP’s rose-tinted view of some golden age gone? No, it doesn’t and it hasn’t and his caricature of the Conservatives is one that many Ultra Remainers seem happy to project onto the Conservatives merely for having the temerity to do what the electorate told them to. But if UKIP’s language and image of Britain is rejected, how do the Conservatives come up with a convincing post-Brexit national vision which allies to the practical consideration of putting together an election-winning coalition of voters?
Against which, Labour does have a national story to tell; one of a country where ordinary people have been sold out to the interests of the rich and powerful. As a critique, it’s one of opposition rather than government and, as such, will not be easy to translate into positive change in government. It will be much easier to destroy that which is opposed than to successfully fill the voids created. Indeed, it shares more with Trump than Obama on that score. All the same, that’s a problem for after Labour forms a government. In the meantime, stagnant real wages, rising debt and falling home-ownership are legitimate hooks on which to hang a narrative of a country which is not delivering returns for working people.
Perhaps we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. The next election isn’t due for well over four years and a lot will happen in that time. The shape of Brexit will be known and will probably have been delivered. That alone will limit the choices available to parties, as well as enabling leaders – particularly those in government – to spend more time on domestic bread-and-butter matters. Still, for all that individual policies and people matter, the values and visions they tie into and promote matter more. Theresa May would do well to articulate much more clearly her vision of Britain for the 2020s and beyond – or if she can’t do that, she needs to think about where the limitations of the Brexit process will leave her and make a virtue of that outcome before it happens anyway.
p.s. Thanks to Southam Observer for a comment which acted as the spur to this article.