‘Gentlemen, the Tory party, unless it is a national party, is nothing.’ —Benjamin Disraeli
In his final campaign in 1951, the Labour Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, concluded his speech to the Labour conference by quoting from the poet William Blake’s Jerusalem:
I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green and pleasant land.
While Attlee would go on to lose office to Winston Churchill in 1951—and Labour to be out of power for 13 years—it was Attlee’s Labour that built so much of the British state upon what Churchill’s wartime government (in which Attlee had served as Churchill’s deputy) created during the Second World War.
Clement Attlee and his Labour government had enlisted Britain in NATO, built a British atomic weapon, supported the free world’s causes in Greece and South Korea, and built much of the allied security and intelligence establishment that, to this day, spans the globe. Even Attlee’s worst critic would acknowledge the role played in the making of modern Britain by Clement Attlee and, also, by his foreign secretary, the former trade union leader Ernest Bevin, who Churchill considered the finest Labour man of his lifetime. As Margaret Thatcher would say of Attlee, ‘I was an admirer. He was a serious man and a patriot. He was all substance and no show.’ Attlee’s other creation—which, it should be noted, was supported by both the Conservatives and the Liberals (the NHS’ progenitor, Sir William Beveridge, was himself a Liberal)—was the National Health Service, which no British politician disturbs except at the risk of their own political life.
If Churchill and the spirit of defiance at Dunkirk and the Blitz hovers forever over the Conservative side of politics, putting into the shadows the stigma of Chamberlain’s appeasement, so, too, does the government of Major Attlee, a diffident solicitor and the brave and decent veteran of Gallipoli and the Western Front, who led a formally victorious Britain through the substance of an austere post war.
I mention Attlee, as well as Churchill, but I should, also, mention the former Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, one of the last Tory grandees. In their own way, all three men were the last truly British of the recent Prime Ministers: all had shared the formative experiences of the Great War’s trenches, all had been horrified by that war’s consequences and then the Depression’s effects on British society, each had held the most critical roles in Britain’s second war effort, and all were, crucially for our time, either profoundly opposed to Britain entangling itself in the European project or, in Macmillan’s case, was simply pretending to be enthused.
While, from 2019, these men may appear to us as ghosts from a distant past, the truth is that never have these three men and their legacies been more relevant than in the past three years since the Brexit referendum, or these past days, since the electoral earthquake of December 12th. To borrow from Sir Isaac Newton, if Boris Johnson has seen further into the electoral future than any other, it is because Johnson was willing to look back and thence stand on the shoulders of giants such as these three men.
Need it be said, the British were always the oddest of odd fits for the European project. The British had fought Napoleon, the Kaiser, and the Nazis, in long wars, and maintained a global empire on which, it was said, the sun never set. The European Union was, by stark contrast, a confederacy formed by the French and the Germans—the old enemies—and, with them, by those ‘nations’ who had been their historic conquests. The British had never surrendered to Paris and Berlin—and the British had, when confronted, over centuries, had always fought on against them, in Churchill’s words, ‘if necessary, alone’. The British understanding of itself was forged in dour defiance of continental enemies and their upheavals—a stalwart Tommy perpetually shakes his fist, defiantly, at the historic foe. Thus, in historic terms, the electoral issue, especially since 2016’s Leave vote, was always about the British nation, these ‘offshore islanders’, and their history, and future.
The 2019 general election was, thus, larger than any individual politician, and it was certainly not decided by any one person’s biography, even one as controversial as the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn. His colourful or subversive biography, depending on your politics, was well known in 2017, when Corbyn did very well in a British election in which he was, according to the conventional wisdom, unelectable. Everyone knew all about Corbyn the radical in 2017 and yet millions would still vote for Corbyn and his party. There was nothing to stop Corbyn doing similarly well in the 2019 general election.
No, what changed over the past two years was that both Conservatives and Labour parties changed. The Tories moved back towards their historic positions of support for the dutiful society and opposition to a ‘foreign’ European project, while Labour ceased deferring to the votes of its people, as Corbyn had seemed to promise in 2017, and instead allowed for ‘New Labour’ to snatch the party back and guide it to the preferred destination of the Blairite ‘third way’: Britain as just another star on the European flag. Somehow the party Corbyn seized in 2015 turned its back, again, on, not just the proud and electorally appealing Attlee tradition, but, on the issue of Europe itself, on Corbyn himself, to instead, again, become, for reasons which no serious person can articulate, the London party of Tony Blair.
From 2017 onwards, with, first, Theresa May and then Boris Johnson, the Conservatives, finally, turned their backs on the excesses of zombie Thatcherism and the liberal infiltrations of the 1980s, to return the Tories to where once they stood as a natural party of government for most Britons. Both May and Johnson are political animals—they are former student politicos not true believers—and they are not Churchills either. But they were both savvy enough to know that the old Tory philosophy—the ethos of Pitt and Wilberforce, who had resisted Napoleon and abolished the slave trade, and the ‘one nation’ Toryism of Disraeli, which had given the vote to the working man—was the one with the broadest historical appeal, and which, when campaigned on, had, before Heath, Thatcher and Europe, ensured a Conservative hegemony on the Commons Treasury benches. With the Whiggism of Thatcher and John Major exorcised, one could see the revival of the ‘Red Tory’ ideal, particular in May’s phrase, ‘We succeed or fail together’.
At the same time, the British parliamentary Labour party had changed, as well, and became a Remain party. Labour becoming a Remain party was, simply, a disaster, morally, as well as a disaster, electorally. The miners of Durham, for all their history and toil, could never, in the New Labour estimation, matter as much as the City’s donating classes, a calculation that, when made across the whole of the UK, would bring ruin at the ballot box.
When looking over Labour history, even the worst critic of Jeremy Corbyn would concede that his old Left predecessors, such as Hugh Gaitskell and Tony Benn, whatever else they were wrong about, were right to oppose British entry into and then membership of the European Economic Community and the European Union. Gaitskell recognised, rightly, that joining the European project would be the end of the substance of a British nation-state, while Benn, more plainly, saw the obvious problem posed by Britain joining any institution in which the British people could not rid themselves of their supposed governors. That the past three years of Brussels and Remainer obstructionism has seen their prophecies fulfilled is simply the most bitter of ironies.
So, by the time of the Westminster circus of Brexit obstruction and litigation in 2019, what one saw was a Tory party only growing in its appeal to middle Britain, while Labour progressively wedged itself into the dead-end of Remainerism. It is perhaps not surprising that Corbyn could not see the trap he had allowed his party to set for itself, thinking that approval on social media from the ‘Westminster Village’ would overcome the obvious demand, especially in Labour Leave areas, for British departure from the European Union. The victories of Nigel Farage’s Brexit party in May’s European election were an augury that the newly Remain Labour thought they could ignore. That Farage was winning support in the very same areas of Britain in which the Attlee legacy was and is most prized was as obvious a portent of electoral doom as it was purposively ignored by a clueless media.
The result of December 12’s electoral rebellion is the Tories have breached the northern ‘Red Wall’ and captured seats in northern Wales and England that have, before now, never, or almost never, been represented other than by Labour. This was not just an election but a rebellion against a political establishment that had spent over three years trying to deny the Brexit that 17.4m Britons (of all classes and backgrounds) had supported with their votes.
Boris Johnson’s Conservatives now have an overwhelming parliamentary majority and a renewed mandate—the third after the 2016 referendum and the Tories winning the 2017 general election on a Leave Platform—to take Britain, finally, out of the European Union. What British sovereignty was lost almost 50 years ago will now be recovered. The Conservatives’ challenge remains to re-unite the United Kingdom, to bind the wounds of the British union and, moreover, to ensure that Britain’s Celtic fringe, so alienated from a London elite and a financialised economy, feel their legitimate grievances will be addressed within the British union. As Disraeli, the founder of the modern Tory party, noted, rightly, ‘There is nothing mean, petty, or exclusive, about the real character of Toryism. It necessarily depends upon enlarged sympathies and noble aspirations, because it is essentially national.’
Taking a longer view, though, of the Tories’ future as a political movement, it is the case that, since at least the French Revolution, the raison d’être of conservatism throughout the English-speaking world was and remains to use the law and the state’s power to help conserve and hold the constituting society together. This is not just a matter of doing justice but recognising the reality that injustices unresolved and systems that are rigged merely sow the seeds of future disorder.
To that end, it is high time for Tories (not just in the UK but across the English-speaking world) to deplore, again, capitalism’s often wanton destruction of communities, and, in the words of an older Tory generation, to repudiate the unpleasant and unacceptable faces of capitalism. In short, it is long past time to drive the Whigs and their repellent perversions and selfishness out of the Right’s ranks. The Tory mission is, once again, to enforce the rule of law, ensure the security and solvency of the nation-state, and, again, tilt the culture and its mores in favour of what makes for a life of flourishing and virtue, as well as improve the lives of the broad working, middle and, especially, regional and rural classes. It is time for a Toryism of ‘us’ to replace the insidious Whiggism of ‘me’.
With the distance of a century, we can see that socialism has been tried and failed, and we should also admit, with the ‘post post-cold war’ ended, that liberalism, too, has been tried and failed. Among the English speaking peoples, especially, socialism and liberalism, in their avarice and secularity, are foreign creeds. Both were creeds of noisy but small minorities, seeking to use law and the state to implement their utopianism—whether of class war or individual indulgence—on families and communities wanting to control their own destinies and live their own lives.
In sum, the lesson of the last few years’ electoral convulsions is not Right or Left, or just insider versus outsider, but, more simply, that the nation matters more than liberal abstractions. All that the bipartisan embrace of liberalism—from Thatcher to Major to Blair to Brown to Cameron—had led to is societies that are coarse, and in a phrase, perennially in danger of ‘coming apart’. The problem is not resolved by more statism but by a sense of communitarian solidarity: the Biblical idea that we have duties as well as rights, obligations as well as freedoms, that we are fellow citizens of the res publica together, that we are, in fact, our sister’s and brother’s keeper.
It is fitting, then, to end, as I began, with Attlee’s recitation of Jerusalem. It would be hard to imagine any Labour leader, especially of the Blairite mold of covetous ‘third wayism’, knowing who William Blake was or what questions Blake asked in his poem, let alone following Attlee’s lead. The modern liberals’ questions are far more ‘rational’: what is ‘modern’? What is ‘progressive’? What will others think of us? Blake’s protest of two centuries ago against the destruction of traditional Britain by the industrial revolution seems almost quaint to the modern liberal, always keen to follow ‘progress’ wherever its zeitgeist leads, whatever the cost.
Yet Blake’s poem would, over the past century, become the national hymn sung by so many because it was popularised and put to music by Sir Hubert Parry in 1916 during the worst of the trauma of the Great War. Blake’s words, dismissed in his time, would become the British national hymn, sung in churches, schools, football grounds, and in far-flung theatres of war. The popularity and longevity of Blake’s hymn and its resolve to recover that which had been lost, speaks to an ancient British desire for ‘home’.
When this recent history and this seismic election, one century on from the Great War, was still the future, the old questions had always presented themselves before the British people: what is to be the British relationship with Europe? And how does one preserve the best and reform the worst of ‘Home’? Is there, after all, such a thing as a society, contra Thatcherism, and will there still be an independent nation-state, contra the Third Way?
For the foreseeable future, the first question has been answered by the electors, while the second one lies in the hands of the new parliament with a Conservative majority.
The last question—what of us?—remains the most interesting to ponder. Will the mental fights spoken of by Blake be betrayed for safe compromises? Will swords sleep in hands too timid to fight good fights? Will Jerusalem be built in green and pleasant lands? All of these eternal questions still await their answers.
Gray Connolly is a Sydney barrister and writer.