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Conservatism’s America problem

The British right is buying into a failed US culture war

Artillery Row

They say smoking a cigarette shortens your lifespan by seven minutes. Very occasionally, I will come across a piece of content on the internet that makes me want to take up the habit on the grounds that seven minutes might not be a lot, but at least it’s a start.

In a mercifully short video posted recently to Twitter, Laurence Fox — the leader of the Reclaim Party and a man who by accident of birth is believed to be someone important — showed his objection to Pride month by burning pride flags in his back garden. It was a powerful statement, though perhaps more on the effects that transitioning from enthusiastic amateur to full-time moron can have on a person, rather than the importance of “triggering progressives”.

Reform’s plan to stand in every constituency is expected to win exactly zero seats

The video raised questions, not just around whether Fox’s frontal lobe has gone on the fritz. Reclaim has formed an electoral pact with Reform, the other alternative right-wing party led by Richard Tice for the upcoming by-elections. This will mean, as actor Hugh Osbourne joked, “Reform UK will stand aside and let Reclaim lose its deposit in Uxbridge, whilst Reclaim will stand aside and let Reform UK lose its deposit in Mid-Bedfordshire.” Is this the best, most able politician that either of Britain’s right-wing alternative parties can muster for an important by-election in the former Prime Minister’s seat?

Both Reform and Reclaim are predicated on the idea that a Canadian-style “right replacement” is possible in the UK. It’s been predicted for long enough: almost a decade ago, in Revolt on the Right, Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin warned that the Conservative Party was “vulnerable to a rebellion on its Right flank amongst specific groups of voters who both main parties had lost sight of: working-class, non-graduate, culturally conservative, older Britons”.

These are their target voters, “Workington Man”. A huge swathe of them propelled Boris Johnson into power but, disillusioned with the Conservatives, they are now leaving the party almost as swiftly as they joined. This is a large driving factor in the collapse of the Conservatives in the polls; the latest MRP projection puts the party at 84 seats. That is just over half of the number of seats they had after Tony Blair’s landslide, but, still more shockingly, 72 fewer than the 156 seats they won in 1906 — the worst Conservative loss in history (so far).

As I have written previously in these august pages, the Tory collapse is more of a thin simmer than a rolling boil. Most of the voters have been lost to “Don’t Know”, not to Labour:

Though the Conservatives have leaked votes these haven’t returned to Labour, whose vote is only 15 per cent higher than it was at the last election. Fewer than one in ten 2019 Tory voters have gone red again, effectively a reversal of the shift in voters from Labour to Conservative between the 2017 and 2019 election.

A historic collapse in the Conservative vote, mass disillusionment with establishment politics — it’s difficult to think of more favourable conditions for alternative right-wing parties. How, then, do they stand to capitalise on it all?

The answer is almost laughable: Reform’s national polling numbers haven’t yet broken into double figures, and its plan to stand in every constituency is expected to win exactly zero seats. Fox will be lucky to get his deposit back at the upcoming Uxbridge by-election. With such a poor return on the cards, it’s not quite clear what its intended purpose is. At the press conference where Reform announced that a staggering seven former Brexit Party MEPs were joining the party, David Maddox from the Daily Express tried to clarify its goals, asking, “Is the aim here to destroy the Conservative Party, or replace the Conservative Party?”

The truth is that it isn’t capable of either. John Oxley has correctly labelled Reform “a populist party that doesn’t know what’s popular”, but its lack of cut-through points to a more fundamental problem. Without any real idea of what to say to their supposed base, both parties are simply performing camera-conscious conservativism. They have become, for want of a better adjective, America-brained.

Politics in both Britain and America has undergone a seismic shift over the last few decades: the death of right vs left wing. Politics based on this economic left/right axis — grounded in the 19th and 20th century concept of people’s relationship to the means of production — has been replaced by a new dividing line, drawn more along people’s relationship to the effects of globalisation. This has left social conservatives interested in prioritising the interests of the nation-state on one side, with more cosmopolitan, social progressives on the other — the lines along which David Goodhart drew his “Somewheres vs Anywheres”.

The British alternative right is proceeding down the same lines as MAGA Republicans

The rise in populist parties across Europe was a paroxysm of this underlying change in political alignment, a rejection of an establishment that “Somewheres” felt couldn’t distinguish between its own interests and the common good, and a settlement that no longer — indeed, has never — worked for them.

Similar discontents in Britain were channelled, largely thanks to the difficulty our electoral system poses to smaller parties, first into the European Referendum and then the semi-populist figure of Boris Johnson. A similar sense of dissatisfaction powered the Trump movement. His ability to win over the Midwest (which Republicans hadn’t carried since Reagan) and traditionally Democrat working-class voters awakened a huge range of people to the potential power of this new constituency.

Following Trump’s victory, a multitude of conservative activists with previously conventional Republican platforms rebranded themselves as “MAGA” Republicans. There is a tendency in the American right to absorb new trends and ideological directions by reducing new constituencies into “cultural tropes”, however, whilst continuing on an unaltered path of consensus conservativism. This meant that figures and organisations like the Conservative Political Action Conference, Turning Point USA and now Trump-sceptic Ben Shapiro did so without deviating from traditional Republican platforms or beliefs.

As Gladden Pappin explains, sticking a new label on the same old product meant that, by last year’s midterms, most MAGA voices were no longer connecting to the constituency that delivered Trump to office: “pro-working-class politics had been transformed into messaging campaigns based, as it were, on caricatures of lower-class whites. Many of these simply repurpose the caricatures drawn by establishment and left-wing commentators, in the immediate aftermath of 2016, to explain white working-class votes for Trump as ressentiment, or racist anger over white men’s having lost cultural ascendancy as well as their jobs.”

Unable to understand their new base and unwilling to reshape policy from the conventional Republican platform to create an ideologically coherent appeal to the Trump base, MAGA Republicans make increasing noise around the 2020 election result and “politically toothless gestures against cultural left-liberalism”. The British alternative right is proceeding down the same lines as MAGA Republicans, packaging reheated Thatcherite economics with mindlessly rehashed, unconnected talking points that have little public salience: the WEF, “common sense coal”, taxing working from home, the “woke brigade in California” and Fox’s flag burning.

The effects of this reductionism were evident in last year’s US midterms, in which Trump-backed candidates performed notably poorly. As Reform and Reclaim are ably demonstrating, there are few votes in incoherent messaging based on individual issues here either. Incoherence is a dangerous game to play in politics — it makes it more difficult to develop a narrative, which voters thrive on. As Robert Cialdini writes, “people don’t counter-argue stories … if you want to be successful in a post-fact world, you do it by presenting accounts, narratives, stories and images and metaphors”.

The huge block of disillusioned voters show the desire for a new politics is strong in Britain. The door is so open to a new right wing party that it’s practically been taken off its hinges. The inability of either Reclaim or Reform to capitalise on this situation is a reflection of the fact that their alternate offering is actually no such thing — it’s merely camera-conscious conservatism, imported from America, that parrots caricatures of cultural grievances.

Thank God there are so few votes in flag burning.

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