The shifting sands of British tribal loyalties
Nick Cohen detects a seismic electoral change based on identity, age and education
This article was taken from the September issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.
In his biting The Shortest History of England (out later this year) James Hawes states a truth that is no less obvious because hardly anyone else mentions it. “The UK had been founded by and for a united elite. Nobody had ever asked the peoples.” As soon as they did in the 1880s, the country split on tribal as well as class lines. Northern England, which the Romans had thought barely worth conquering, was harried by the Normans, enjoyed a brief moment of equality after the industrial revolution, and much of which is now, according to the Economist, at the wrong end of the largest gap between rich and poor regions in the developed world, broke with the south. The Irish, Scots and Welsh used the vote to make nationalist demands, openly or implicitly.
The electoral maps of England before and after the 1884 Representation of the People Act make the point starkly. They are close to unrecognisable. When both liberals and conservatives appealed to the same group of elite voters the Liberal Party could win all over the country. When the franchise was extended to 60 per cent of adult men — not democracy by any means but more democratic than anything England had known — and the Liberals under Gladstone became more radical, borders sprang up.
In the general election of 1885 a virtually impregnable Tory bloc in the Home Counties and south of England appeared. From then on, first the Liberals and then Labour could win only by mobilising northern English resentment in alliance with the Celtic nations and then fight for what seats they could win in the south. In 1906, 1945, 1966, 1997 and 2001 they produced anti-Conservative landslides. These were the exceptions, however. Conservative rule was the rule.
The new tribal identities are the result of two vast changes: mass immigration and mass university education
You can challenge this analysis. Labour and the Conservatives were both British parties that opposed Scottish, English and Welsh nationalism. Anti-Catholic feeling kept Liverpool and much of Lancashire Conservative well into the twentieth century. The Conservatives took 50 per cent of votes in Scotland in 1955. I could go on, but the hard truth remained that without Scotland, Wales and the north believing that they were on the same side, there was little prospect of removing the Conservatives from power.
You may disapprove of regional loyalties too. Voting, hating and thinking on party lines because it is what my gang does is contemptible. Supposedly serious people should make rational choices, not holler along with their tribe. But the existence of regional and nationalist feeling at the birth of British democracy ought to warn you against believing that identity politics began at some point in the 2010s. Southern English, northern English, Scottish, Welsh, Irish, Anglican, Catholic and nonconformist identities determined politics long before our current convulsions. When I canvassed working-class northern neighbourhoods for Labour in the 1980s men told me they voted Labour because their ancestors had always voted Labour.
“And how will your wife vote?” I added.
“She’ll vote as I tell her.”
The modern dictionary of political debate appears to have no entry for “individual”, but then it rarely did. Today your skin colour or sexuality is assumed to be your essence and to deny that is to not only betray yourself but your group. The hatred directed at leftists who query trans rights or conservatives who decry Brexit is as much tribal as rational. You were one of us, and now you have betrayed us. The focus of identity politics has changed, that is all, but it is a seismic change that once again appears to put the liberal-left at a structural disadvantage.
At first glance, the electoral map of 2015 was not so different from 1885. Conservative support was concentrated in the south. But Scotland was no longer a part of a unified anti-Tory alliance. Nationalists, who brazenly claimed that criticism of their many political failures proved their critics were not true Scots, had swept Labour away. In a sign of what was to come, David Cameron won by saying Labour would ally with the SNP to form a government, and used English nationalism and anti-Scottish resentment to secure a narrow victory. Inevitably, he also bolstered Scottish nationalism.
Get to the 2019 election and we are in a new country. The SNPs still dominated Scotland. But now the Conservatives looked like the English National Party. They were not only winning across the south outside London, as was traditional, but the promise of freedom from Brussels brought them gains in the north-east, north-west and much of Wales.
White school leavers need a strong state to protect them, but they are now in alliance with Tories who want a small state
The old divisions are being replaced by new and as apparently unshakeable tribal identities. They are the result of two vast changes: mass immigration and mass university education. Brexitland (out this month from CUP), by Maria Sobolewska and Robert Ford, of the University of Manchester, two of the most acute political scientists around, shows a future dominated by uneasy alliances. On the right, traditional conservatives and school-leavers from the white working class. On the left, liberal and often ultra-liberal graduates and ethnic minorities.
The best way to distil the mountain of evidence the authors present is to imagine a 70-year-old and her 18-year-old granddaughter voting in the 2019 election. The pensioner would have grown up in an overwhelming white Britain where only the educational elite enjoyed higher education. In the early 1960s, 4 per cent of school-leavers went on to higher education; by 2019, the proportion was 50 per cent of those aged between 17 and 30. Sobolewska and Ford are wary of characterising white school leavers as racists. They prefer “ethno-nationalist”: there is “us”, the English, who define themselves against “them”: immigrants, the politically correct and Brussels.
For Scottish nationalists there is an alternative. The “us” are the Scots who define themselves against the English and Westminster. Sobolewska and Ford’s own charts of statistics make the line between racist and ethno-nationalist appear a distinction without a difference. Older generations consistently express stronger support for an ethnically exclusive national identity, for example, and opposition to ethnic minority in-laws. White school-leavers of all ages are much more likely than white graduates to agree that birth and ancestry are very important markers of “being British” and to agree that those who do not share British culture and traditions can never be “truly British”. But let us stick with “ethno-nationalist” for politeness sake, and acknowledge that white school-leavers are quite right to see their world as under threat.
Now virtually all good careers are closed to people like them, without a degree. They can turn on a British TV channel or watch a British film and find their world is not acknowledged or when it is, shown to be as much of a relic as the exhibits on The Antiques Roadshow. They are on the wrong end of social transformation that is taking Britain along with the rest of the West from being a country of school-leavers to a country of graduates. The loss of the dominant status hurts. Life feels a zero-sum game where new groups can only benefit at their expense. Small wonder the politics of nostalgia embodied in the slogans “Make America Great Again or “Take Back Control” appeals.
They need a strong state to protect them. But they are now in alliance with City conservatives and southern Tories who want a small state and low taxes. The Covid crisis has hidden the tensions in England’s new nationalist party. Perhaps like the SNP they will be able to use identity politics to gloss over them. Nationalists have been able to hide their shameful failure to help Scotland’s deprived young by acting as if all attempts to make a better life for poorer Scots can be ignored until the great question of independence is settled. The only way for Boris Johnson to hold his coalition together, it seems to me, is to fight his own nationalist kulturkampf and rally all those who are uneasy with modernity to his banner.
To 18-year-olds voting for the first time the modern world feels normal. Racial diversity was the world they had grown up in and “going to uni” was just what you did. By 2019, any teenager with ambition thought it was natural to leave home, family, friends and neighbourhood and spend their formative years in a monoculture of other ambitious and uprooted young people. At university they would imbibe the dominant ideology of globalisation: individual choice, internationalism and liberalism, even though their chances of joining the global elite have become ever slimmer.
Racism has ensured that black social conservatives will stick with Labour pretty much under any circumstances
Unlike in every other developed nation, nearly all of them will go to study in a new town or city to study. The result is mass internal migrations. New students move to start university, and new graduates move again in search of work. Both migrations increase the segregation of Britain by age and educational levels as the young leave the small towns and countryside behind and settle either in the cities where they studied or, of course, London.
The liberal identity politics that education and geographical concentration bring can be every bit as dogmatic as white working-class conservatism. There is “us” — the racially just, the forces of progress, the exemplars of virtue — and there is “them” — the bigots, the gammons, the Karens. Ethnic minorities have good reasons to ally with people who stigmatise prejudice. They experience racism and, naturally, support anti-racists. Their willingness to do so should silence those who think that racism doesn’t exist in Britain, or we are the most anti-racist society on earth or whatever other self-congratulatory guff we produce to kid ourselves. For if it wasn’t for white racism, the majority of voters in ethnic minorities would find they are not natural leftists.
Here is a test for you. What is the most socially conservative city in the land? Where is the capital of British “bigotry”? If you subscribe to the notion that prejudice is buried deepest in the southern middle class, you might pick Guildford or Bath. If you think northern Brexit supporters are thick racists you might go for Doncaster or Sunderland. In fact, the supposed secular Babylon of London is more religious and socially conservative than the rest of Britain. London has the highest level of prayer and religious attendance, a study by the Christian think tank Theos found earlier this year.
Mass immigration has made it the most pious city in the country, with a vertiginous gap between believers and secularists. Londoners are nearly twice as likely as the rest of the country to say sex before marriage is at least sometimes wrong (24 per cent compared to 13 per cent), and are more likely to say the same about same-sex relationships (29 per cent against 23 per cent). On assisted suicide in the case of an incurable illness, 38 per cent of Londoners says it is at least sometimes wrong, compared with 27 per cent outside the capital.
I can see the new divisions around me. If I walk just a few hundred yards from my London home, I reach what was once a magnificent art-deco cinema that declined into a down-at-heel bingo hall for white working-class women. It has now been refurbished to something like its former glory and turned into a black church that attracts a large and eager congregation. Its theology is fundamentalist and Pentecostal: conservative in both lay and religious terms. But its congregation presents no danger to the local Labour MP. Racism has ensured that black social conservatives will stick with Labour pretty much under any circumstances.
As long as the liberal left focuses on racial justice and for as long as conservatives mobilise against migrants and minority groups, ethnic minorities have a strong incentive to align with the liberal-left, even though their views on many matters may not be remotely liberal or left.
Across the road is a rundown pub where I sometimes see a white working-class guy I’ve known for years. Once, he and men like him might have been the stalwarts of the Labour and union movements. The last time I met him was when I was covering a demonstration against Islamism. Go north a few hundred yards and you are in a neighbourhood stuffed with grand houses that routinely sell for £2 million or more. The uniformly white residents are not uniformly Conservative. They do not follow their class interests because Brexit and Conservative culture offends them, but then so would the sermons in the church if they ever heard them. It’s probably best for their peace of mind that they never do.
Identity politics is dispiriting, not only because it denies individuality but because it denies reality
The generalisations you make when you discuss the new identity politics must be questioned as toughly as the generalisations about the old identity politics. There is no regular polling on how ethnic minorities vote. All we know is that the “BAME” label (Black and Minority Ethnic) does not just deny individuality but absurdly lumps together people from wildly different groups. Anecdotally, people of Indian and Sikh heritage are said to behave far more like traditional swing voters, but as I said there’s no hard evidence.
The alliance between the left and ethnic minorities also depends on whether the left regards your minority with approval. Under Corbyn, it repelled Jews, and there are hints the left could turn on British Indians because of Kashmir and the descendants of Idi Amin’s ethnic cleansing in Uganda for prospering in Britain. Likewise, to speak of the post-Brexit white working class like some Telegraph columnist is to miss the complexity. Young white working-class voters were as likely to vote Remain as young voters everywhere.
Yet when all the qualifications have been made the broad lines of a new identity politics remain visible. They present immense problems for Labour and may yet disturb the nationalists north and south of the Tweed.
Labour’s difficulties are obvious. It did as badly in southern England in 2019 as it has done in the past, and is now losing traditional northern and Welsh seats. The alliance of liberal graduates and ethnic minorities concentrates support in the cities and university towns, leaving much of the rest of England and Wales open to the Tories. Sobolewska and Ford identify 123 socially conservative seats in England and Wales where the 2011 census recorded 26 per cent or more local residents with no qualifications, less than 15 per cent from ethnic minorities and less than 10 per cent studying in further education.
They include Welsh valley constituencies such as Rhondda and Cynon Valley, and northern English seats like Bolsover, Ashfield, Rotherham and Wigan. Labour’s support declined by 10 per cent on average from 2005-10. It rose a little between 2010 and 2015, although Ukip did well too. Come 2019 and traditional seats were going or gone. Meanwhile in Scotland Labour has been terribly led and appears unable to challenge the SNP.
What should Labour do? If it bends towards socially conservative English nationalism, it will alienate Scottish voters and many in the liberal graduate class, who are primed to turn against politicians who cross any one of their innumerable red lines. If it bends towards Scottish nationalism, it will infuriate English nationalists but not, surprisingly, liberal graduates who regard Scottish nationalists with an unwarranted tenderness. If Labour suggests it can form a governing pact at Westminster with the SNP, the Conservatives can do at the next election what Cameron did to it in 2015.
Yet the Conservative Party of 2020 is not David Cameron’s party. It is a party of the old today — age is now a more reliable guide to how people vote than class. The young regard it with such distaste that even a Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn would have won in England in 2019 if the franchise had been confined to the under-fifties. The tactic of holding together its ungainly coalition by ramping up the culture war is not without risks. The more it tries to cling on to populist voters the greater the risk it will alienate middle-class moderates.
They voted for Johnson because of fear of Corbyn, but could be led away by a Labour leader who appealed to them — like Keir Starmer, who may have noticed that in the US the group that has withdrawn its support from the Republicans most decisively is college-educated women.
Identity politics is dispiriting, not only because it denies individuality but because it denies reality. In its twenty-first century variant it is as if it exists to fulfil the grim vision Matthew Arnold saw on Dover Beach in 1867:
“And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.”
Today’s ignorant armies are meant to stay loyal, whatever defeats their generals lead them to or whatever sufferings their ideologies impose. Experience never impinges. The tribes stay together united by their prejudices and beliefs. People’s economic wellbeing, their concern for their families and their wider hopes of justice are sacrificed on the altars of the tribe’s gormless gods. If nothing else, our crisis-ridden age will put that theory to the test. The Johnson administration landed Britain with the highest Covid death rate in the rich world.
Recession is already upon us, and depression may follow. A hard break with the EU will come in January. The SNP is proposing an exit from the UK that will make Brexit appear a gentle hiccup in comparison. Perhaps today’s identities will emerge unscathed from the fire. I can’t say they won’t. But I hope they don’t.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe