Will the UK Tories choose common interest or fear?
Samuel Johnson, the 18th century Englishman of letters, is well known for saying that “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel”. Perhaps he would not have been surprised that more than 230 years later his warning against rank populism would still warrant keen attention in the United Kingdom.
Over the past few days, the Conservatives have been meeting for their annual party conference, where the speeches have been full of ideology rather than policy. In years to come, prime minister Theresa May’s speech may be identified as a watershed moment in modern Conservative party history and, possibly, as a deeply disturbing change in politics.
On the one hand, Mrs May’s speech identifies a very real issue. Far too many of the “Remain” camp in the UK – those opposed to the UK leaving the European Union – were certain of the referendum in June going their way. Far too many of those same people were taken by surprise by the final result.
The reality, as we know, is very different and even if the objective reality is that the EU is good for the UK, the reality is that more Britons disagreed with that notion than those who agreed. That disconnect is what allowed the “Leave” camp to pounce.
In the aftermath of the referendum, many “remainers” are analysing why more Britons voted to leave than to remain. They should stop their scrutiny. Too much of the “Remain” camp made the mistake of thinking that if the London elite thought that “Leave” was a terrible option, then surely the rest of the country would as well. Of course, when it came to the rest of England and to Wales, that simply wasn’t the case.
So, in that regard, Mrs May was correct to point out that many in the UK felt neglected, and her promise to use the state to intercede for the benefit of the working class isn’t unwelcome. Politics is very often an elite affair, but when it becomes almost entirely focused on elite concerns, the bubble that politicians live in bears little resemblance to the world of their constituents. In that regard, it is regrettable that the prime minister delivered that promise in the midst of a deeply populist speech, which described the Brexit referendum as a “quiet revolution”.
Revolutions can be good or bad, but a revolution born from fake promises – where politicians fearmongered about the vulnerable in society while trading on bigotry, where the likes of the UK Independence Party are leading the charge – is hardly a revolution that the respectable centre should be lauding.
Brexit cannot be escaped – it was the choice of the majority of those who voted – but if this is “a time for change”, as Mrs May put it, then it is the time to correct Britain’s parochialism, not pander to it.
And, alas, that is precisely what several speeches at the Conservative party conference did. Attacks were made on “left-wing human rights lawyers”, who had carried out the insufferable crime of taking the state to court, fuelling nationalist sentiment by demanding that businesses list what proportion of their workers are immigrants. Rhetoric such as this can often be heard in the world.
But it is usually from ultranationalist parties in weak countries that see foreigners as threats and hordes. It is usually heard from authoritarian leaders who do not want to admit that strong societies are those where the weakest citizen can hold the strongest one to account. It isn’t the sort of rhetoric befitting the ruling party of the UK.
And in a country that is still in a phase of transition after Brexit, Britons needed to hear more on policy, particularly on the economy, and how the government would take steps to ameliorate the impact of leaving the European Union, particularly as it seems they are now, regrettably, consigned to leaving the single market.
And lest we forget, Mrs May wasn’t popularly elected as prime minister – but she is prime minister, and with the lack of effective opposition in the UK, her job is even more important.
Samuel Johnson has another, less known quote about patriotism, that bears repeating: “A patriot is he whose public conduct is regulated by one single motive, the love of his country; who, as an agent in parliament, has, for himself, neither hope nor fear, neither kindness nor resentment, but refers every thing to the common interest.”
The Conservative government has the opportunity to focus everything on that common interest. Or it can choose the easy, populist route, which plays on fear and resentment. The choice it makes will have repercussions for the UK for many years to come.
Dr HA Hellyer is a senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington and the Royal United Services Institute in London
On Twitter: @hahellyer