A more skilful politician could have appealed to the big new Tory working-class group while also holding enough liberals from the Cameron era
Stephen Bush argued in the New Statesman recently, with back-handed flattery, that my analysis of British politics based around diverging value blocs – crudely, liberals versus social conservatives – led to the Tories’ poor election result.
Bush claims that by turning her back on David Cameron’s social liberalism, and playing so hard for Brexit voters, Theresa May ended up losing the small majority that she inherited from him.
There is something in this, but to make his point Bush has to caricature my theory and May’s rejection of social liberalism.
What is my theory? In my book The Road to Somewhere I talk about the “Anywhere” value bloc (about 25 per cent of the population) who tend to be well educated and mobile, value openness and autonomy and surf social change comfortably. On the other hand, there is a bigger “Somewhere” bloc (about half the population) who are more rooted and less well educated, value security and familiarity and group attachments, and find much about the modern world discomforting.
Bush describes Anywheres as “global citizens”. Such people, who might identify as European before British and have post-national, universalist values, do exist. They are the people May was aiming at when she said “if you are a citizen of the world you are a citizen of nowhere”, but they are, at most, five per cent of the population, a small sub-set of the broader liberal Anywhere bloc.
In her “citizen of the world” speech, May was not having a tilt at the wider liberalisation of British society represented by the Anywhere consensus, and accepted by most Somewheres too. Indeed, she has herself been an agent of that liberalisation both in her famous “nasty party” speech and in more recent times as both Home Secretary and Prime Minister with her emphasis on race and gender equality.
May and her advisers were intent on rolling back a certain upper-middle-class chumminess at the top of government and were trying to create a more working-class-friendly Conservative Party. They were remarkably successful in doing so, outpolling Labour among working-class voters, according to YouGov.
May was aggressively pro-Brexit, perhaps over-compensating for her own Remain vote, talked in a rather un-Tory way about the working class, produced a centre-left Tory manifesto that was critical of big business, was strongly committed to race and sex equality, and continued to argue for a return to more moderate levels of immigration. This was a novel mix for British politics but is only hostile to social liberalism if your definition of it requires a positive embrace of the EU and high levels of immigration.
I argue in my book that Anywheres who do embrace those two things have been too dominant in British politics for more than a generation and this had led to the Brexit backlash. Both Blair and Cameron were comfortable with this Anywhere hegemony and so must bear some blame for that backlash.
The task of politics now is to create a new settlement between Anywheres and Somewheres which gives more space to Somewhere priorities without alienating too many Anywheres. May produced an innovative programme that tried to do just that, but her failure to prepare her own party for it and then her own performance let her down.
Yet at nearly 43 per cent of the vote May polled more than any Tory leader since 1983. The left-wing Tory/Christian Democratic/cross-class flavour of the May offer was popular. The problem was that Jeremy Corbyn did unexpectedly well too, thanks to several factors that have only a small amount to do with social liberalism.
How big a group would have voted Tory but for the anti-global citizen mood music and the hard Brexit stance on leaving the single market and customs union? Bush has no idea, and nor do I, but he makes two claims.
First, he argues that the May strategy underestimated just how rooted and defensive of their values Anywheres are. Maybe it did fail to see the extent of the Anywhere/Remainer fightback that was brewing and the number of seats with a critical mass of students and liberal graduates. But, to repeat, most Anywheres are not global citizens; they are mainstream Brits who are broadly comfortable with, and tend to benefit from, economic and cultural openness. Would they really have felt so alienated by the “citizen of the world” speech?
Second, Bush argues that the anti-global-citizen message alienated many ethnic minority Brits who had been drifting away from Labour, especially in the 2015 election, but flocked back in 2017.
This is speculation. We know that this year the Tories lost two of their 10 most diverse seats and the Runnymede Trust calculates Labour’s overall share at 65 per cent of the ethnic minority vote (down from 68 per cent in 2010).
About a third of minority Brits voted Brexit and most are probably more rooted and socially conservative than the white majority, so it is unlikely that anti-globalist rhetoric drove minorities back to Labour. If it is true that there was a swing back to Labour between 2015 and 2017, it is likely to reflect the higher turnout of younger minority voters who, like young whites, are more Labour inclined.
Bush also forgets that while Cameron liberalism may have attracted some new voters into the Tory fold, including some from ethnic minority backgrounds, he also lost a huge number of voters to Ukip, who polled nearly 13 per cent in 2015. In most important respects May did not abandon Cameron modernisation, but she did fail to fashion a winning coalition between enough liberal Anywheres and decent populist Somewheres (not as illiberal as many analysts assume).
Perhaps a more skilful Tory politician could have appealed to a big new Tory working-class group while also holding on to enough liberal Anywheres from the Cameron era. It is a missed opportunity for a new kind of politics, and it may be that Britain is now heading for a kind of values stalemate between Anywheres and Somewheres, similar to the 1970s stalemate between business and organised labour.
David Goodhart is head of the demography unit at the Policy Exchange think tank
This article first appeared in the July 14 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here