Britain’s New Tories: a Party of Reactionaries, Crackpots and Opportunists

At the height of the row over Brexit, I tried to find precedents in earlier periods of British history for what was happening. I felt that I had hit the jackpot when I discovered that in Britain in about 410 AD, it was the Britons who may have ended the connection with the Roman Empire and not vice-versa as I had previously supposed.

I had always been taught that the final withdrawal of the legions from Britain was the result of civil wars and barbarian invasions threatening other parts of the empire. But a Byzantine historian called Zosimus had written in the early sixth century that the Britons, fed up with the chaotic state of things, “revolted from the empire, no longer submitted to Roman law and reverted to native customs”.

Getting back control turned out to be a dangerous illusion from the point of view of the Britons as they were swiftly targeted for ethnic cleansing by incoming invaders.

The Tories of the day

Zosimus may not be entirely reliable, but I relished the idea of the Tories of the day denouncing the tax-hungry Roman bureaucracy and claiming that the local inhabitants would be better off without it. They might even have suggested outsourcing defence to those Angles, Jutes and Saxons who were putting in cheap bids for security contracts. As for the economy, who needs the Romans, when we can trade with distant but enterprising peoples like the Vandals and Goths?

These thoughts came back to me while watching Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and former Chancellor Rishi Sunak try to out-Thatcherise each other in seeking the Tory Party leadership by promising that they would bid defiance to the EU, Russia, China and anybody else they took a dislike to. They would take no nonsense from Britain’s largest trading partners, and great benefits would flow from closer ties with countries like Australia and New Zealand on the other side of the world.

The crude wishful thinking which inspires national separatism today has not much improved since the last days of Roman Britain. Truss and Sunak exude synthetic xenophobia, presumably believing that it will resonate with the 160,000 Tory activists, whose votes they seek. This bombast is unlikely to be abandoned whoever becomes Prime Minister since, as the former Conservative party chairman Lord Patten has said, the modern Conservative Party has converted into “an English nationalist party”.

A symptom of inner uncertainty

This article is not a rant against English nationalism simply because it is nationalistic. A sense of loyalty to a single national state or grouping is the bond uniting most societies, proving stronger as a link over the last century than social class or religious belief. In this, England is no different from other countries, though the English sense of national identity used to be more self-confident and less vocal than in other countries. Its current vociferousness and appetite for nostalgia is surely a symptom of inner uncertainty.

Such fixations on past glories are damaging, not so much because they are unfulfillable dreams, but because they divert attention away from real and attainable national objectives. Instead, Conservative defence of national sovereignty is more usually focused on phoney opponents, like statue-removers at home or the European Court of Human Rights abroad.

Real world challenges to British control of their own lives, such as their inability to find out what has happened to their passports – their physical proof of national identity – is somehow ignored as a national issue. Yet this has happened to 550,000 people seeking new passports this summer, because the answering of phone calls and emails was outsourced by government to a private French company that was overwhelmed by the work.

A ‘meltdown’ at the Passport Office

The Home Secretary Priti Patel, so bellicose but impotent when it comes to stopping asylum seekers crossing the Channel, has been truly effective in stopping Britons travelling in the opposite direction to Europe because they cannot get their passports issued or renewed in time for their journey.

Patel was reportedly told in May 2021 that the failings of a French company called Teleperformance were leading to a “meltdown” at the Passport Office, but she did nothing. A whistleblower was quoted as saying that staff at the Passport Office were having to pick up the pieces: “By the time customers come to us, they’re saying they have been cut off, had the phone put down on them, been told that they’ll just have to wait for someone to get in touch and then no one gets in touch. They’re really angry.”

Last week the bosses of Teleperformance even failed to turn up to give evidence at the House of Commons home affairs select committee, saying that the non-delivery of passports was nothing to do with them.

Yet there is no reason why English nationalism should not be a positive force, if it had not been handed over as a political vehicle to reactionaries, crackpots and opportunists. A problem is that Labour and the left in England traditionally view home grown nationalism as a mask for racism and imperialism, though they are happy to support national self-determination in Algeria, Vietnam and Ukraine. Liberals of different stripes see nationalism as outmoded in a globalising world and have been caught by surprise when it turned out to be an unstoppable force.

Revel in friction

In power, the modern English Conservative version of nationalism is proving an increasingly self-destructive instrument. Its isolationist tenets contradict the historic tradition of the British state which is to create and work through alliances with other powers, as it did during the First and Second World Wars. Within the British Isles, Conservative nationalists seem to revel in friction with Ireland, Scotland and increasingly Wales.

This does not necessarily mean the break-up of the UK, but it has already weakened it as Conservatives and their allies become a permanent minority in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Even the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement, probably the greatest achievement of British diplomacy since 1945, is now at risk as the Government in Westminster moves to dismember the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The referendum of 2016 was the turning point because the declared aims of the pro-Brexit politicians were delusory and unattainable, so that they need to divert public attention from their failure. The incoherence of the Brexit coalition ensured that Britain would have a succession of weak governments along the lines of Italy under Silvio Berlusconi, so similar in personality and career to Boris Johnson.

The turnover rate of British prime ministers is beginning to approach that of Italy and political turmoil has likewise become the norm. British instability is here to stay regardless of whether Truss or Sunak become the next prime minister. Pander though they may to the prejudices of Conservative activists, both candidates come across as shallow and on-the-make.

Theresa May famously warned that the Conservative Party was in danger of becoming known as “the nasty party” and its political opponents periodically repeat the charge. But they would be more accurate, and do more damage to the government, if they labelled the present Conservative Party “the unpatriotic party”.

Further Thoughts

I have always thought that Dover is the most interesting town in Britain with its great medieval castle built by Henry II, Napoleonic era fortress, and over-grown gun emplacements from the Second World War. I have often stood on top of the cliffs overlooking the ferry port, watching giant ferries manoeuvre backwards and forwards, while on the other side of the narrow valley you look down from the top of the Western Heights on the town and harbour. It is an extraordinarily interesting place which surprisingly few people visit.

Down in the town of Dover is one of the most fascinating archaeological finds ever made in Britain. With pride of place in the local museum is a 3,500-year-old bronze age boat, a masterpiece of carpentry with its oak planks held together by yew lashings. Rediscovered under a building in Dover in 1992, it was originally 60 feet long and propelled by 20 oarsmen who could have rowed it across to France in a few hours.

I have been thinking about the bronze age boat in the last few weeks because a traveller arriving in Dover in around 1,500 BC might have arrived in France quicker than he would today – with long queues of cars and HGVs building up and some drivers complaining that they have waited as long as 21 hours. The ripple effect of giant traffic jam has reached the north coast of Kent where on some days the roads are impassable.

I have written two long pieces on Dover in the last few years here and here.

Below the Radar

I wrote a column last week arguing that the Government’s new giant statutory inquiry into the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic is unnecessary since there has already been an excellent report by the joint Health and Social Care and Science and Technology House of Commons select committees published last October.

The Government evidently wants to divert attention from this earlier inquiry, though it called all the relevant witnesses and is a fair-minded, nuanced document throughout. But it is also damning about Government’s failure during the Covid-19 pandemic and sinks Boris Johnson’s pretence to have “got the big calls right”.

Here is a trenchant piece in the BMJ, one of the few publications to take on board the importance of the report and why the Government wants as few people as possible to read it.

Cockburn’s Picks

I am not sure how much more I can take of Tory leadership candidates trying to out-Thatcherise each other and promising policies they cannot possibly deliver, but for those with stronger stomachs here are a couple of useful pieces from UnHerd and Fullfact

Patrick Cockburn is the author of War in the Age of Trump (Verso).