19 December 2019, The Tablet

Boris Johnson is on a mission, and it is incredibly hard


Boris Johnson is on a mission, and it is incredibly hard

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn arrive for the State Opening of Parliament at the Houses of Parliament
HANNAH MCKAY/WPA Rota/Press Association Images

One Nation Conservatism! What's not to like? This is the banner under which Boris Johnson has launched his premiership after a sensational triumph in the 2019 British general election. And he did it his way. Regrets, we have a few, but then again, not too few to mention...

We could start with, "Which nation, exactly?" Presumably not Scotland. And the phrase "one nation" has particular significance in Northern Ireland, so we can assume Boris Johnson did not intend that either. So he really means England, plus maybe those bits of Wales which voted Tory for the first time in a thousand years. So does Nation stand for nationalism, especially English nationalism? And incidentally, why is English nationalism assumed to be a bad thing, while Scottish nationalism is admirable?

The original inventor of the term, Benjamin Disraeli, was nothing of the sort according to his biographer Douglas Hurd, who said he was "not by any standard a One Nation Conservative; he rejected the idea of a more classless society." He did take steps to ameliorate the condition of the working poor, but that is not what One Nation means.

It refers to a fundamental divide in society, whereby one part does not know or care how the other part lives – each being a foreign country to the other. And if one assumes that a general election is a uniquely useful way of highlighting such divisions, like looking for blood stains under ultra violet light, then we do indeed find that the English nation is somewhat fragmented. But not simply into rich and poor.

Nor even town and country. It remains true that Labour holds the great majority of seats, in many cases virtually all of them, and two thirds of them in London, in the major English cities. While the conspicuous Tory gains were in the smaller towns and larger villages stretched across the middle of England in what the media termed a "red wall", now of course a mixture of red and blue.

Most of these towns had a particular history. They sprung up as a result of the industrial revolution in the 19th century, to serve the workforce needs of local industry such as coal mining, steel making, ship building, railways and cotton. Often each community had just one major employer engaged in one of those labour-intensive businesses, and would never have come into existence without it. The labour was drawn to such places mainly from the surrounding countryside, but sometimes from afar.

These working class towns are often less prosperous than the major cities nearby, where some of the younger elements of their populations have moved to thereby raising the average age of those left behind. And they do not on the whole contain universities, the rapid growth in the number of which in the last three or four decades passed them by.

These communities are extremely vulnerable to adverse economic changes, such as the closure of coal mines and the shrinking of Britain's manufacturing base as the emphasis turned more to financial services. What happens to a town whose raison d'être was ship-building, say, or steel making, when ships and steel can be made more cheaply abroad? To them, the globalisation of the world economy is not good news. Part of this change was inevitable, but part was deliberately induced by Margaret Thatcher's government.

This then is Brexitland, the parts of Britain that Labour forgot about, despite once having been its heartland, and that the Conservatives have newly discovered. The people who live there feel neglected, their communities less cohesive, and their town centres often look that way. The social networks that bound them together, including trade unions and friendly societies, were often related to the main employment in the area, so the loss of such employment has meant a collapse in social capital. Some of those networks would have related to religious practice, though it is difficult to say whether the fall in church membership was the cause of, or the consequence of, a decline in a sense of community.

Because there is not much wealth about, local government revenue raised from business rates and community charges have not kept pace with the demand. The process has been greatly accelerated by the central government decision to phase out grants to local authorities from the Treasury. So local authorities, which ought to have been the focus of economic regeneration, have instead had to put all their energy into a struggle merely to survive. On top of this, Tory austerity policies such as the reduction in the nation's welfare budget by £12 billion, have sucked money out of the pockets of poor people, leaving them poorer still.

There was a delusion during David Cameron's time as prime minister that the shrinking of the state, such as the squeeze on local government, would generate an equivalent amount of voluntary effort to replace it. What this Big Society initiative failed to notice is that voluntary activity is by definition unpaid, and therefore no help to single mothers looking for work nor to the local shops that they might want to buy things in.

And in an early phase of government policy, the voluntary sector had been actively encouraged to work in partnership with local government and had received funding to enable it to do so. So the severe tightening of local government budgets under the austerity programme meant the withdrawal of funding on which many voluntary sector bodies had come to rely. The very civil society which the Big Society idea was supposed to invigorate instead saw it foundering. A typical church body working with the homeless with a paid staff of six, say, with dozens of unpaid volunteers, found itself having to cut down to one staff member or cease functioning altogether.

This analysis makes it abundantly clear what Boris Johnson needs to do if he wants to see the broken parts of the English nation brought together again. The revival of local government is crucial as so much else depends on it. Such are the swings and roundabouts of democracy, it is likely that areas which voted Tory for the first time will revert to voting Labour in local elections, and that is a fact of life the Mr Johnson's Conservative Government will just have to live with.

So he has set himself a desperately hard mission to accomplish. It seems true that the two factors which fuelled his victory were, first, the unpopularity of Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour leadership; and second, the failure to deliver the Brexit result that the country had voted for, by a narrow margin, in 2016. Both those factors may be gone by the summer, ironically, as a result of the Tory election success. That success may therefore contain within itself the seeds of his own defeat. We shall see.




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