John Stevens is a former Conservative Member of European Parliament who stood at the last general election as an independent candidate against John Bercow.
For over a hundred and fifty years, the Conservative Party has resisted the politics of class warfare by an appeal to the superior claims of national solidarity. Its internal unity matched the external common front it wished Britain to project internationally.
By joining the European Union, Conservatism admitted the need to move beyond its traditional purist national definition of Parliamentary sovereignty to one which would accept its partial loss to a supra-national, European level. However, it was an admission it swiftly forgot. The same reluctance to be reconciled to “ever closer union” and thus pursue a coherent policy within the EU, and with the rest of the world, also rendered the Party incapable of countenancing devolution within Britain, notably to Scotland. Excursions into various forms of liberalism masked a failure to re-think Conservative democratic identity in a fast-changing global context.
The dire result is now with us: we are drifting into a crisis with the EU in which the essential strategic clarity either of a whole-hearted national commitment to becoming equal members with, say, Germany or France, or of a clean break to a relationship based upon trade alone, seem equally impossible. And we are drifting into a messy divorce with Scotland that could lead to the unraveling of relations between England and Ulster and Wales, and, even more, to exposing the deep divisions which have been allowed to arise within England, between north and south, and between London and the rest of the country.
At the same time, we are witnessing the strongest revival of class warfare for a generation. I am not here referring to the nerdy, milk-sop Marxism of Edward Milliband, but the real forces which lie behind the rise of the anti-establishment politics both of the United Kingdom Independence Party and of the Scottish National Party.
UKIP’s rise is not basically about Europe at all, but is rather riding a wide-spread rage against, inter alia, immigration, particularly of Muslims; income inequality, and the squeeze on personal financial security, particularly of the poor and the retired, from growing globalisation; multiculturalism and the erosion of traditional English identity and values. Shorthand for these grievances is a hatred of arrogant and greedy bankers and politicians in London, who have made the capital a foreign enclave inside England from which the English want their country back. Hostility to the EU screens such sentiments from accusations of xenophobia or parochialism, of socialism or corporatism in one country, which would seem to be their logical, ultimate expression. Nigel Farage’s appeal is to those who feel dispossessed and despised by modern England, who want to shatter the system, and they are many.
Comparable forces are driving the ‘Yes’ campaign in Scotland. Alex Salmond is the Scottish Nigel Farage, blaming London for all ills, just as the UKIP leader blames Brussels. His appeal last week-end to Labour supporters paralleled exactly Farage’s avowed strategy to win over the working class in England. The almost exclusively economic arguments of Better Together have little traction with those who see scant economic benefit to themselves in the status quo, any more than Nick Clegg’s accountancy makes the EU attractive. The Nationalists will win if they mobilize the poor who, unsurprisingly, through the long years of fruitless Labour one party rule in the Central Belt, have disproportionately lost the taste for voting. The higher the turn-out on September 18, the more likely independence will be.
Let us hope that the “No” vote will be alright on the night. But that hope can now only be for a stay of execution, until an EU referendum raises the threat of the Scots voting to stay and the English to leave. Destroying the United Kingdom could be the catalyst for releasing the pent-up forces of anti-establishment discontent on both sides of the new border, with all this might imply. In England, creating a new patriotic consciousness, powerful enough to allow conservatism to counter a revived socialism, with virtually no preparation, would be fraught with difficulty and danger.
It clearly cannot be done as long as the European issue remains un-resolved. The unity of the Conservative Party on that is now a total sham. Papering over the cracks between pro and anti Europeans, down the years, has brought us to the present pass. The unity of the Conservative Party is now incompatible with the strategic clarity, and above all with the unity, of the nation.