Peter Franklin is Associate Editor at UnHerd.com
In the 12th Century BC, something truly extraordinary happened. In what was then the ‘known world’ of the Eastern Mediterranean, Egypt and Mesopotamia, the great Bronze Age civilisations fell one by one. The Mycenaeans, the Hittites, the Kassites and the New Kingdom of Egypt, all came apart in the space of a few decades. Across great swathes of the region almost every city and centre of power was destroyed.
This was the so-called Bronze Age Collapse, the tumult from which the civilisations of the Iron Age were to arise – many of them to shape the world in which we live in now. But what was the cause of the collapse? There are many theories. Some point to natural disasters like earthquakes, drought and climate change. Others pin the blame on barbarian invaders. Then there are the technological theories, in particular those concerning the spread of iron weaponry, which disrupted the military balance of power.
The most reasonable explanation is that all the theories are right, at least in part. It’s not one disruption that causes a civilisation to collapse, but the compounding effects of multiple disruptions – serial and parallel shocks to the system that eventually overwhelm it.
On a less apocalyptic scale, the same principle applies to British politics. Shocks to the system that used to happen once or twice a decade now come with overwhelming frequency. Just consider the last four years:
- first, the Scottish referendum campaign and the rise of the SNP as the third party of Westminster politics;
- second, David Cameron’s shock majority in the 2015 general election, the near-destruction of the Liberal Democrats and the UKIP surge;
- third, the capture of the Labour Party by Jeremy Corbyn and Momentum;
- fourth, the Brexit referendum and the fall of David Cameron;
- fifth, the ascent of Theresa May following the sequential implosion of all her main rivals;
- sixth, the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States;
- seventh, the disastrous snap election of 2017 and the (near) triumph of Jeremy Corbyn;
- eighth, the remorseless grind of the Brexit process – the final outcome of which may be more consequential than the other seven disruptions put together.
And those are just the highlights.
In 2013, I wrote a series for ConservativeHome entitled The Lost Tribes of British Politics. It was all about the factions and ideologies that have lost their place in our party system – or which never had one to begin with. Christian democrats, libertarians, high liberals and palaeo-socialists – all have their British adherents, but not a chance of capturing the leadership of a major party or of forming a minor party capable of winning seats in a national election.
A year later, I wrote a follow-up series: ‘The ruling tribes of British politics‘ – about the “groupings that either control an important political party or have a good chance of doing so”. Across the two series, I surveyed 20 tribes from the Labour left to UKIP. I attempted to say something about their beliefs, their history and their current status. Foolishly, I even ventured an opinion or two as to their future prospects.
Prediction is a mug’s game – especially when, as in this case, the rules are completely re-written, not just once but many times. The extent of the disruption since 2014 is without precedent in our post-war politics. I would say that the old order has been turned upside down, only it’s more complicated than that. Some of the ruling tribes are now lost; while some of the lost tribes now rule. Almost all of them have seen their fortunes turn in ways that where wholly unpredictable just three or four years ago.
For instance this is what I wrote about the Labour left:
‘…despite today’s crisis of capitalism, Britain remains indifferent to the charms of full-blooded socialism. Unlike the situation on the continent, where parties of the left compete with those of the centre-left, the Labour Party – outside of the political micro-climates of Brighton, Bradford and Tower Hamlets – has the red corner all to itself.
Furthermore, within the Labour Party, there’s no challenge to the ruling faction. The heirs of Gordon Brown have nothing to fear from the heirs of Tony Benn. Come on lefties, sort it out!’
Well, they certainly did that, didn’t they? It turns out that a continued failure of the political establishment to reform capitalism, take intergenerational justice seriously or wake up to the power of digital politics, has consequences. The Labour left saw its chance and went for it. What had been a lost tribe is now a ruling tribe.
Tribes that have gone in other direction (from ruling to lost) include the Cameroons (of which more below); their erstwhile Coalition partners, the Orange Bookers; and, for the foreseeable future (ha ha), UKIP.
The Brownites, or however they self-identify these days, just about cling onto mainstream status – as it’s still possible that one of their number, like Angela Rayner or Kier Starmer, could win a post-Corbyn leadership election. The Blairites, however, were already a lost tribe in 2013, and have been driven ever further to the margins. One is reminded of what Mr Knightley said about Miss Bates in Jane Austen’s Emma:
“She is poor; she has sunk from the comforts she was born to; and, if she live to old age, must probably sink more. Her situation should secure your compassion.”
Given all of the above, it is not surprising to hear talk of a ‘realignment’ of our party system. Inspired by what Emmanuel Macron managed to do to French politics, those who share his Europhile liberalism would love to do the same over here. But despite rumblings from the centrist commentariat, the politicians have yet to move. Indeed, far from breaking apart, the British party system has resolidified around the two big parties.
To quote Theresa May, one might venture that “nothing has changed”. That, however, is only the most superficial of impressions. In this country, we don’t have monolithic political parties – we have tribal coalitions. And it is at this deeper tribal level that we see the real change.
This is most obvious, and appalling, in the Labour Party, but the Conservative Party has undergone its own tribal convulsions. And we’ll take a closer look at those tomorrow.