In which election did a party win its highest share of the vote since the war? The answer is the European elections of 1979. The Conservatives took over 50 per cent of it.
They sent to Strasbourg what was surely most pro-federalist intake of any British party ever. Members included such committed pro-Europeans as Peter Price, Bill Newton-Dunn, Tom Spencer, David Curry and Edward Heath’s old friend Madron Seligman.
What happened during the next half-century or so? How did the more euro-enthusiast of the two main parties become overwhelmingly euro-sceptic? And why has it come about that Britain is leaving the EU today?
One version of history begins at an end of its spectrum by observing that Britain’s centre-right papers became increasingly hostile to the European project. It ends at the other by claiming that the EU referendum was fixed by Russian gold, sinister billionaires, dark advertising, big data and all the ephemara of Cadwalladrism.
If you believe that the world is conspiracy-driven and that voters are fundamentally stupid, there is nothing we could possibly write to disabuse you.
Even that truth about the change in Fleet Street should provoke discussion. What came first: the anti-federalist take of proprietors or that of voters? Which drove which? Which was the chicken and which the egg? In any event, the papers have long been a power in decline. And what about the pro-EU slant of our national broadcaster?
No, the fundamental shift within the Conservative Party and among the British people is better explained by the coming-together of an old habit and a new trend.
The old habit is British nationalism distilled through our history – in other words, in an island that hasn’t been successfully invaded for a thousand years, which has a web of ancient institutions, and in which self-government has fewer of the popular negatives that haunt it among our neighbours.
The new trend is the western revolt against its elites, driven by a post-crash backlash and popular discontent with mass immigration.
This was accentuated in Britain by the expenses scandal, the Iraq War, and the Government in power at the time, Tony Blair’s, which spurned post-enlargement restrictions on free movement. But the tide of public opinion had shifted against the European project long before then.
The original impetus was given by the EU openly becoming what it has always been: the federalist project for which those 1979 Tories yearned. Think Jacques Delors, the Maastricht Treaty, the Euro – and communism’s collapse.
The Europe issue helped to bring down Margaret Thatcher. The putsch that removed a three-times victorious Prime Minister who was undefeated at the polls had consequences. These helped to stiffen resistance within the party to the Euro as its instinct for sovereignty intensified.
Party change, voter trends and political expediency pushed David Cameron towards that referendum. But for all the move in public opinion, Leave’s victory was narrow.
That was largely because of that most persistent of electoral habits – caution. But the aftermath of the result saw the Citizens of Nowhere, as Theresa May didn’t really mean to describe them, rally against the Majority for Somewhere. One seldom saw the EU flag brandished in earnest before June 23rd, 2016. That hasn’t been true since.
Britain’s pro-EU Ascendancy had become accustomed to ruling over the best part of 50 years. Its rage against the democratic removal of what it believed it was entitled to respected few conventions.
Those it broke included the neutrality of the Speaker, the apoliticality of the Supreme Court and the role of the legislature – which under what this site called the Real Prime Minister, Oliver Letwin, sought to usurp the role of the executive in order ultimately to thwart the voters.
Over 40 of May’s Ministers resigned over Brexit one way or the other, including a holder of a great office of state – Boris Johnson, who followed David Davis out of Cabinet over the Chequers Plan.
The counter-rage of voters was terrible to behold. It reduced the Conservatives to four MEPs in last year’s European elections, revived Nigel Farage and created the conditions for the Brexit Party, and drove Tory ratings down to 20 per cent or so. A second referendum loomed into view.
We believe that the consequences would have shaken even traditionally stolid and stable Britain, in which those long-standing institutions had been buttressed over time by first-past-the-post.
It seems like a dream that Boris Johnson has turned all that round in less than a year. His near-landslide last month was a demonstration of the power not of inevitability and immutable forces in history, as Marxists cling erroneously to believing, but to the force of accident and personality.
This evening, some will rejoice – including this Brexit-backing site – and some mourn. Which you do will boil down to whether you believe Britain will be prosperous and happy as a self-governing nation, as it has been for most of its history and as most countries are today.
We are with one of Johnson’s first lines as Prime Minister, spoken from the podium outside Downing Street: “those who bet against Britain are going to lose their shirts”.
And as you prepare for this evening, mull how this country stands today, and how others do. France has an embedded leader, Emmanuel Macron, but also yellow jackets and brutal police, whose open thuggery wouldn’t last a moment here.
Germany is in transition. The endurance of its system is formidable, but the AfD has the best part of 100 Bundestag seats. Italy has Salvini, Hungary has Orban. Spain is seeing the emergence of Vox.
Trump is a force from outside the Republican mainstream. In India, one of the great success stories of mass democracy since the end of colonialism, communalism is on the rise. Some on the Right cheer some of these movements; others are suspicious of all of them – if not hostile.
Johnson’s Government stands out from them because of the combination of his majority and its flavour. The back-to-the-future explosion of Brexit apart, his Government is identifiably a sign of continuity, not rupture.
It is not credible to argue that he represents a radical break from the long story of Disraeli, Baldwin, Churchill, Macmillan, Cameron and Thatcher. Though it is significant that he is repudiating her hostility to the role of the state with a commitment to its activism. If he is breaking with the inheritance of any of them, it’s with hers.
At the cost of taking a complacent view of the world, Britain and Johnson, with their combination of recovered stability and mainstream politics, look not half bad at all compared to the alternatives (Corbynism especially).
We are sometimes not sufficiently thankful for what we have – even in a country with a formidable challenge to its integrity, in the form of the future of Scotland; and a mass of Just-About-Managings and downright left behinds, struggling with debt, addiction, disorderly neighbourhoods, bad schools, poor health, crime, homelessness.
These are challenges for the future, as is Part Two of the Brexit negotiation. The past has shaped where we are, both good and bad. Later today, ConservativeHome will raise a glass to Britain’s old-but-new future.