How the British Conservatives became the Republicans

WHATEVER happened to the British Conservative party? It has a long tradition of being more interested in power than ideology, and a ruthlessness about getting rid of any leader (even Margaret Thatcher) who appeared a threat to its electoral prospects.

But from the 1990s onwards, the party has been steadily taken over by Eurosceptics who now dominate the ranks of both MPs and members. Their intransigence stopped Theresa May from getting her Brexit deal through, leaving her to turn to Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour for support.

The party changed in another way as well. When I was a child, it seemed automatic that middle-class people would vote Conservative. When we moved into a Peterborough suburb, the neighbours were reluctant to speak to my parents at first. It turned out that a red sticker on the back of my brother’s car made them think we might be Labour supporters.

Two weeks ago, when I took part in a Remain march in London, it struck me that many of the crowed might once have been natural Conservative supporters. There were many middle-class families, surrounded by children and dogs, and carrying literate, witty signs. The Conservatives should worry they have lost that group. Anna Soubry, once a Tory MP, got a cheer but she has left the party.

An explanation for the shift comes in “Article 50 two years on”, a paper from the think tank, UK in a Changing Europe. Paula Surridge cites data showing that on economic issues, there is no difference between Leave and Remain voters. The big gap is on the “liberal-authoritarian” scale, judged by people’s response to statements like “young people today don’t have enough respect for traditional British values” and about the restoration of the death penalty. Leave voters are much more authoritarian than Remainers.

In other words, the Conservatives are morphing into the Republicans of America, whose focus on “God, guns and gays” has successfully persuaded many people to vote against their economic self-interest.

This is very bad news both for business and for centrist voters. The Conservatives were once the party of business but, until now, have largely ignored the voice of industry over Brexit (it may be that Theresa May shifted away from a no deal approach because of business lobbying). But the post-May Tories could well be hostile to its neighbours and anti-immigration and the alternative is a Corbynite government which backs higher taxes and nationalisation. This will not persuade foreign businesses to invest in Britain. Centrist voters may turn to the Liberal Democrats or the newly-formed independent group, but the electoral system means that those parties will get few seats.

Perhaps there is some self-destructive streak in the British character that lands us back in a mess (as we were in the 1970s). Just seven years ago, Britain hosted a successful Olympics and the country seemed in a self-confident, outward-looking state. Now look at us.

Economist columnist, opinions generally my own, typos always my fault. Author of Paper Promises, The Last Vote and The Money Machine

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