Why does England vote Tory?

The Queen's Diamond Jubilee

JVL Introduction

Adam Ramsay of openDemocracy poses the obvious but seldom asked question: Why does England usually vote Tory?

Opinion polls on policy, show most people in England almost as left wing as most in Scotland and Wales.

And yet…

The defining force which shapes Britain’s politics, Ramsay argues, is Anglo-British nationalism: and the Tories are the party of Anglo-British nationalism and Empire, the party of the ruling class.

Black Lives Matter protests, jolting millions of people into an unprecedented process of teaching and learning, gives us a great opportunity to challenge our mythical national story.

And how better to do so than to confront its hero: Churchill.


This article was originally published by openDemocracy on Sun 21 Jun 2020. Read the original here.

Why does England vote Tory?

Progressives will never dominate English politics without confronting Churchillism.

The most important question in British electoral politics is almost never asked. Why does England usually vote Tory?

If you look at opinion polls on policy, most people in England are almost as left wing as most in Scotland and Wales. Most want to renationalise public services, redistribute wealth and increase spending on public services.

Likewise, on most issues, people in England are nearly as socially liberal as people in Scotland, supporting women’s right to choose an abortion and LGBTQI rights, for example. Even in supposedly conservative Northern Ireland, polls show widespread support for women’s and LGBTQI rights.

There are often said to be different attitudes to immigration, but that’s not particularly borne out in the data: the perceived divergence is better explained by the refusal of most of Scotland’s political class to partake in migrant bashing than by differences of attitude among the respective populations, and England isn’t as hostile to migrants as the tabloids would have you believe.

This shouldn’t be surprising: across the Western world, most people are broadly socially liberal social democrats.

Which takes us back to our question. While people in Scotland and Wales tend to vote for parties which broadly reflect their policy preferences, why do people in England and Northern Ireland consistently vote for parties which don’t? Why do so many English people vote Tory despite disagreeing with the Tories on most major issues of the day, any given day?

Interestingly, this isn’t a new phenomenon. The modern Conservative Party was founded by Robert Peel in 1834. Since then, most of those who’ve had the vote in England have generally voted for it, while most of those who have had the vote in Scotland and Wales have usually voted for their various rivals du jour.

It is, though, an unusual phenomenon. With its dominance of English politics over nearly two hundred years, the Conservatives are often described as the most successful political party in the world.

If we want to understand this strange habit that English people have of voting for politicians with whom they largely disagree, it’s worth looking in more depth at English social attitudes, and particularly at the few areas where they do diverge from Scotland.

The most obvious and widely reported of these is the EU. As Anthony Barnett warned before the referendum, Brexit was driven by England, and can only really be understood as an English cry for help.

Similarly, Trident nuclear weapons show a statistically significant difference in opinion.

Perhaps more significant, though, are two other differences. The first is that English voters overwhelmingly think that the empire was a good thing, while Scottish voters narrowly think it was bad. The second is that there is significantly less support for the monarchy in Scotland – 53% vs 69% for Britain as a whole, according to one recent poll.

Organised enthusiasm for the Windsors is also much weaker in Scotland. During the 2012 Queen’s Jubilee, there were 9,500 street parties in England and Wales, but only 60 in Scotland, mostly organised by the Orange Order.

If we want to understand why England votes Tory, this basket of issues seems to point to the answer. Each of them has in common that they are an icon of Anglo-British nationalism. And the Conservatives are seen as the party of Anglo-British nationalism.

Labour has always wanted to be seen as Anglo-British as well, and played a key role in creating a ‘British nation’ after Empire, as David Edgerton recently explained in his ‘Rise and Fall of the British Nation’.

But as long as the idea of Britishness is tied to the monarch – and therefore the class system – and Empire – and therefore racism – the Tories were always going to win the struggle to represent it.

The deep desire to make Britain ‘Great again’ which drives this nationalism takes form in a whole collection of policies: Brexit and the desire to return to imperial glories is the most obvious. Trident, the bling Britain got for ‘giving up’ up India, is the most extraordinary: it is being renewed at vast expense despite being technologically redundant, only because of an obsession with clinging white-knuckled to the past.

But the double helix in the DNA of these issues is sentimentality about the empire, and support for the monarchy, especially as the House of Windsor completed its transition to TV and tabloid monarchy.

It’s this feeling that makes England Conservative (even if not generally conservative): the Tories are the party of Anglo-British nationalism and Empire, the party of the ruling class. And the underlying message in much of Anglo-British nationalism is that posh people – and the monarchy first of all – ought to be in charge. That is, after all, who ran things when Britain was ‘great’.

This is why David Cameron and Boris Johnson were considered ‘prime ministerial’ while John Major, Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband weren’t. It’s why the tabloids attacked Corbyn not for his economic or social policies, but for his supposed failure to genuflect sufficiently to the Queen and his unwillingness to commit to the mass slaughter of nuclear war.

In the 2019 election, Corbyn came unstuck on two issues whose dominance can only really be understood when we think about the character of Anglo-British nationalism.

With Brexit, this is perhaps obvious. With antisemitism, less so. But it’s worth reflecting that no other form of racism has so dominated an election campaign in the past, despite numerous heinously racist campaigns; a phenomenon which makes sense when we think about the fact that Anglo-British nationalism was born-again in WW2, redeemed from past crimes through the UK’s role in defeating Hitler and ending the Holocaust.

We need to talk about Churchill

What’s fascinating about all of this isn’t that it’s true. After all, nationalism is as much the dominant political ideology of our age as capitalism is the dominant economic system. We live in a world of nation states, to which billions of people feel loyal. What’s interesting is that ‘the British’ never talk about it.

In Scotland, there are endless Twitter barnies about the character and defining features of Scottish nationalism. In France, the idea of Frenchness is regularly dissected. In Germany, it is a deep matter of concern.

But most of the conversations about British electoral politics are a sophisticated attempt not to discuss the character of the defining force which shapes it: Anglo-British nationalism.

Over the last half decade, this has begun to change. The Scottish independence referendum forced Englishness and Britishness to mumble their own names. The Brexit referendum helped some of England’s liberals to better understand the country they live in. The decline of Anglo-Britain has meant that Anglo-Britishness has started to become visible, no longer such an overwhelming force that it blends into the background.

And in the past couple of weeks, it’s taken another few steps towards the spotlight. As well as being a flash of artistic genius and magnificent act of liberation, the toppling of the Colston statue unleashed a vast process of pedagogy.

By shifting the focus of British audiences watching Black Lives Matter protests from America-watching to self introspection, it jolted millions of people into an unprecedented process of teaching and learning.

Reni Eddo-Lodge’s brilliant history of recent British race politics – Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race – became (astonishingly) the first book by a Black British author to top the best-seller charts, with the next four slots also filled by Black authors’ books about race in Britain, representing the front carriages in a long pedagogical train sweeping the country.

Of course this process is politically polarised. I lurk in community Facebook groups across the country, and I’ve rarely seen them all ignite at the same moment with the same ferocious fight as in the last fortnight. But the opposite of being controversial is being ignored, and once the thesis and antithesis are thrashed out, a new uneasy synthesis will emerge, England will have a better understanding of itself. And politically, that’s a good thing.

I write all of this because last week, I published an excellent essay on openDemocracy by the always fascinating academic Kalpana Wilson, which I gave the provocative title ‘Churchill must Fall’, though it covers much more ground than the one man.

When I tweeted it, a number of progressives, including Observer columnist Nick Cohen and the brilliant anti-austerity economist Simon Wren Lewis, responded to the effect that this was falling into a trap. The right is desperate to turn an awkward conversation about race, racism and Empire into a flame war over Churchill.

The short response is that it’s not my job as a journalist to do what’s useful to the electoral prospects of the Labour Party. But setting that aside, I think this is a mistake.

Churchill is the founding father of modern Anglo-Britain. His radio broadcasts over the course of World War Two shifted from addressing an imperial ‘we’ to an archipelagic ‘we’, reinventing Britishness as located not across millions of square miles of colony, but in these North Atlantic islands.

His personal story is the story of modern British nationalism – the gassing of Kurds, the starving of Bengalis, the Mau Mau concentration camps; and the defeating of European fascism, the post-war rebuilding, the famous qualified defence of democracy.

While Thatcher is recent enough that the battles about her time in office are well remembered, Churchill – equally controversial in his era – has been turned into the guard dog of Anglo-British nationalism, the hero in the mythical national story.

While the pandemic may finally move Britain on from Thatcherism, steps taken away from what Anthony Barnett has called Churchillism are just as big a prize. And that’s impossible without addressing the man himself, for his myth is the national myth, the memory of him is the false memory of ourselves.

Flame wars are inevitable

There is no non-controversial way to do this. Milan Kundera said that “the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting”, and in the age of social media and rolling news, that struggle is always going to include a flame war.

For decades, England’s centre-left has avoided this conversation. And over decades, the right has always summoned it in time for a potentially close election: 1983 and the flag-waving of the Falklands War, 1992 and the Gulf War, 2010 and Gordon Brown being too Scottish, 2015 and Ed Miliband being too willing to listen to Scottish people, 2019 and Brexit. This is the grip that the papers have on England, the cross-series plot which keeps the nation in thrall and in line.

The good news is that now is the perfect moment to pull at this thread. The UK is probably half a decade from its next general election. A global movement is ensuring that at the core of the conversation is a cry so reasonable that no one can deny it and still claim to be a good person, but so radical that it demands transformation of our entire political and economic system: the statement that Black Lives Matter. Most people have progressive instincts, and facing the truth about the imperial past, believe it to be foul. And, for the first time in centuries, most British people alive today were born after the fall of the Empire.

There can be no better time than this for a long overdue process of national learning about England, Britain and Empire. There is no other way to do this than through the polarised process of online argument and this means there is no way to avoid the subject of Churchill. It may be awkward but it is also deeply rewarding: whether or not you agree that Churchill must fall, we must surely agree that we have to end the silence about what he really stood for.

The alternative is accepting the dominance of an Anglo-British nationalism which will always lead people to vote Tory. And that’s the real trap.


Comments (12)

  • TM says:

    I am currently reading Reni Eddo-Lodge’s excellent book and as a white, privileged male in his early seventies I consider my real education begins here. And that’s despite all the years of joining anti fascist and racist demonstrations.
    I am willing to learn how pervasive our nationalist, Imperialist culture is and how widely it extends into the fabric of my life.
    This is indeed a window for change.

  • RH says:

    Why does England vote Tory?

    It’s not difficult : All the widespread sources of information are about a subservient Tory narrative.

    Look how easy it was to spread false accusations about anti-semitism in the Labour Party. Look at the exclusion of information about the Corona virus.

    It’s known as ‘propaganda’. It may not be the whole story, but it’s a large part of it – and Jewish communities have horrendous historical knowledge of its power.

  • geoff rouse says:

    I think there is a constant ‘self blinding’ in this question.
    It is time we in the uk realised there is no chance of a real fair democracy when the power in the form of immense wealth is held almost exclusively in the right. Our last election was bought and sold with all the media and press on the side of its owners and nobody challenging the lies and distortion they constantly swamped us with. How can democracy work under those conditions.

  • Naomi Wayne says:

    This is a truly terrible and incoherent article. It asks why England votes Tory and then proceeds to ignore England for some construct called Anglo-British nationalism. Once again a supposedly left writer cannot get to grips with England and the English. He has no problem with Scotland as the home of a Scottish nation, and I am sure he would have no problem with the Palestinians’ nationhood being respected. He must know that the Irish, across the board, share the Soldiers’ Song and don’t agonise with self hate about being Irish, while even the most left wing American will still aver that the US is the greatest country on earth – which is not about ignoring its racism, terrible taste in Presidents, bullying foreign policy, huge wealth disparities etc, or being superior towards everyone else, but Americans’ strong sense of self and of their country and their nation’s potential.

    English nationalism a la Farage and Johnson is horrific – it is a nationalism of hate and brutal lack of self confidence which is the hallmark of the bully, the ignored, the sidelined. But there is a great history and tradition of English working class struggle (remember EP Thompson), of English liberation philosophers (Tom Paine anyone?), of English radical internationalism, of English folk music, of literature (the greatest playwright in the world?) of architecture, of a stunning human-created scenery, even a cuisine that chefs are now unearthing. Time for the English left to start reclaiming England and the English from the right wing crazies and xenophobes who have stolen it.

  • John Thatcher says:

    Nick Cohen is not a progressive.

  • James McGuire says:

    I agree more with some of the comments on the article than with the article itself. As Naomi Wayne states, there is a long tradition of radicalism and protest against the status quo in England itself, and strong support for socialist policies and an internationalist outlook. But RH and Geoff Rouse explain why we are in the situation we are in today, where those traditions have virtually no voice any more.

    Most people form their beliefs and attitudes on the basis of information available to them. The majority rarely check the sources of that information or how much of it is sound. Our lifestyles don’t have those habits built in. Ergo, if the main sources of information on the economy, politics, world affairs, etc., are newspapers and media sites owned by right wing billionaires and their affiliates, who have close ties to the Tory party; and the supposedly independent and moderate BBC actually also takes its lead from them, there is no need to do anything other than carry on the pretence of being a democratic society, when it patently isn’t. Problem solved for a very long time to come.

  • Roshan Pedder says:

    Nick Cohen a progressive? The article lost all validity after that statement.

  • Valentin Kovalenko says:

    I would differentiate between English nationalism on one hand and English history and culture on the other hand. It is not culture that underlines nationalism. Their attempt at history is rarely based on facts. It is more about symbols and myths. In addition, their history is an expression of the paranoiac position triggered by years of depravation. In this sense, the cult of Churchill is not dissimilar to the cult of Stalin in the nowadays Russia. I do agree with Naomi Wayne that the left should start reclaiming England and the English from the right wing crazies and xenophobes. Mind you, most of them are simply unaware of around 700 authentic annual folkloric events that organised by local people around the UK. Yet, I suspect that many on the left might not be aware of them either. This calls for a change.

  • Valentin Kovalenko says:

    Just to add to my previous comment, I was shocked last year when confronted with a call to vote Boris Johnson and the Tories coming from an English Romany. This was despite that Johnson’s electoral program included promises of explicitly anti-Traveller legislation. Perhaps we need to reflect on why somebody coming from one of the GTR communities does not associate themselves with the Labour and the left. Does the left value their culture? Does the left know it so that to stand for the GTR in a supportive way.

  • Maxine Hawksworth says:

    I find it astounding that no matter what conversation about Britain is taking place people like Naomi Wayne fixate on Palestine!!

    In my opinion people voted Tory because they did not believe that Labour’s economic policies were practical, nor properly costed.
    Andrew Neill’s interview with Corbyn exposed the latter as ignorant on economic and taxation matters with no track record of employment in the private sector and therefor viewed as unable to comprehend a budget.

  • RC says:

    nW is right to criticise AR’s slapdash impressionism. Many examples; but his uncritical reliance on the ill-thought question on the British Empire – good or bad? is a case in point. “Good or bad for whom?” is surely the point. or why not: “was Hitler right or wrong in praising the British Empire?”
    The general theme is that a lot of these questionnaires rely on avoidance or repression of critical thought. It may be the case that those who set, let alone those who ask, the questions find critical thought difficult themselves.
    Another good question would be “was Churchill right or wrong to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire?” (Itself uncritical enough, though a brief scan of Charmley’s Churchill – the End of Glory, should supply ammunition. Charmley quotes Chamberlain as proposing to avoid wherever possible any alliance with the US, as they would take all the gains. He also points out that far from being another of the “English speaking peoples”, the US was an alien and hostile power. Understanding the death agony of the British empire 1900-1945 (which Trotsky misread as the death agony of capitalism) is a task somewhat beyond the reach of questionnaires – and, I fear, Mr Ramsey himself. But one should at least entertain the irony that the worshippers of Churchill and the worshippers of the British empire put themselves into a cleft stick.
    One of the problems many contributors as well as Mr Ramsey have is that they hoe for a progressive and friendly form of nationalism. Any progressive moment of nationalism, especially in the current UK, passed away long since. The ‘best’ nationalism can do in today’s world is to struggle to fight its way higher up in the ‘ladder’ of imperialist exploitation, as the Chinese CP is currently trying to do. (This would be true, perhaps even truer, of the ‘socialism in one country’ the Left Brexiteers dreamed of).
    The inevitable result is the ever increasing tendency to war.

  • Naomi Wayne says:

    Gosh oh golly – what a weird criticism from Maxine Hawksworth to my earlier comment. I have no idea who ‘people like Naomi Wayne’ might be. My mother always assured me I was one of a kind, and my life experience has tended to confirm her assurances.

    I am also thoroughly bewildered by her allegation that people like me ‘fixate on Palestine’. If she, and anyone else who is interested in this rather odd complaint, care to revisit my contribution, I objected to the way ‘a supposedly left writer cannot get to grips with England and the English’. I then contrasted his views of Scotland and the Scots, and gave three other examples: Ireland (where I lived for nearly ten years, so I can speak from direct experience), Palestine, because it’s nation-state status is generally regarded as a matter of left concern, and is certainly a matter of JVL concern, and the US (which has fascinated me ever since I went to a meeting as a teenager and heard a very left wing American expat speaker lucidly, passionately and for around an hour and a half, excoriate the land of her birth, and then turn to her audience with a twinkle in her eye, and tell us ‘America is still the greatest country on earth).

    If one out of four counts as ‘fixation on Palestine’ I suppose I have to plead guilty. Though I can only do so on my own behalf and not on behalf of anyone else who might ‘be like’ me.

    As to ‘Why England Votes Tory’, which was the subject of the article on which I was commenting, I was directly addressing the author’s argument, which was difficult, as it comprised a mishmash of commentary about British empire, Britain, the UK and England and English nationalism – none of which different phenomena he seemed to be able to differentiate from each other. But on one thing he was clear and explicit – his article was about why England USUALLY votes Tory. Why England voted Tory at the last election specifically would have been a different article, and I have no idea how, if at all, I would have responded to it.

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