Brexit and the Tory schisms

Submitted by martin on 12 June, 2019 - 2:29
Tory leadership candidates

Andrew Gamble is emeritus professor of politics at Sheffield University, and author of many books on Marxist theory and studies of the Conservative party. He talked with Martin Thomas from Solidarity.


Q. There are at least three relatively longstanding strands of division in the Conservative Party now in play:

• US orientation vs European orientation

• English-nationalist orientation vs UK orientation

• Ideological orientation vs traditional pragmatic small-c conservative orientation.

What roles do you think they are playing?

A. Probably the strand to the fore is the US vs European one. That goes to the heart of the Leave-Remain split.

Some of the Tory Remainers are also pro-US, but among the Leavers there is a very strong rejection of Europe and a very strong orientation to the USA.

That orientation is geopolitical, but it also comes down to national identity. It's been thought about by some Conservative intellectuals through the idea of the "Anglosphere" - that Britain is part of the Anglosphere, it's not part of Europe.

Many political and economic implications follow from that. Donald Trump was emphasising some of those in his recent visit, and his ambassador even more so, with the suggestion that a trade deal with the US would have to include access for US companies to the NHS. A trade deal with the US would be a very different package from the arrangements that Britain has with the EU.

A clear division has opened in the Conservative party, certainly at the parliamentary level and the elite level.

It's less pronounced at the level of the party membership, who are quite solidly in favour of a hard Brexit, but the motivation there is less a matter of ideas about the Anglosphere and more a matter of nationalism and social conservatism. The EU is rejected because it's seen as alien to the English national tradition.

Strong English nationalism is an important factor. There are still a lot of Conservatives who place importance on maintaining the United Kingdom, but it's hard to assess how strong that commitment is. If Theresa May had not had to rely on DUP votes after 2017, the Conservatives would have prioritised getting a Brexit deal above DUP concerns.

There are parts of the Conservative party where the Union is still very important, for example in Scotland, but I think it is not nearly as strong as it used to be among the English elite.

Q. Imperial nostalgia has also been cited as a factor.

A. You can see that nostalgia in some of the leading Brexit supporters. I've just been reading some of Jacob Rees-Mogg's new book on the Victorians. It is very interesting as a window on him, less interesting as a work of history.

The complete blindness about the dark side of Empire is mind-boggling.

More generally among Conservative party members, the social conservatism is a wish that Britain should be what it once was rather than what it is now. Part of that is a desire for a much whiter Britain, and a Britain that was much more powerful and independent. You see that strand very clearly outside the Conservative party in Farage.

I wouldn't say that imperial nostalgia was a big factor among the Conservative elite. They've come to terms with the fact that Britain isn't going to get its empire back.

Boris Johnson is an interesting case. When he was visiting Myanmar in January 2017 as foreign secretary, he began reciting Kipling's Mandalay under his breath, and the ambassador had to reprove him.

Johnson is steeped in Kipling and a romantic view of the British Empire; but he is enough of a realist that actually he's quite happy to have Britain dependent on the US, and he doesn't envisage Britain become an independent imperial country again.

Even those most infected by imperial nostalgia, and using it in their discourse, are aware of its limits as a policy position. In fact they want the closest relations with the US and the rest of the Anglosphere.

The idea of the Anglosphere is a strange construct. Under other names it goes back a long way, to the 1880s or earlier. But it is hard to make it material. Canada, Australia, New Zealand, let alone Ireland, long ago developed their own independent foreign policies.

If Johnson becomes prime minister, I'm sure he and Trump will indulge in Anglosphere rhetoric, but the key thing will be a trade deal with the US on terms quite brutal for Britain.

The actual word Anglosphere was invented in the 1990s. A number of intellectuals on both sides of the Atlantic took it up. James Bennett wrote a book called *The Anglosphere Challenge* in 2004 in which he argued that the future lay with a networked commonwealth of the English-speaking countries.

I suspect that the revival of the general idea came from Samuel Huntington, with his 1993 article on *The Clash of Civilisations* and his subsequent book *Who Are We?*, which is about US identity being actually English identity and needing to be defended against a rising tide of Hispanic immigration.

The earlier lineage goes back to Charles Dilke, the radical Liberal MP, who wrote a book in 1868 called *Greater Britain*. The idea then meant an alliance between the two big English-speaking powers, the US and the British Empire.

Arthur Balfour and Theodore Roosevelt were very interested in the idea of the Anglosphere. Churchill emphasised "the English-speaking peoples" and the "three circles" (the British Empire, the US, Europe).

But the United States quickly became so dominant that no other association that Britain had could match it. The US elite has its Anglophiliac element, but also other elements indifferent or hostile to Britain.

Q. Will the Conservative party split?

A. Depending on who is elected as leader, I think that is a strong possibility. If a new leader goes for a hard Brexit without a deal, then part of the Conservative parliamentary party would rather support a vote of no confidence than let that go through.

With a leader like Dominic Raab, a split would be very likely. Boris Johnson is the most untrustworthy figure in British politics, and capable of changing his position on almost anything. Despite what he says, I doubt he would really contemplate a no-deal Brexit because of the financial collapse that would follow. I suspect that as Conservative leader he would tack to the centre and try to hold the Conservative party together.

The obvious thing would be for Johnson, or whoever becomes Conservative leader, to call an immediate general election, because their parliamentary situation is so poor. But the rise of the Brexit party makes that enormously risky. The Peterborough by-election shows the Conservatives how Labour could pick up lots of seats because the vote on the right becomes fragmented between the Conservatives and the Brexit party.

There is no time for a renegotiation. Johnson's only other possibility, besides going for a no-deal Brexit in October, would be to call a referendum, which again would have its risks. But Johnson could live with a referendum which went for Remain.

It's very hard to see how the Conservative party can stay together unless it can resolve the Brexit issue.

It is likely to be a dramatic split in the case of a no-deal Brexit, and otherwise there may be a process of attrition, with the pro-European wing leaving the party or being edged out.

That would be like what happened to the Conservative party before 1914, with the big row over tariff reform and free trade. Churchill left the Conservative party and joined the Liberals because he was a free-trader, and there was a fairly systematic weeding-out of free-trade Conservative MPs in the constituencies. Between about 1906 and 1910 the Conservatives were turned almost entirely into a party of imperial protection, tariff reform, and social imperialism.

That position was maintained through the inter-war years. It was essentially a defensive position to try to hold on to the Empire and fashion into an economic and political bloc which could stand up against both the US and Germany.

There was an implicit anti-US element to it. When in the 1920s Trotsky speculated about the possibility of a military clash between Britain and the US, there was a logic which could have seen that develop. In fact in the early 1900s the free-trade element of the British elite had already made a whole series of concessions to the US in the Western Hemisphere to avoid such a clash.

The division now in the Conservative party is very deep. If a hard Brexit is pushed through by whomever becomes leader, it has huge implications.

Jacob Rees-Mogg has been open about this. It means, for example, giving up car production. The whole pattern of business integration with Europe established over 40 years will be dismantled and unwound. And Rees-Mogg himself says that the benefits may not be apparent for 50 years.

The radical turn in Conservative policy is a bit like the Thatcher period, except that this time they're going into it with their eyes open

They see a cost, but for them the cost is worth paying to free British businesses from the constraints of the European Union.

There was a big shake-out of industry in the early 1980s. Part of it was planned by the Thatcher government; part of it wasn't, but the Thatcher government took it as an opportunity.

There is a new Conservative generation which takes that as a model, and sees new industries growing up after Brexit. Unfortunately they're going for it as we are entering an era of trade wars.

They see it as a matter of reconstructing the British economy, completing the Thatcher revolution, and further dismantling workers' rights and welfare.

Most of the time you can't find politicians who say that outright, but Dominic Raab, in his book *Britannia Unchained*, sets it out very clearly.

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