April 23, 2001
Labour is popular these days. They are masters of all they survey. Conservatism is dead, we are told. This is made more acute by the fact that Labour is wildly popular in certain areas. Ethnic minorities vote overwhelmingly for Labour. Scotland and Wales have no Tory MPs, who exclusively represent English seats, which we are told is a fatal weakness.
Hang on a minute, England contains 85% of Britain's population. This seemingly obvious fact has passed most political commentators by. This fact will be crucial in the coming marginalisation of the left in Britain. There is a potential group of electors, the English, who will now see their interests unite them more than divide them. This will have a potentially revolutionary impact, and it may not be a very pretty result.
Three things have started this particular process. The first is obviously Europe. The case for staying in the European community gets weaker as each day passes. Industries are being regulated away, tariff barriers are the highest in the developed world and we actually pay billions for the privilege. The self-interested case for getting out of the EU is compelling, and the main argument to stay in, that it is nationalistic to be anti-Europe, is obviously going to drive many people into identifying themselves as nationalists.
The second issue is immigration. My opinion on immigration is that it is not such a harmful thing, although I recognise that many people will get hurt by lower wages or higher property prices. This is not the view of the political elite, who regard anything approaching honest debate on immigration as "racism." This has been seen in the last week or so. Labour realises that its opinion poll lead is misleading, as it will have far more trouble motivating its supporters to turn out in this election than will the Conservatives. Ethnic minorities are a sizable group which overwhelmingly supports Labour, but whose turnout is lower than average. This has meant that Labour and its supporters in the government funded Commission for Racial Equality has decided to play the race card, claiming that the Conservatives are racist. In the short term, this will have the desired effect of frightening the ethnic minorities into the polling stations, but it also highlights a growing and unrecognised gulf in society. Immigration is becoming remarkably unpopular, as many people think they feel the effects of lower wages, overloaded public services and higher property prices that are the inevitable corollary of a rapid increase in population. There will be a feeling of "us" and "them" and it will tear the Labour base apart, as the white working class who perceive (often wrongly) that they have been harmed by immigration. The Labour Party will find itself faced with the fissure of its voting base as the English working class identify themselves less as working class and more as English.
The third area is the growing devolution of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. This devolution is not matched by a decrease in public funds or in political influence on Westminster. The desire to live off the English taxpayer and not even say thank you is inevitably going to rankle when the economy slows.
British politics is on the cusp of a breathtaking change, when a new and dominant interest group emerges, the English. This will be driven by both the economic forces listed above as well as by strong cultural pressures. This electoral dominance will not be weakened by Proportional Representation, as the left's problem will not be a split vote but a loss of votes. Similarly, any regionalisation or democratisation in Europe will only strengthen the resentment against the marginalisation of England. For a time British politics will not be dominated by economic class, but by identity.
The left seems to be in a quandary. By adopting the right wing economic agenda, they have now focused politics on identity, which in the short term is indeed benefiting them. However, in the long term it is suicide. In a democracy, power eventually goes to the majority. A party whose electoral base are ethnic minorities, Celts, government employees and multinational executives will simply wither. The Labour Party needs its working class vote. The left will have to focus again on the actual needs of the working class, as it is only if they think of themselves as working class that Labour stands a chance of capturing their votes. The outlook is not promising on that front as the vast majority of Labour MPs come from an almost identical social background as their conservative counterparts and the unions are now too large to be anything other than unrepresentative bureaucracies. The approach of small quasi-Trotskyite sects like Red Action, who are actually organising the working class rather than preaching to it, are on the right lines but are too piecemeal for anything to be done. For the moment, the left does not see the necessity of representing its working class voters' less liberal social views. Doubtless, it will, in the long term.
I do not believe that this means that the Tories will win the next election, but it means that they will win quite a few after that. The Labour party will take a while to re-orient itself to its working class voters. Two of the issues above, Europe and devolution, are essentially political and will at some time be sorted out to English satisfaction, and immigration will stop being such an irritant when the children of immigrants start regarding themselves as English. In the meantime the country will go through a collective shudder comparable to the Northern awakening in the United States in the 1850s, when the Republicans crafted an electoral majority that broke the Southern hold on the federal government.
The purpose of writing this column is to look at British foreign policy, and ask where that leaves it. To be honest I'm not sure. There will certainly be a move away from Europe, but little else is clear. Will Britain (or England) continue being an American cat's paw? If she doesn't, will the independent Britain look into herself, or will she decide to act an imperial part in keeping with her pugnacious national identity? We just can't tell.
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