Review

Will Britain’s Conservatives Be in Power Permanently?

A new book argues that Boris Johnson’s government is already losing its grip. Here’s why that’s wishful thinking.

By , a political journalist in Glasgow, Scotland.
Boris Johnson waves after speaking to conference on the third day of the Conservative party conference on October 6, 2015 in Manchester, England.
Boris Johnson waves after speaking to conference on the third day of the Conservative party conference on October 6, 2015 in Manchester, England. Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Not that long ago, the consensus in British politics was that the Conservative Party would struggle to win another majority in the House of Commons. The Tories lost three successive general elections to the Labour Party between 1997 and 2005 and only scraped back into power in 2010 as a minority government after agreeing to rule in coalition with the Liberal Democrats. Much like the Republicans during Barack Obama’s presidency, the Conservatives, it was believed, were geriatric, their voters disproportionately old, white, and rural. They were divided, particularly on the issue of Britain’s membership in the European Union. And they were out of touch. David Cameron, who led the Tories from Downing Street between 2010 and 2016, may have cast himself as a progressive centrist, closer in style to Tony Blair than Margaret Thatcher. But his governing agenda, focused on government austerity, was conventionally right-wing.

Fast forward to 2021 and theories of Conservative decline are harder to come by. Boris Johnson, Cameron’s successor once removed, commands a Commons majority of 83. Until recently, the Tories enjoyed a clear poll lead over Labour. Crucially, Brexit—for years, the main ideological fault line on the British right—has been implemented. Barring a sudden Europhile shift in British public opinion, the days of Tory members of Parliament tearing themselves to pieces over obscure Brussels diktats are done.

This feels, then, like an inauspicious moment to publish a book arguing that the right’s grip on power in Britain is beginning to fade. Yet in Falling Down, the English sociologist and blogger Phil Burton-Cartledge does precisely that—with mixed results.

Not that long ago, the consensus in British politics was that the Conservative Party would struggle to win another majority in the House of Commons. The Tories lost three successive general elections to the Labour Party between 1997 and 2005 and only scraped back into power in 2010 as a minority government after agreeing to rule in coalition with the Liberal Democrats. Much like the Republicans during Barack Obama’s presidency, the Conservatives, it was believed, were geriatric, their voters disproportionately old, white, and rural. They were divided, particularly on the issue of Britain’s membership in the European Union. And they were out of touch. David Cameron, who led the Tories from Downing Street between 2010 and 2016, may have cast himself as a progressive centrist, closer in style to Tony Blair than Margaret Thatcher. But his governing agenda, focused on government austerity, was conventionally right-wing.

Fast forward to 2021 and theories of Conservative decline are harder to come by. Boris Johnson, Cameron’s successor once removed, commands a Commons majority of 83. Until recently, the Tories enjoyed a clear poll lead over Labour. Crucially, Brexit—for years, the main ideological fault line on the British right—has been implemented. Barring a sudden Europhile shift in British public opinion, the days of Tory members of Parliament tearing themselves to pieces over obscure Brussels diktats are done.

Falling Down book cover

Phil Burton-Cartledge, Falling Down: The Conservative Party and the Decline of Tory Britain, Verso, 336 pp., $29.95, September 2021

This feels, then, like an inauspicious moment to publish a book arguing that the right’s grip on power in Britain is beginning to fade. Yet in Falling Down, the English sociologist and blogger Phil Burton-Cartledge does precisely that—with mixed results.

Burton-Cartledge advances two core claims. The first is that demographic trends are hostile to Tory hegemony—over the long term, at least. Conservative electoral success rests on ever-rising rates of asset ownership, he writes. Older Brits who bought property in the 1980s and ’90s lean to the right but will soon start to die off. Their millennial and Gen Z counterparts, on the other hand, can’t get on the housing ladder and won’t, therefore, be voting Tory anytime soon (or in the future).

The second claim is that Brexit has trashed the Tories’ reputation for economic management. The Conservatives have traditionally been the preferred party of the British ruling class, charged with administering the British state for the benefit of the private sector. But most businesses in Britain opposed leaving the European single market, and the stripped-down trade deal Johnson negotiated with the EU last year has damaged U.K. economic growth. The chaotic Brexiteer populism of Johnson’s Vote Leave government thus stands in stark opposition to the “collective interests of British capital as a whole,” Burton-Cartledge writes.

Burton-Cartledge makes some useful points, particularly on the social composition of the Tory base. He is right to argue, for instance, that British politics is increasingly shaped by generational dynamics. At the last U.K. general election in 2019, 57 percent of Brits under the age of 25 voted for Jeremy Corbyn’s left-wing Labour Party. A slightly higher proportion of voters 65 and older backed Johnson’s Tories. Thirty years ago, the age differentials were much less pronounced. This pattern maps onto deeper cultural and class divides. Younger voters concentrate in major metropolitan centers—London, Manchester, Glasgow, Liverpool—where the pressures of the private rental sector and low-paid employment are acute. Older voters, by contrast, are on average more suburban and secure. According to the U.K. Office for National Statistics, nearly three-quarters of British baby boomers own their own homes. The comparative figure for millennials—after more than a decade of stagnant wages and soaring house prices—is less than 40 percent. Older Brits also backed Brexit in much larger numbers than younger Brits and are more likely to share the right’s atavistic approach to issues like immigration, citizenship, and assimilation. Younger Brits are more cosmopolitan in outlook.

Burton-Cartledge’s faith in the inevitable demographic erosion of Tory support is misplaced, however. For one thing, it is difficult to establish a link between economic insecurity and a sustained upsurge in leftist radicalism. Millennial precarity may have fueled the recent socialist insurgencies of Corbyn as well as Bernie Sanders in the United States. But in other Western countries, the far-right is beginning to capitalize on youthful discontent with the status quo. In France, the ultranationalist Marine Le Pen is currently the candidate of choice for voters aged 25 to 34 ahead of next year’s presidential standoff against Emmanuel Macron. And in Germany, the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany drew significant support from the under-30s in a recent provincial election. Dig deeper into “Generation Left’s attitudes and ideas,” James Meadway, a former Labour Party advisor, wrote in July, and “we start to see just how potentially fragile” its enthusiasm for socialism is.

Then there is the looming prospect of a millennial asset boom. In Britain, the postwar generation has amassed a huge amount of on-paper wealth. In 2019, ONS data showed that—largely as a result of Britain’s hyperinflated housing market—1 in 5 Brits over the age of 65 was now technically a millionaire. At some point—albeit not imminently, perhaps—that wealth is going to shift from British pensioners to their adult children. The “great wealth transfer” will exacerbate intragenerational inequalities, with middle and upper-class millennials reaping the benefits of their families’ lucrative property portfolios while working-class millennials miss out. But it could also create a cohort of asset-rich voters hostile to the inflationary spending policies of the left. “[N]o righteous ‘revenge of the millennials’ can be taken for granted,” New York Magazine’s Eric Levitz wrote in July. In fact, their “collective investment in the status quo” may be greater than that of any other generation in history, Levitz said.

The second part of Burton-Cartledge’s analysis is more intricate than the first. Falling Down charts the history of the Conservative Party from the rise of Thatcherism in the late 1970s to the ascent of Johnson after Brexit. The Tories must rank among the most successful political organizations in the world, Burton-Cartledge says. Since 1900, 14 of Britain’s 23 prime ministers have been Conservatives; Tory governments have ruled Westminster for 46 of Britain’s 76 postwar years. To that extent, the Conservatives feel like an embedded feature of Britain’s constitutional architecture, as permanent and unmoving as the Palace of Westminster itself.

The electoral dominance of the British right nonetheless reflects its capacity for adaptation, according to Burton-Cartledge. Tory leaders reluctantly accepted the social democratic reforms implemented by Labour between 1945 and 1951. In the 1980s, Thatcher embraced a more aggressive governing project aimed at defeating the left and restoring capitalist priorities to the heart of the British civil service and government. Cameron’s election as party leader in 2005, following the rise of Blairite New Labour, signaled a shift away from the hard-line social values of the Thatcher era and the emergence of a softer brand of “liberal Toryism,” less hostile to progressive causes like same-sex marriage and climate change.

Johnson’s leadership represents another shift for the party, blending some of the core themes of Thatcherite ideology—an authoritarian appeal to law and order, the belligerent rhetoric of Anglo-British nationalism—with a pragmatic approach to state power. The prime minister’s willingness to commit significant sums of money to a “leveling up” strategy aimed at reducing the regional inequalities in growth and prosperity that have long scarred Britain’s economic landscape suggests he has dispensed with the principal tenets of laissez faire—or, at least, that he is open to a long-term expansion of the U.K. public sector in a way that his recent predecessors, Theresa May aside, were not.

Johnson’s success, of course, is Brexit-dependent. On Jan. 31, 2020, the U.K. left the European Union, resolving the central schism in contemporary British conservatism—how much sovereignty should Britain cede to its continental neighbors?—and decisively unifying the Tories in Parliament after years of internal wrangling. Six weeks earlier, at the U.K. general election on Dec. 12, 2019, Johnson had also won a swath of historically Labour voting seats in the north of England by campaigning on the uncompromisingly simple pledge to “get Brexit done.” Two decades of incremental Labour decline, coupled with a subtle hardening of English national identity since the creation of the Scottish and Welsh parliaments in 1999, helped demolish Labour’s so-called “red wall” and deliver the largest Tory majority in three decades.

These developments, for Burton-Cartledge, throw up a number of challenges that Johnson may or may not be able to meet. Can stoking an intergenerational culture war, fought over Brexit-adjacent issues like the BBC and the British national anthem, disguise the absence of a coherent Tory economic program? Will the food and workers shortages associated with the Brexit crisis eventually prompt an electoral backlash for the Conservatives in middle England or push British business interests into the arms of Labour, now under the struggling centrist leadership of Keir Starmer? Frustratingly, large chunks of Falling Down read like a neutral overview of how the Conservatives have behaved in office, leaving the important analytical questions posed in the opening chapters of the book only partly answered by its end.

Equally, there is little sign of Brexit having disrupted Conservative ties to British capital. In the run-up to the 2019 election, businesses donated just under 6 million pounds ($7.9 million) to the Tories. Labour, on the other hand, received a fraction of that amount—about 200,000 pounds ($263,000)—from businesses. Moreover, Johnson has carefully bolstered his corporate credentials by appointing two former investment bankers—Rishi Sunak and Sajid Javid, both stanch free-marketeers—as chancellor of the Exchequer and health secretary, respectively. If Johnson’s dominance of the Conservative Party has in anyway undermined its “historic propensity to win elections and form governments,” as Burton-Cartledge puts it, or operate as “the indispensable machine for arranging and repeating patterns of dominance and subservience across British society,” the damage, for now, remains well hidden.

By focusing on somewhat vague generational and class trends, Burton-Cartledge overlooks the more obvious fracture opening up beneath the prime minister’s feet. Brexit has confirmed the Conservatives as primarily a party of English nationalism, built around the demands and expectations of an English electorate increasingly indifferent to the future of the U.K. as a multinational state. Scotland’s grievances are chiefly democratic. The Conservatives may be the dominant force at Westminster, but they haven’t won a general election north of the Anglo-Scottish border since 1955. And Scots may have voted overwhelmingly against Britain’s departure from the EU in 2016, but, as a result of Brexit, they have now lost their European citizenship rights just like everyone else in the U.K. These tensions will be difficult to contain. In May, Nicola Sturgeon’s pro-independence Scottish National Party won a fourth term at Holyrood, the devolved Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, on a promise to hold a fresh referendum on leaving the U.K. within the next five years. In 2018, a poll by YouGov found that 63 percent of Conservative Party members would be happy for Scotland to leave the U.K. if it meant Britain could complete its departure from the EU without obstruction. Granted, Brexit may have partially bridged the north-south divide in England, but it has at the same time wrenched open a deeper set of constitutional rifts across the U.K.—rifts that Johnson, who owes his premiership to the growth of Euroskeptic sentiment in England, looks uniquely ill-equipped to manage.

As his victories in the Brexit referendum in 2016 and general elections in 2019 show, Johnson is an astute and effective political campaigner. But he is not cut out for government. His handling of the COVID-19 crisis has been a disaster. No country in Europe has lost more of its citizens, in absolute numbers, to the virus than the U.K., and even now, despite the relative success of Britain’s vaccination program, case rates are higher in the U.K. than in any other European nation. Johnson’s instinct for self-preservation has softened in office, too. On Sept. 7, the prime minister announced plans to boost the post-pandemic social care system through an across-the-board increase in National Insurance payments. As well as discriminating against low-wage workers—Brits making as little as 9,500 pounds ($12,800) per year pay National Insurance contributions—the announcement broke a specific Tory election pledge not to raise taxes. Two days later, on Sept. 9, a new poll of Westminster voting intentions showed Labour ahead of the Conservatives for the first time in 10 months.

Still, the likelihood of any momentary dip in Conservative support marking a permanent decline in the party’s fortunes is slim. If Johnson goes, he can always be replaced by a more competent successor. By the end of Falling Down, even Burton-Cartledge has lost faith in his premise. “No one got rich betting against the Tories,” he concludes. Instead of “How long will the Tories rule Britain?” perhaps the question Burton-Cartledge should have asked was: How long will Britain survive under Tory rule?

Jamie Maxwell is a political journalist in Glasgow, Scotland.
 Twitter: @jamiedmaxwell

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