Michael Moran on The End of British Politics

Michael Moran was Emeritus Professor of Government at the University of Manchester and Professor of Government in the Alliance Business School, University of Manchester, UK. Among his publications are the textbook Politics and Governance in the UK, the monograph The British Regulatory State, and the Palgrave Pivot The End of British Politics?

‘The old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.’  Gramsci’s great aphorism from his Prison Notebooks might have been written with modern British politics in mind.  The End of British Politics?, published in February of this year, was about the death of a political order, the problem of creating some stable successor, and about the many ‘morbid symptoms’ that appeared during the so far unsuccessful struggle for rebirth.  The convulsions of the old order, and the struggle for rebirth, have now been made more tumultuous still by Mrs. May’s decision to call a second general election in the space of two years. 

In one sense the Prime Minister’s calculations are entirely traditional.  The fixed term Parliament Act, passed by the Coalition Government in 2011, was designed to prevent a party in office opportunistically calling a general election when it sensed the chance of a landslide.  The experience of April 2017 showed how ineffective was that measure: a party way behind in the polls, as is the Labour opposition, simply could not oppose the Parliamentary motion to dissolve for fear of being labelled as frightened to face the British people.  Mrs. May’s maneuver is designed both to shore up her small majority, and to confer on herself independence from the many rivals she managed to shoulder aside in claiming the Prime Ministership last July.

So far, so entirely traditional.  But even quite early in the campaign it is plain that bigger forces are at work.  We can sense these, but we cannot know the shape they will eventually take.   What part of the old is dying, and what new thing is being born? It is easier to answer the first half of this question than the second.

Two great forces that helped shape modern British politics are in their death throes; and as it happens, their deaths are connected.  One is the British Labour Party; the other is the ‘Union’ of the United Kingdom.  Labour emerged after the First World War as one of the two great parties of the state, and it prospered by combining three elements.  First, it joined its Conservative rivals as the out and out defender of the Union.  Second, it prospered electorally by its success in capturing the voting loyalties of organised labour. And third, it managed to establish itself not only as the party of ‘workers by hand’ but also of ‘workers by brain.’  Or, to put it more simply, it was led by a metropolitan intellectual elite.  All these elements are passing away.  The Union is splintering along two key historical fault lines, Scotland and Northern Ireland.  The collateral damage caused by that splintering has destroyed Labour as a Parliamentary force in Scotland.  Organised labour as an electoral force is in steep decline, and large sections of the manual working class have deserted the Party.  It appears to be the case that for many of these voters support for UKIP was a staging post in a longer migration to a ‘hard Brexit’, immigrant opposed Conservative Party.  And Labour’s equivocations over Brexit – entirely understandable equivocations as it tries to hold onto working class support – are fracturing its alliance with a metropolitan intellectual elite which is Europhile in its outlook.

We know what is dying; but we have only the glimmer of what is being born.  In a territorially diminished Kingdom – separated from the European Union and probably separated from Scotland -  a new kind of dominant Conservatism is being born – or, at least, that is Mrs. May’s calculation in calling the election.  This Conservatism too is the product of splintering forces.  The substantial section of the Conservative intelligentsia which has been Europhile for a generation, and the even more substantial group of prosperous  Conservative ‘remain’ voters in the booming service economy of  Greater London, are casting themselves adrift without any clear notion of where they might find a home.  The Party is squeezing the life out of UKIP, and in the process acquiring a new electoral base: of voters moved not just by dislike of the European Union but by opposition to immigrants and to cosmopolitanism.  If you thought echoes of Gramsci were apocalyptic, consider the closing words of another great prophetic statement of the 20th century: ‘what rough beast, its hour come round at last/Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?’  Yeats’s The Second Coming was written in 1919, at another moment when the old was dying and the new was yet struggling to be born.  We must only hope that the apocalypse he sensed will not be visited on us.

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