It’s Not Just the Tories That Are Dying, But English Toryism

The bell tolls for the Anglo-British psyche.

by Adam Ramsay

28 June 2024

Simon Dawson/No 10 Downing Street

The polls agree: this isn’t 1997. The scale of Conservative wipeout expected next week is bigger than that. It is more like the utter collapse of the Liberals 100 years ago.

That evisceration came on the back of three vast events: the first world war, Irish independence, and the expansion of the franchise to women and working-class men.

It’s less obvious what is now crushing the most successful political party in the world.

There are clear reasons why the Conservatives are going to lose badly. Brexit and the various Covid scandals; inflation failures and Liz Truss’s budget; endless corruption crises, and the fact that Keir Starmer has capitulated so much to the rightwing press and City of London that they are happy for him to take over for a bit. All of that adds up to a 1997-style swing, when the Tories went from 343 to 165 seats – roughly halving their numbers.

But current projections show the Conservatives falling from 376 MPs in 2019 to 61 in 2024, about a sixth.

Importantly, this change has largely happened in England. In Scotland and Wales, Tories have trailed their rivals de jour in most elections since the modern Conservative party was founded by Robert Peel in 1833. In Northern Ireland, the Conservatives’ sister party, the UUP went through its equivalent wipeout 20 years ago, when it was replaced by the DUP as the party of Ulster-British nationalism.

But as a Scottish person watching this drama unfold next door, there do seem to be two obvious things going on. One is broad, the other specific.

To understand the ‘broad’ phenomenon, we need to consider what happened in Scotland two decades ago.

Canvassing in the noughties, by far the most common thing people would say was that they were voting the way they were – probably Labour, Liberal Democrat or Tory – because they always had, because their dad (never their mum) always had. “We’re a Labour family”, “we vote Liberal”, etc.

These were deep parts of people’s identities, forged in multigenerational, community-shaping jobs: miners, crofters, factory workers, soldiers…

But, at that same time, the Scottish National party began to convince people whose lives were more precarious – whose careers hadn’t just ceased to be multigenerational, but even lifelong – through millions of doorstep conversations in which they encouraged voters to simply “think about it”. Most didn’t suddenly become loyal SNP voters. But they gradually went from automatically supporting Labour or the Lib Dems to approaching each election with fresh eyes.

It was this deep, sociological change which allowed for the 2015 wipeout of Scottish Labour. But it was never going to entrench SNP support in the way that Labour had dominated Scotland’s central belt for a century, because most people who voted SNP in 2015 didn’t adopt it as a deep part of their identity.

It seems to me that England has gone through a similar process in the past decade. Once, there was 60-70% of the electorate who identified with a particular party. Neither Labour nor the Conservatives ever fell much below 30%. Elections were won or lost through a combination of turning out these bases, and convincing the third of people who were willing to “think about it”.

Now, the percentage of people loyal to any party is much lower. The new era isn’t likely to be one where England settles into a new stable two-party system – as it did with Labour and Tories after 1924. It is instead likely to be much more turbulent, with first-past-the-post adding an absurd chaos card to the mix.

The second change, which is specific, is the collapse of English Toryism.

It is important to understand that Conservative support in England was never simply a material phenomenon: the differences between the economies of England and Scotland aren’t nearly as stark as the gap in voting behaviour.

While Scots are a little more leftwing and socially progressive than English people, polls have long shown that most people on both sides of the Tweed are broadly socially-liberal social democrats, yet, while Scots have tended to vote for parties reflecting those preferences, England has voted for Conservatives largely opposed to those values for most of the last 200 years.

There are two areas where there are bigger differences in attitudes between Scots and the English, which help explain that phenomenon: Scots tend to be much much less enthusiastic about the monarchy, and notably less likely to think the British empire was a good thing. If there is a third, then it is membership of the Anglican church.

What these things point to is the fact that the Tories have always been the party of a certain kind of Anglo-British nationalism – bound up with royalty, the class system, the Church of England, the empire and then yearning for it, and the cultural sense that a certain kind of posh person ought to be in charge, is ‘competent’, or ‘prime ministerial’ and all those other abstractions people fall back on in the polling booth.

Historically, this structure of feeling also came with a broader faith in the British state and Westminster system of government, but the last remnants of that were killed off by the expenses scandal in 2009.

Some of this is ancient, with roots way back to the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. But a lot of it is modern: connected to the birth of Britain as a country rather than an empire in 1945, and its christening at the coronation of Elizabeth Windsor in 1953.

While the Conservatives have been in government for most of the last 20 years, this Tory structure of feeling has been dying underneath them.

Perhaps most dramatic has been the evisceration of the Church of England. As recently as 2016, Anglicanism was a powerful enough force in England that Church of England members were enough to swing the Brexit result, even though every other faith group, including non-believers, voted Remain.

In just eight years, membership of the Church has fallen drastically. Partly, this is because older people have died. Partly, it’s because thousands stopped attending during Covid and never came back. Congregations in 2022 were 20% smaller than 2019.

Similarly, the last few years have seen a decline in the proportion of people saying the empire is something to be proud of. Partly, this will be generational churn: as those who directly took part in imperialism or whose parents did die off, feelings weaken. Partly, automation means tiny numbers are now recruited into the military: since the 1990s, it’s been more likely for a school leaver to go to university.

Just as importantly, I suspect the mass education after the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 had a significant impact, with numerous best-selling books educating hundreds of thousands of English people about horrors that were previously hidden. The reason Tories obsessively attacked ‘wokery’ is that they always knew it was a threat.

Perhaps most profound, though, is the dramatic events in Windsorland over the last five years.

For many, support for the monarchy was a sort of ideological anchor, binding themselves and their identity to a firm seabed: keeping them in a place in the world they felt they understood.

Elizabeth Windsor was at the centre of this worldview: both a symbol and a person, more a deity than a human. While she was carefully apolitical, everything she stood for – hereditary power, the ruling class and the empire, was avowedly Tory. And her continuing life was a constant reminder of that exciting moment when modern Britain was birthed during the war, a little piece of propaganda for its founding mythology: Churchillism.

Since her death, support for the monarchy has fallen to record lows. The Toryism of old has lost its most potent symbol. Hundreds of thousands of people – a vast flotilla of voters – are unmoored. The final institution of the British state in which they believed has gone.

None of this tells us what will happen next. But it does suggest that there is much more to fight for than there has been for a long time.

Adam Ramsay is a Scottish journalist. He is currently working on his forthcoming book Abolish Westminster.

We’re up against huge power and influence. Our supporters keep us entirely free to access. We don’t have any ad partnerships or sponsored content.

Donate one hour’s wage per month—or whatever you can afford—today.

We’re up against huge power and influence. Our supporters keep us entirely free to access. We don’t have any ad partnerships or sponsored content.

Donate one hour’s wage per month—or whatever you can afford—today.