08 July 2016

Strange Brew

David Cameron calls himself a "One Nation" Tory. So does Boris Johnson. In fact it's possible that most Conservative MPs do, as the notion is a rather flexible one. How many of them, I wonder, have read Sybil, Disraeli's great novel (my second favourite, after One Day in the life of Ivan Denisovich), or Coningsby, its predecessor, in which he expounded the One Nation philosophy?
Two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other's habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws . . .
I have a suspicion that many more Conservative MPs have claimed the "One Nation" label than have ever read the books.

When I first read Sybil, back in about 1979, it had a profound effect on my political outlook - reinforcing, I am pleased to say, rather than challenging, my beliefs. Those beliefs sustained me through several years as a very active member of the Conservative party, and through five election campaigns of different types of my own, including the 1983 General Election, as well as the election campaigns of many friends. They were, of course, rather unfashionable beliefs at that time, but when my friend the late Iain Picton described himself as a Disraeliist-Leninist many of us knew what he meant and might have adopted the label ourselves - although I was wary of bringing Vladimir Ilyich into the equation. It did rather suit Iain's approach, though.

It takes only a moment's review of the state of the country to work out that we seem to be further from being one nation than at any time in living memory. Our avowedly One Nation Prime Minister, trying to heal - or at least to bandage - a rift which has split the Conservative party since before I was ever a member (and, for the avoidance of doubt, I gave it up in 1993) has unwittingly opened more cans of worms than he could have imagined existed. The promise of a referendum should have been undeliverable, as in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats the Tories could never have held it: but, would you believe it, the Tories won a majority in Parliament (not, of course, a majority of votes cast) and had to do as they had promised. No big problem, the government must have thought: the "remains" (that brings to mind Robert Venables referring to the HR department at our former firm as "Human Remains", which I hope I can develop into a post-Referendum witticism) will win, because they (that is, broadly, the government, the opposition, the Lib Dems and most others at Westminster) have the best arguments. And the "Leave" campaign was distinctly lacking in star quality, until the only politician in the country with any significant amount of charisma decided to hitch his wagon to the Leave campaign, clearly hoping that it would lead him to No 10 via a glorious and narrow defeat in the referendum. But inadvertently the Leavers won - or, perhaps more accurately, the Remains lost. The similarities between their performance and that of England's footballers against Iceland a few days later are striking.

No-one actually played the race card in the campaign, but there can be no doubt that immigration became probably the biggest issue in the referendum. I have a privileged vantage point, I know, and my memory of the seventies is a bit faded, but I can't remember a time when race relations in this country were as bad as they are now. One Nation? I would laugh, were it not so tragic.

But even the setting of one group of people against another - a foreseeable consequence of the campaign, surely - is not the worst of it. The referendum was treated by a large number of voters as an opportunity to express their feelings about the government, and politicians, in general. Having been treated to years of austerity (during which the gap between the bulk of society and the super-rich grew wider and wider, with the poor becoming poorer, the neither-poor-nor-rich staying much the same, and the super-rich becoming more super-rich), voters were minded to vote, simply, for change. Encouraged by the Leavers to blame everything on the EU, they opted to bail out. Nissan workers in Sunderland, whose jobs only exist because the UK is in the single market, were among the many turkeys to vote for an early Christmas. The county council in Cornwall, where the Leavers were in a majority, is anxious to replace from central government funds the £60 million per annum in grants that it received from the EU: they have got to be joking. Ebbw Vale has also been singled out as a community in receipt of EU largesse which prefers to be out. Not because the voters thought about it, I imagine, but because they were offered an opportunity to tell the political establishment what they thought of it.

I just watched a clip of a BBC programme in which a young man (black English, as it happens) explained that he supported leaving because of the difficulty of finding good work. Partly he blamed the availability of cheap labour from eastern Europe, and surely that must be a problem for the labour market, but he also railed against "zero-hours" contracts and a lack of employment protection. What sort of employment protection will he get in a post-Brexit England governed by a neo-con Tory government (however often they trot out the "One Nation" rubric), freed from the constraints of EU directives? "Zero hours" contracts might be unenforceable in England as a result of Autoclenz Ltd v Belcher [2011] UKSC 41 and Borrer v Cardinal Security Ltd [2013] UKEAT 0416_12_1607 (and see this article) but anyone wishing to see the end of them would be well-advised to look to the EU, not HMG, for help.
The referendum campaign and its aftermath have revealed that the concept of One Nation is far, far removed from what we have. Indeed, what we have could be said to be the antithesis of what Disraeli hoped for. How the gap can be bridged, how England can be returned to its former tranquillity, is difficult to see at the moment, and it seems that the One Nation project would be better served by the flawed EU than a Conservative government.

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