Brexit traced to and blamed on “a tiny caste of Oxford Tories” who “took over the UK”

22 Jul

CHUMS: How A Tiny Caste of Oxford Tories Took Over The UK by Simon Kuper

Simon Kuper has set out to write “a group portrait of a set of Tory Brexiteers – overwhelmingly men – from the traditional ruling caste who took an ancient route through Oxford to power”.

He goes on to suggest that “as well-spoken Oxonians, they were the perfect front-men for what throughout most of modern history has been a unified British ruling caste”.

And he contends that in September 1988, the month before Jacob Rees-Mogg and indeed Kuper started at Oxford, Margaret Thatcher’s Bruges speech

“spooked the Oxford Tories. Ruling Britain was the prerogative of their caste. They didn’t want outsiders in Brussels muscling in. Tory ‘Euroscepticism’ began in part as a jobs protection scheme, much like taxi drivers fighting back against Uber.”

The word “caste”, used in the title of this book and in all three of the passages just quoted from it, is defined by Chambers Dictionary as “a social class in India” or “an exclusive social class”.

Kuper uses it in the latter sense. But the Brexiteers were not an exclusive social class. Anyone who wanted to do so could join in; long before the 1980s Enoch Powell (not an Oxford man) had made the case for national sovereignty; and in 2016 17.4 million people accepted that case.

Maybe Rees-Mogg is like a taxi driver fighting back against Uber. Perhaps Daniel Hannan, Patrick Robertson, Dominic Cummings, Michael Gove, Boris Johnson and various other Oxford undergraduates of this period mentioned in this book were all like so many trainee black cab drivers setting out to preserve the privileges which would be theirs once they showed they had mastered the knowledge.

It is an arresting thought, and possibly not without all merit. One may love the House of Commons, and defend its privileges, long before one ever becomes or even tries to become an MP.

But what about Theresa May, Philip Hammond, David Cameron, George Osborne and Rachel Johnson? Here is another set of Oxford Tories, spread over a somewhat longer period, but all of them coming out for Remain in 2016.

Kuper admits this: “Terrifyingly for Cameron, the referendum had split the ruling class.”

But this was not, as Kuper implies, an exceptional state of affairs. He supposes (see the second quotation above) that throughout most of modern history there has been “a unified British ruling caste”.

This is an odd reading of British history. What was the break with Rome about? The English Civil War? One may posit, if one wishes, a Whig interpretation of history, in which the virtuous side always wins, but heaven knows it is still an argumentative history, full of party strife, battles about religion, royal power, slavery, Ireland, free trade, the widening of the franchise, the creation of the welfare state, trade union power and many other issues which at the time seemed, and usually were, at least as significant and divisive as Brexit.

What Kuper calls the ruling caste has always been split into opposing sides (see the layout of the Commons), and has always been open to newcomers. It is not, in fact, a caste into which one has to be born, but an elite which from a prudent sense of self-preservation admits new, energetic, rising members of society to its ranks, while the torpid sons and daughters of the great pass into obscurity.

Kuper’s essay is engagingly brief, only 196 pages of text, and contains some delightful details about the Oxford of those days. He has spoken to Frank Luntz, an American who studied at Oxford in the 1980s, has since attained eminence as a Republican pollster, and told him:

“I’ve never seen a class of more talented people than that class of 1984-86 at the Oxford Union. I was 22 when I got there and I looked up to people who were 18 or 19 years old, because of their talent.”

Luntz mentions the brilliance of Johnson:

“Boris gave a speech on the Middle East – it’s the best Middle East speech to this day I’ve ever heard, because he talked about it in terms of a playground, and kids attacking the little kid on the playground. Boris created a brilliant metaphor and then made the argument around that.”

Gove, Nick Robinson, now of the BBC, and Simon Stevens, who went on to run the NHS, are also praised as debaters by Luntz:

“Any one of those three, when they rose to intervene, the entire chamber shut up, there wasn’t a sound, because everyone knew that when they were recognised, the [previous speaker] was dead, because they were so incisive. Just bring in the ambulance and take out the body, because the three of them could cut you up and show you your heart before you collapsed. We can’t do that in America, nobody can.”

The art of debating is not the whole of life, may tempt a speaker into deplorable frivolity, but has its uses in a parliamentary system. In the Commons, Gove mounted brilliant if unavailing defences of the May administration.

A skilled debater can turn the tables on an opponent who relies on the conventional wisdom expressed in a platitudinous manner. This is what happened during Brexit: the Remainers were conventional, platitudinous, dull, and ended up speaking only to other Remainers.

Kuper’s book is not about a caste but shows us the early formation of a gang of rebels. Johnson, Gove and the rest delighted in disrupting things. Brexit was to offer them opportunities for disruption on a grand scale.

Hannan and Rees-Mogg started to work out what the argument would be about, but would be the first to say they were inspired by the study of history. Brexit was not a bright idea thought up by a few students in the 1980s. It has in various forms been around for centuries.

Luntz reminds Kuper that Oxford considered Thatcher, who had studied Chemistry there, “the most evil living person on the face of the earth”. More recently, during Brexit, Oxford thought the same of Johnson.

When Johnson was at Balliol, it was an astonishingly left-wing college. Not for nothing did Matthew Arnold call Oxford the “Home of lost causes, and forsaken beliefs, and unpopular names, and impossible loyalties!”

While Johnson was at the university, followed some years later by Hannan and Rees-Mogg, anti-Thatcherism was the lost cause to which Oxford remained loyal in defiance of whatever was going on in the outside world.

Johnson has said he was “conscious of right-wing feelings” and “realised he had Tory tendencies” when he saw students at Oxford collecting money during the miners’ strike, which lasted from March 1984 to early 1985:

“I was appalled by the way middle-class kids were going around supporting Arthur Scargill when it was quite obvious he was leading the poor miners to utter perdition and doing them no bloody good at all.”

It is characteristic of Oxford, and of other elite institutions, that they attempt with almost manic enthusiasm to dissociate themselves from any opinion which might be regarded as reactionary, and to recruit from the widest possible range of backgrounds. As Jonathan Barnes, one of Johnson’s tutors and afterwards Professor of Ancient Philosophy at the Sorbonne, told me when I was researching my first book about Johnson, it was no advantage in the 1980s to have been to Eton if you wanted a place at Balliol:

“On the contrary, there was a pretty strong prejudice against public schools. I should say it was the college’s policy – powerfully urged by some tutors and implicitly accepted by most – that, other things being equal, a candidate from an ‘unfavoured background’ should be preferred to one from a favoured background (anglice: prefer the rotten schools to the good).”

How attached we British journalists are to our stereotypes. Oxford’s conscientious efforts to educate Britons from unfavoured backgrounds are treated as quite insufficient by Kuper, a columnist for the Financial Times. At the end of his book, he says it would be best to stop Oxford and Cambridge teaching undergraduates: “That would remove Oxbridge’s biggest distortion of British life.”

How unfair this is on an Oxford renowned throughout the globe as a place of light, liberty and learning; distinguished in many different disciplines, including vaccines; possessed of a thousand unassuming merits which have nothing to do with the Union or the Bullingdon.

Kuper is alert to the deficiencies of the Oxford Union style, the tendency to substitute some glib debating point for hard-headed analysis, but here displays the very weakness he condemns in others.

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Johnson represented the licentious, disrespectful, unofficial, eighteenth-century tradition in British politics. It has not suffered a final defeat.

8 Jul

Few politicians are easier to misunderstand than Boris Johnson. People seize hold of one aspect of him, and persuade themselves they have grasped the whole.

So he is often portrayed as a rule-breaker. This is why he had to go: he had no respect for the rules, and expected to be allowed to get away with breaking them whenever he liked.

The most quoted words from my book about his early life are not by him or me, but by Martin Hammond, his housemaster at Eton, in a school report written on 10 April 1982, when his pupil was 17:

“Boris sometimes seems affronted when criticised for what amounts to a gross failure of responsibility (and surprised at the same time that he was not appointed Captain of the School for next half): I think he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else.”

His critics say Johnson has not changed in the succeeding 40 years. Those responsible for upholding “the network of obligation” have found him a repeat offender.

Conservative MPs have wearied of such disgraceful behaviour, and have accordingly defenestrated him.

This account is true. The only difficulty, if one wishes to understand Johnson (which admittedly not everyone does), is that it is not the whole truth.

Johnson’s next school report, written by Hammond on 25th July 1982, began with a number of further criticisms:

“Efficiency and organisation have been constant problems (there was trouble this half with his running of the Political Society, and an unprecedented rebuke from the Provost).”

There followed an astonishing change of tack:

“It was perhaps a bit of a risk to make Boris Captain of the School: but he clearly has the personality and the respect necessary for the job, and it’s my hope that the imposition of a public responsibility will energise all else.”

Johnson at the second attempt has got to the top, and has done so pretty much on his own terms.

If one wishes, one can simply deplore this, and declare that he should never have been allowed to get away with it, any more than he should have been allowed in 2019, at the second attempt, to become Conservative Party leader, and to do so pretty much on his own terms.

It is possible to treat his career as a morality tale, in which bad consequences flow from tolerating bad behaviour, but eventually justice is done. “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily,” as Miss Prism puts it in The Importance of Being Earnest.

But her next words are: “That is what Fiction means.” Real life is more complicated. Johnson had, and has, good qualities as well as bad. Hammond recalled:

“He was passionately loyal to his House, his school. In an odd way, he likes an ordered world, not a random world. Boris was not a rebel at all. He was a fully signed up member of the tribe. He was jolly nearly the custodian of the ark. Everything that went into being at College Boris embraced whole-heartedly – Latin prayers, bellowed hymns.”

This aspect of Johnson tends to be overlooked by those who see him as a purely subversive figure. He loves the institutions to which he has belonged.

These include Eton, Balliol, The Daily Telegraph and The Spectator. He doesn’t want to overthrow them: he wants them to thrive.

So too the study of Latin and Greek: he loves ancient as well as modern languages. Johnson is in fact in many ways a reassuringly traditional figure, who appeals to other traditionalists.

Why then his disrespect for the rules? Because that too is part of our tradition.

Rules are made to be broken. Live and let live. Laugh to scorn the prigs, martinets and jacks in office who presume to tell us, in minute detail, how we should lead our lives.

Johnson has always been sceptical about rules. He tests them to see whether they are necessary, and often finds they are not.

On almost any question, he can be found changing his mind, trying out different opinions, some of which contradict each other.

But we live in an age when all sorts of questions of behaviour are regulated by codes.

The individual is not trusted to make up his or her mind, in the light of prevailing circumstances. Nothing is left to personal judgement. It is not supposed we might manage to work things out for ourselves.

We are instead at every turn invigilated. The Ministerial Code saps ministerial independence, and becomes a means for Downing Street to enforce its will across all departments.

Much of the media enters with enthusiasm into the discovery of occasions when offenders have been treated with undue indulgence.

What fun it is to be a moralist, shaking one’s head over some politician’s failure to uphold the letter of every petty rule.

This, palpably, was not Johnson’s style of politics. He went too far in the other direction, became too free and easy, and now he has been punished.

Judgement on him was pronounced by his fellow Conservatives, which is as it should be. They decided they had had enough, and out he went.

Our constitution worked as it should. A political judgement was arrived at by politicians. Johnson lost his majority in the House of Commons, a point brought home by the attacks on Wednesday on him from his own benches, and by the resignation of over 50 members of the Government.

What will become of Johnson? It is too early to say. But his overthrow does not mean the licentious, disrespectful, unofficial, 18th-century tradition in British politics has suffered a final defeat.

It is still there, beneath the surface, awaiting either the revival of Johnson, or the emergence of some new champion.

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The Miller judgment – another blow against hate crime legislation

21 Dec

With all the doom and gloom about Coronavirus in the news, it’s been hard to think of much else than whether Christmas is going ahead or not. But yesterday the media had another big story to talk about, in the shape of a landmark legal ruling.

Harry Miller, a former police officer from Humberside, has been victorious in challenging police guidance, which once saw his social media posts recorded as “non-crime hate incidents”, at the Court of Appeal. His is, at the very least, an important victory for free speech.

To recap on the events that led to this moment…. In 2019, Miller found himself in trouble with the police after he posted alleged transphobic tweets. Infamously, he retweeted a a limerick with the line “Your breasts are made of silicone, your vacina goes nowhere”, only to find the police knocking at his door.

“We need to check your thinking”, they advised him. In total, 30 of his tweets/ retweets were recorded on the national database. (Worryingly, police have been able to do this in the past without those accused of hate crime incidents knowing – which can cause issues when future employers want to do a criminal records check).

Miller was not one to accept any of this, however. Those who have been following his case will know that he went to great lengths to achieve yesterday’s verdict, backed by the Free Speech Union.

Originally Miller challenged the actions of Humberside Police and the College of Policing guidance at the High Court, but he only proved successful on the first count. While the court deemed Humberside Police’s actions “disproportionate”, it resisted attempts to change policing guidance – which allows forces to record “gender critical” views as non-crime “hate incidents” – saying that it served “legitimate purposes”.

The Court of Appeal decided otherwise, however. Dame Victoria Sharp, one of England’s most senior judges who presided over the case, said that guidance had been “exceptionally wide”. She warned that there was nothing in it “about excluding irrational complaints”, and no mechanisms to “address the chilling effect which this may have on the legitimate exercise of freedom of expression.” 

Her words further emphasise two of the main issues with hate crime legislation, which is a) its scope and b) that it relies too much on perception of whether someone shows hostile intent.

The guidance defines a hate incident as “any non-crime incident which is perceived, by the victim, or any other person, to be motivated by hostility or prejudice”, but this clearly puts far too much emphasis on subjective interpretation of what’s “hateful”, with no incentive for the police to find more concrete evidence.

There are several things to say about this verdict. One is that it further protects the rights of “gender critical” activists – “gender critical” being, from my understanding, an umbrella term to describe those who believe sex is immutable – many of whom increasingly feel their position is under threat (see: the backlash against JK Rowling).

In general, it makes the police far likely to pop over, should they hear reports of a problematic tweet (something that should never result in such a call, incidentally).

The more depressing question is why the case ever got to court in the first place. As I have written before for ConservativeHome, there now seems to be a whole industry of “common sense” legal battles, in which victims of the woke (from police forces to Eton headmasters) need crowdfunders, and other types of monetary support, to achieve justice. It is an utter waste of everyone’s time, in the end.

Nonetheless Miller’s outcome is a wake up call, forcing people to, yet again, revisit hate crime, and if it needs serious reform. Already this year Priti Patel asked the College of Policing to stop classifying non-crimes as hate crimes – a good start – but the Government is up against campaigners for whom legislation will never go far enough. Scotland, for instance, passed legislation for “stirring up hatred”, in one particularly sinister new development.

With police recording 120,000 ‘non-crime hate incidents’ between 2014 and 2019, the question may not be whether we should re-write legislation, but rip it up and start all over again. When a limerick becomes an offence, we know we have a big problem. Let’s hope Miller’s victory, at the minimum, draws a line in the sand.

Daniel Hannan: Forget Rayner and ‘scum’. It was Reeves’ interview this week that revealed why Labour is unelectable.

29 Sep

Lord Hannan of Kingsclere is a Conservative peer, writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

The moderates’ response was more telling than Angela Rayner’s original outburst. Calling Conservatives “scum” is hardly a new departure for Labour, as anyone who has been at either party conference will attest.

Indeed, an anthropologist coming new to the peculiar dialect of the British Left might assume that “Toriskum” was their standard word for people outside their tribe.

Rayner had simply rattled off one of those compound phrases that Lefties use: homophobic, racist, misogynist, absolute pile of banana republic Etonian piece of scum.”

OK, Etonian was a colourful addition (and a questionable one if the speaker’s intention was to suggest that you shouldn’t categorise or “other” whole groups of people) but, apart from that, it was a standard collocation: a stringing together of words that are so often placed next to one another that the speaker isn’t really thinking about their individual meanings.

In Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell calls it duckspeak, a term of approbation in Party circles, meaning “to make articulate speech issue from the larynx without involving the higher brain centres at all.”

Much more interesting was the way in which supposedly grown-up, centrist Labour front-benchers reacted when asked about their deputy leader’s tirade. Well, they said, Angela might have used slightly OTT language, but her essential point was sound: this was indeed a hateful administration.

Typical was the interview given by Rachel Reeves, the Shadow Chancellor, on Monday’s Today Programme. Nick Robinson asked her whether that list of adjectives was entirely fair when the Tories had had two female prime ministers, when two of the four great offices of state were held by women and two by British Asians, and when the education and health secretaries were also Asian, the business secretary black and so on. Here is how she answered:

“Look at what happened during the pandemic, where if you’re from a black, Asian or minority ethnic background, you’re more likely to get the virus, more likely to die from the virus. The virus exposed some of those divisions and inequalities in society. I do understand why a lot of people feel very angry with this government. I feel angry with them as well.”

Robinson let it pass and, as far as I can tell, no one else has picked it up. But that response struck me as far more revealing than Rayner’s rant. Here was Labour’s Shadow Chancellor – in a BBC interview, not in some high-spirited speech to activists – accusing the Conservatives of causing needless deaths on grounds of race.

Whether they were doing so through neglect or out of some hidden Nazi impulse was left unsaid. But the differential in death rates was, in Reeves’ view, plainly ministers’ fault. Her suggestion that it was proper to “feel very angry with this governmentwas a straight imputation of blame.

It is true that, especially in the first wave, ethnic minorities were more vulnerable. No one knows exactly why. Epidemiologists have proposed different theories. Some link the higher fatality rate to being in more exposed occupations; others to multi-generational households; others to genetics; others to a greater incidence of pre-existing conditions; others to being a more urban population; others to vitamin D deficiency, which is more common in dark-skinned people at relatively sunless latitudes. More recently, differential rates in vaccine take-up have been identified as a factor, though that obviously didn’t apply during the first wave.

Maybe one or more of these explanations are correct; maybe it’s something else entirely. I have no idea. Neither have you. Neither has Reeves. But she thought nothing of blaming the deaths on Tory racism – an astonishingly serious charge to level if you’re not in a position to back it up.

My purpose is not to have a go at the Shadow Chancellor. In most interviews, she has struck me as pleasant, polite and personable. That’s the point. So natural is it in Labour circles to assume that people to your Right are murderous bigots that even the sensibles do it; and, when they do, no one bats an eyelid.

To see how odd it is to level such accusations, consider the related question of whether Covid is more dangerous to men or to women. Here, the differential is far greater than among ethnic groups. Although the sexes are equally likely to catch the virus, men are nearly three times more likely to need intensive treatment, and are significantly more likely to die.

Again, there are competing theories as to why, though here there is a clear front-runner, namely differences in immune response systems which make women less vulnerable to some viruses.

No one, to my knowledge, has tried to argue that the higher death-rate among people who carry a Y-chromosome is the result of sexism, and rightly so – it would be an absurd proposition.

But suppose, for the sake of argument, that the differential had been the other way around, and that women had been likelier to lose their lives. Would Labour MPs have followed the science and concluded that biological differences were beyond the power of the state, or would they have blamed Tory misogyny? I think we all know the answer.

Here, in a nutshell, is why Labour is struggling to make progress. It keeps stirring up a culture war that, in present circumstances, it can’t win. Its obsession with identity politics – organisers of Labour meetings in Brighton were declining to take questions from white men on grounds that they needed to talk less and listen more – puts it hopelessly at odds with the majority of British people.

It is possible, I suppose, that the majority will eventually shift, as woke youngsters grow up, carrying their values with them. Britain might end up like Canada (or at least English-speaking Canada) where there is genuine electoral demand for a measure of identity politics.

But that shift, if it happens, is many years away. In the meantime, the ugly combination of wokery and self-righteousness is as repulsive to the electorate as Corbynism was.

What an extraordinary state of affairs when our second party votes, by 70 per cent to 30, to condemn the defence pact with Australia and the United States as “a dangerous move that will undermine world peace”.

How shameful when the Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition, the man aspiring to lead the next government, supports that motion. What a bizarre situation when he cannot bring himself to say that someone with a cervix is a woman.

I feel almost sorry for Keir Starmer, caught as he is between the electorate and his aggressively pacifist, bitterly internationalist, viciously tolerant activists. Still, what a needless and self-inflicted row. Never mind the cervix, Sir Keir. Consider, more immediately, the arse, the elbow and the difference between them.

Ashcroft goes in search of the real Starmer

21 Aug

Red Knight: The Unauthorised Biography of Sir Keir Starmer by Michael Ashcroft

Michael Ashcroft specialises in getting there first. Within the last two years he has brought out the first biographies of Rishi Sunak (reviewed here) and Jacob Rees-Mogg (reviewed here), this week he offers us the first life of Sir Keir Starmer, and he has promised that “early in 2022” we shall get his account of Carrie Johnson.

There is an excitement in being first. One feels like an archaeologist excavating a site which no rival has yet touched.

I had this experience in 2004, when I began researching the early life of Boris Johnson, tipped at that time as the next Conservative Prime Minister.

Starmer has led a quieter life than Johnson. A search of all 72 issues of The Leeds Student (the weekly newspaper for Leeds University) published during Starmer’s time reading law there (1982-85) yielded a single reference to him, published in the “Personals” column on 27 January 1984:

“Keir Starmer, King of Middle-Class Radicals.”

As Ashcroft writes, this arresting phrase “was almost certainly an in-joke between friends”. He uses it as the title for a chapter, and speculates that Starmer was already “fending off accusations of being more bourgeois than he would care to admit”.

While at Leeds, Ashcroft concludes, Starmer “did not seek the spotlight, but was instead cautious, modest and restrained”, and concentrated on getting a good degree.

Which he did, taking a first and proceeding to postgraduate law studies at Oxford University, where he was at St Edmund Hall from 1985-86.

During this period, “Oxford was awash with future front-rank politicians”, including David Cameron, Jeremy Hunt, Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, Radek Sikorski, Ed Balls and David Miliband.

Johnson, regarded by many of his contemporaries as a future Prime Minister, was at that stage the best known of these aspirants. In early 1986 he was elected (at the second attempt) President of the Oxford Union, and the following year just failed (to his bitter disappointment) to take a first in classics, having done almost no academic work except for an inadequate last-minute spurt.

Starmer spent, by his own account, “an intense year studying” in Oxford, which “confirmed me in my choice of pursuing a career as a human rights advocate, both here in the UK and abroad.”

It is not hard to think of circumstances in which this contrast could work to Starmer’s advantage. One can well imagine that Johnson’s mastery of the theatre of politics, and patchy approach to study, might create a reaction in favour of a less dramatic but more conscientious Prime Minister.

On the other hand, if it does, the Conservatives will attempt to install a less dramatic but more conscientious figure of their own.

Starmer has long been at pains to emphasise his working-class origins. Ashcroft looks into this class question with great care, and suggests that petit bourgeois would be a more accurate term, though that implies a cultural narrowness of which there is no sign.

For Starmer won a place at Reigate Grammar School in 1974, at a time when it was still, just, “a proper state grammar school”, as one of the teachers recalls, where “the ability level of the pupils was amazingly high”.

Starmer was a gifted musician, “good enough at the flute to be an exhibitioner at the Junior Guildhall School of Music”, to which he travelled for lessons on Saturday mornings.

He was also an accomplished footballer, who captained the school team in his last year “and proved a good leader both on and off the field”.

On the bus each morning to school, Starmer, a member of the East Surrey Young Socialists and an atheist, honed his wits in a running argument about politics, and also about religion, with a fellow pupil, Andrew Sullivan, a liberal conservative and Roman Catholic who was elected president of the Oxford Union and has since become a well-known commentator in the United States.

In 1976 Reigate Grammar School escaped abolition by going independent (though under the transitional arrangements Starmer continued to attend without his parents having to pay fees).

Andrew Adonis recently pointed out, in a piece for Prospect entitled “Boris Johnson: The Prime Etonian”, that in the 1970s, “having been for centuries essentially a comprehensive for the aristocracy, Eton changed into an oligarchical grammar school”:

“Just as Eton and the other top public schools were mutating into warped meritocracies, the grammar schools were abolished, so the competition largely left the field. It was strangely unrealised by Labour politicians of the era that the esprit de corps and academic prowess of the grammar schools had been vital to the left’s ability to take on the Tory public school elite on equal terms.

“The main political casualty of Labour’s comprehensivisation of education turned out to be the Labour Party itself, which thereafter lacked leaders with the confidence to match the gilded grammar school generation of Wilson, Healey and Jenkins, while the new breed of ‘meritocratic’ Etonians and fellow public school boys—girls were still rare, and girl Etonians non-existent—remained deep blue.”

Johnson used quite often to declare, with passionate sincerity, that competition is an essential part of education, so is academic selection, and so is studying subjects, such as Greek and Latin grammar, where there are right and wrong answers.

Competition suited him, and it suited Starmer, though the latter’s subjects at A level seem to have been maths, physics and chemistry, in which there are likewise right and wrong answers.

Conservatives still argue rather fruitlessly about grammar schools, but for Labour the whole subject of education, and how to reconcile the democratic thirst for equality with unequal distribution of ability and society’s need for a highly educated elite, is even more difficult.

Starmer’s parents were keen supporters of their local theatre, the Barn in Oxted, and attended plays and concerts all over Surrey. His father, a toolmaker, had his own business, and cared devotedly for Keir’s mother, born in 1939, who at the age of 11 was found to be suffering from Still’s disease.

Her consultant at Guy’s Hospital, Dr Kenneth Maclean, received her parents’ permission to administer the new steroid cortisone to her, which for a long time enabled her to live a much fuller life than had been expected.

Keir did not have a close relationship with his father, a man of rugged independence who late in life sent a round robin Christmas letter in which he remarked of “some of the residents in Oxted”:

“The posher the voice, the more vulgar they are.”

Ashcroft finds this “rather gratuitous”, but I find it admirable, an expression of the Englishman’s ancient right to be as rude as he likes about those who give themselves airs.

I would guess Starmer finds Johnson vulgar, but doesn’t quite know how to say this. One of the melancholy conclusions to be drawn from this book is that Starmer has yet to offer any phrases to the world which are likely to survive him.

Ashcroft takes us through Starmer’s increasingly successful legal career, culminating, after he has served as Director of Public Prosecutions, in a knighthood. His parents drive up from Surrey for the ceremony, bringing with them a Great Dane, a rescue dog called Chip, who they are told they cannot bring into Buckingham Palace, until Chip licks the police inspector’s face and they are all allowed through, with a member of staff volunteering to look after the dog.

The Starmers, she by now confined to a wheelchair, watch their son kneel in front of Prince Charles and reckon they are “the proudest parents there”. This is the stuff to give voters in the Red Wall seats who doubt whether Labour is still patriotic.

But it is also something their son feels an overwhelming urge to play down, for like most members of the modern Establishment, he wants somehow to deny that he belongs to it, and to emphasise his ordinariness.

As Ashcroft points out, this makes it impossible for Labour to talk convincingly about aspiration, the opportunities to better oneself which industry and ability can open to anyone in this country.

Unwearying egalitarianism undermines pride in individual achievement. Of course, any individual achievement also reflects credit on family, school, friends, colleagues etcetera.

But Starmer comes across as a bit of a bore (which actually he isn’t) because he feels a moral obligation virtually never to give credit to individuals, and to the difference they can make, but always to be collective and inclusive.

Until recently, Starmer could have served as a barrister and an MP at the same time, which would have given him more practice at speaking like a politician rather than a human rights lawyer.

This book will be found invaluable by anyone seeking to work out what kind of a person Starmer really is.

Hurrah for the Eton master’s victory. But how much time and money has been wasted on common sense campaigns?

16 Aug

In the last few days, Will Knowland, an Eton College master fired over a “controversial” Youtube lecture on gender, has been cleared of professional misconduct by the Teaching Regulation Agency (TRA).

The TRA did not consider that “at its highest, the comments” made in the video “could amount to unacceptable professional conduct” – after it went through some of the most sensational claims (“a world without men would be awful for women”).

Anyone who’s watched the thing, titled The Patriarchy Paradox, will be astonished that it caused such a hoo-ha, from Knowland’s dismissal, to the subsequent publicity and then the hearing. The video is opinionated, but it’s fairly banal stuff. Furthermore, it was delivered as part of Eton’s Perspectives curriculum, designed to encourage debate, and it’s clearly meant to spark a reaction.

And yet, while defending himself to the TRA, Knowland had to challenge claims that his lecture “was offensive to women and to LGBT people, and that it breached fundamental values of tolerance and respect.”

In the wake of the news, The Free Speech Union tweeted its delight about Knowland being cleared, who is one of its members. Obviously this is a great relief and victory for free speech. But on a wider note, I can’t help thinking about the money (Knowland’s crowdfunder raised £108,136) and resources that have been wasted on these campaigns, which uphold common sense.

Nowadays there seems to be a whole industry of employees having to take employers/otherwise to court over issues we could probably settle in the pub. One of the most famous examples is that of Maya Forstater, who lost her job after arguing – get your smelling salts out – that people cannot change biological sex. 

People like Knowland and Forstater, and everyone else having to stand up for the obvious, are incredibly brave, in a world where common sense is the new controversy (I contributed to Forstater’s campaign, to give you an idea of where I stand). But how did we get to the point where she had to go to the High Court because she thinks “sex is immutable” (as most of the population does)?

Similarly, in recent times I have been getting through podcasts and literature on trans issues. There are some very interesting books out on the subject, such as Irreversible Damage by Abigail Shrier and Trans by Helen Joyce. 

I like these writers very much; Shrier has incredibly compelling prose and Joyce has a fantastic, philosophical mind. But part of me is also a bit cross that some of the most brilliant female thinkers now devote huge intellectual energy to proving that biological sex exists. Not least because their fiercest critics will never bother to read their intricate and counterbalanced arguments. What a waste of everybody’s time (NB. I still really like these books!).

How did the common sense legal/ literary market come about? Twitter and its ability to completely distort public perceptions of the majority. Endless organisations and MPs now have one person in the back of their mind, when deciding policies – and that’s mainly the most offended.

This week, for instance, Scotland decided that four-year-olds should decide their gender, in a move that surely most of the population disagrees with. What will the counter-movement be? A crowdfunder? Huge intellectual effort expended to state the obvious? A new political party? Or could leaders actually get a grip…

At some point, the crowdfunders and books, and the rest, have to go – and common sense has to prevail in every realm of our lives.

Johnson now has the serious task of restoring pride to the working class, failed by Labour

24 Jul

The New Snobbery: Taking on Modern Elitism and Empowering the Working Class by David Skelton

If David Skelton had delayed publication of this book by many more months, he would have had to rename it The New Orthodoxy.

For the lessons he urged in his last book, Little Platoons: How a revived One Nation can empower England’s forgotten towns and redraw the political map, are becoming more and more widely accepted.

That book was reviewed on ConHome in October 2019, and in December of that year Boris Johnson redrew the political map by leading the Conservatives to victory in many of the forgotten towns.

Or the blue remembered towns, as one might now call them. The initiative now lies with the Conservatives.

The “new snobbery” identified by Skelton is mainly a problem for the Labour Party, which needs to regain the seats it lost in 2019, and cannot do so as long as voters in places like Hartlepool, captured by the Conservatives at a by-election held less than three months ago, feel despised by many on the Left.

That astonishing result came just in time for Skelton, who writes:

“Once the scale of the Hartlepool defeat for Labour had become clear, elements of the Left indulged in another round of electorate blaming. One claimed that the problem for the Left was that ‘a huge number of the general public are racists and bigots’ and asked, ‘How do you begin to tackle entrenched idiocy like that?’ Another claimed, ‘We don’t have an opposition problem. We have an electorate problem.'”

Skelton has collected much snobbery of this kind, some of which he quotes in his piece this week for ConHome.

In his book Skelton reminds us that such sentiments are not new. Here is Engels to Marx in November 1868, as newly enfranchised working-class voters supported “reactionary” parties:

“The proletariat has discredited itself terribly.”

Nobody has put it better than Engels. The workers often refuse to behave as progressive middle-class intellectuals instruct them to behave.

Skelton writes in a rushed, clumsy and gloomy tone about the dreadful delusions of the leftie intellectuals, but surely they have more cause for despondency as they contemplate Johnson’s to them incomprehensible success.

Lunatic “woke” nostrums, and attempts by their adherents to usher in a tyranny of virtue, cry out for a new Michael Wharton who helps us laugh to scorn these impertinent attempts to purify our history, language, institutions and the rest.

Earlier this week, I met a peer who has just been on one of the courses where members of the House of Lords are taught how to behave. He took it all with the utmost docility, but at the end asked his instructor whether it was all right to be rude to an Old Etonian.

“Oh yes,” she replied without a moment’s thought.

And perhaps that is one of the things people like about Johnson. One can be as rude as one wants to him and he doesn’t seem to mind.

The Prime Minister has an old-fashioned idea of liberty, as involving a degree of tastelessness; a propensity to live and let live; and a willingness to tease the Puritans, not least by avoiding a culture war fought on their own ineffably humourless terms.

We now have Wharton, not as a columnist for The Daily Telegraph, but as Prime Minister: a man capable of seeing the absurdity of everyone, including himself.

But there is another part of Skelton’s story where gloom is understandable. The destruction of great industries, the loss of skilled trades, the humiliation of proud workers reduced to scraping a precarious existence, is the dismal post-war story in town after town.

The example closest to Skelton’s heart is the closure in 1980 of the great steelworks in his home town of Consett, a topic dealt with at greater length in his previous book.

One of the worst things about the nationalisation after the Second World War of the commanding heights of the British economy was that decisions were no longer taken locally, but in London, where it was easier to pretend that parsimonious investment, limited by Treasury rules and recurrent public spending crises, would be adequate to modernise these grand old industries.

Local pride and ownership were lost. Now everyone owned the plant, which meant nobody owned it, and its future was in the hands of distant politicians and officials who for the most part had no deep knowledge or commitment.

The nationalised industries declined into job-preservation schemes which failed even in their own terms, a series of doomed rearguard actions as the great names of British manufacturing went under.

Just as modern architecture done on the cheap in the 1950s and 1960s led increasing numbers of us to shudder at the idea of allowing anything to be built, so regional policy and industrial policy were discredited by a lengthening record of failure.

In his recent Levelling Up speech, Johnson lamented the “basic half-heartedness” of the 40 different schemes or bodies which over the last 40 years have tried to boost local or regional growth.

He admitted that “for many decades we relentlessly crushed local leadership” because “we were in the grip of a real ideological conflict in which irresponsible municipal socialist governments were bankrupting cities”.

Now, he rejoiced, “that argument is over and most of the big metro mayors know that private sector investment is crucial”.

So we are at last returning to local leadership. That at least is the idea. We can be pragmatic rather than ideological, and can bring everyone together in a particular locality in order to do what works.

Skelton agrees that we should not allow ourselves to get “stuck in the endless trenches of a culture war”.

He observes that the Labour Party “emerged from those great institutions of working-class life: the chapel and the trade union”, but that the proportion of Labour MPs who were manual workers “has fallen from almost 20 per cent in 1979 to less than three per cent today”.

The party has become obsessed by cultural issues, and has forgotten that secure, well-paid work is what matters to its former voters.

Let the Labour Party debate cultural issues to its heart’s content, while the dignity of work is championed by the Conservatives.

Skelton wants to formalise “the partnership between workers and employers” by putting workers on boards, which he thinks would “help to rein in the excesses of executive pay”, and would “increase productivity, enhance retention and promote a long-term focus”, instead of short-term expedients to increase shareholder value.

Every successful Conservative leader from Disraeli to the present day has taken seriously the requirements of the working class, and has thereby triumphed over priggish middle-class Liberals and Socialists who supposed they were the true guardians of the workers. Here is a serious task for Johnson.

Profile: The Church of England, afflicted by a central bureaucracy which is mounting a takeover bid

15 Jul

“I am indeed in an absolute fury,” my friend, a liberal Catholic priest in the Church of England, said when I rang to ask about the latest row shaking the Church.

“It’s a coup led by the Archbishop of Canterbury. It’s an evangelical take-over. It’s having a direct impact on clergy who are not evangelical. They are being ousted.”

“It’s Putinesque – silently under the radar they’ve been moving, and at this point it’s surfaced.”

What could have provoked such an outburst? Some words by Canon John McGinley, head of church-planting development at New Wine, who explained why the Church of England is right to have adopted the astonishing target of setting up 10,000 new, mostly lay-led churches in the next ten years, with a million new members:

“Lay-led churches release the Church from key limiting factors. When you don’t need a building and a stipend and long, costly college-based training for every leader of church . . . then actually we can release new people to lead and new churches to form. It also releases the discipleship of people. In church-planting, there are no passengers.”

This suggests that parish clergy get in the way of growth, while some of the rest of us are mere “passengers”. Stipendiary priests are a “key limiting factor”, as are their education and the buildings in which they work.

Not surprisingly, many of the clergy are furious to find themselves described in this way. They have worked through the pandemic, surmounted innumerable problems to keep their churches going, ministered to any number of people in desperate need, and received little enough support from a hierarchy which during the first lockdown assented without a murmur of protest to the closure of church buildings and the exclusion of the clergy even for the streaming of services without congregations, as if that presented any risk to public health.

Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, led the way by celebrating Easter 2020 from his kitchen, rather than from the perfectly good chapel in Lambeth Palace.

Here was a practical demonstration of what it was like to conduct services in one’s own home, rather than from some traditional sacred building. Parish priests also had to get used to doing this, which is now officially regarded as the way ahead, the means by which the Church will grow, with meetings of the new converts held in houses rather than churches.

The financial savings from this way of doing things should be huge, there is in any case a need because of falling membership to economise, the pandemic has presented an additional pretext for sweeping change, and in dioceses such as Chelmsford, large number of clergy are already being laid off.

Funds are already being diverted to promote the founding of new House Churches, rather than maintain the parish system.

Welby has endorsed the church-planting strategy in the most emphatic terms, telling the online conference which was addressed by Canon McGinley:

“We don’t preach morality, we plant churches. We don’t preach therapeutic care, we plant churches. We
are not deists, we believe in a God who intervenes — and plants churches.” 

He himself was converted to Christianity on 12th October 1975, while praying with a fellow undergraduate, and Old Etonian, at Trinity College, Cambridge. During summer vacations they helped run the evangelical summer camps at Iwerne Minster, in Dorset, whose founder, Bash Nash, had set out to preach the gospel at the top 30 public schools in Britain, and to recruit from these an elite cadre of future Christian leaders.

While engaged in this work, Welby met John Smyth QC, a prominent evangelical who was later found to have committed atrocious acts of abuse against more than 20 boys.

As is often the case, Welby found it difficult to apologise in a credible way to the victims, while at the same time upholding the interests of the institution he now leads.

After Cambridge Welby worked in the oil industry and on returning from Paris to London, worshipped at Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB), a London church which from 1985-2005 underwent a celebrated revival under the leadership of Sandy Millar (Eton and Trinity), and has since been led by his successor, Nicky Gumbel (Eton and Trinity), who further developed its famous Alpha Course.

HTB became a shining example of charismatic evangelical Christianity, brilliant at converting young, friendly, sincere, well-mannered, newly arrived Londoners who were familiar with Christian observance from their private education, but had not yet undergone a conversion experience.

Here was a thriving church where it was unembarrassing, indeed the done thing, to become a committed, evangelical Christian, after which one set out to multiply the effect by making strenuous efforts to convert one’s friends. HTB was socially conservative on questions such as homosexuality, and was linked to conservative American evangelicals such as John Wimber.

From its overflowing congregation, it sent out teams under clerical leadership to rescue other London churches which had become moribund.

There was a tremendous esprit de corps in these teams, and they were successful in revitalising about seven churches. Welby, who with Millar’s help and encouragement set out on the path to ordination in 1989, had early and positive experience of church planting.

But one may note that this success was achieved by an inspiring leader, Millar, who was good at identifying and enlisting other leaders; knew how to instil confidence in them; himself preached the gospel with an engaging simplicity of manner; stayed in one place for a long time; had a similar background to the young people he was trying to reach; and while keeping the whole venture under clerical rather than lay supervision, benefited from the freedom to do things his own way.

One may wonder whether most or indeed any of those conditions will be met by the Vision and Strategy paper which was this week adopted by General Synod, to whom it was presented by Stephen Cottrell, Archbishop of York, who said he wants to see “a Church where mixed ecology is the norm”:

“In the Church of England in the 2020s this notion of mixed ecology will be the way in which we fulfil, in our day, that historic vocation to be the church for every inch of England, and the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man (as well as to witness for Christ all across the Diocese in Europe as well) and every person therein. This is not a dismantling of the parish system. Neither is it a way of disregarding or devaluing ordained ministry.”

No bishop has challenged these soft and inclusive words, for the episcopacy had already been squared. But in other parts of the Church there is huge alarm.

Here is Martyn Percy, Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, questioning the assertion that 10,000 new House Churches will gain a million new adherents by 2030:

“At their last peak in the 1980s, the House Church Movement in the UK could perhaps claim a quarter of a million adherents. The number today is probably well under 10,000, with some estimates closer to 5,000. Many of those that were so popular in the last quarter of the twentieth century dissolved when the leaders died.  Or, were subject to intense question of financial and sexual probity.  Many of these House Churches would now be classed as case-studies in spiritual abuse, the misuse of power, and safeguarding nightmares…

“I also wonder if the drivers of this new initiative – a kind of ‘ecclesial final solution’ – have really done their homework on young people.  Even amongst evangelical youth, toleration or affirmation of same-sex relationships, people of other faiths and cultural diversity, suggests that the old conversionist paradigms are not engaging emerging generations of evangelicals.  Fellowship and worship may be cherished, but the teaching is received on an à-la-carte basis.,,

“Jung Chang, in her award-winning Wild Swans  – a withering critique of Mao’s China and the doomed Great Leap Forward – offers a parable that is a cautionary tale. She writes of a time when telling fantasies to oneself as well as others, and believing them, was practised to an incredible degree. Peasants moved crops from several plots of land to one plot to show Party officials that they had produced a miracle harvest. Similar ‘Potemkin fields’ were shown off to gullible – or self-blinded – agricultural scientists, reporters, visitors from other regions, and foreigners.  Although these crops generally died within a few days because of untimely transplantation and harmful density, the visitors did not know that, or did not want to know…”

Andrew Lightbown, Rector of Winslow, points out that if created (which admittedly is hard to imagine) the 10,000 House Churches would change the whole character of the Church:

“The Church of England is a church in the reformed catholic tradition.This means that we take things like orders, sacraments, and liturgy seriously. In fact these three are central to our understanding of what it means to be a church, or Christian community; reformed and catholic. We can’t get away from this, and neither should we try to do so… if approximately half of Church England Churches / Communities are under lay leadership, and as a consequence the Sacrament of Holy Communion or Eucharist isn’t a defining characteristic of congregational life, then the whole character of the Church of England, a character that is enshrined in both canon law and the liturgy, will have changed…”

Marcus Walker, Rector of St Bartholomew the Great in London, looks forward in The Spectator to “10,000 mansion churches led by the untrained super-rich”, for who but the wealthy have houses that can accommodate 30 people?

How unselfconscious these grand yet humble evangelicals are as they put forward proposals which will only work if people can be found who are at once very rich and possess large amounts of spare time, which they will devote to the foundation of House Churches, within which there will be, according to the strategy, “a doubling in the number of children and young active disciples in the Church of England by 2030”.

Giles Fraser, Priest-in-Charge at St Mary’s Newington, in the course of a tremendous philippic for Unherd, says he has never known such anger among the clergy, objects to Canon McGinley’s use of the word “passengers”, and challenges the assumption of some evangelicals that success can be measured by the number of converts:

“the Church is not called to be successful. It is called to be faithful. I would prefer for us to die with dignity, being faithful to our calling, rather than to turn ourselves inside out trying to be superficially attractive, thus abandoning the faith as we have understood it. Indeed, the Bible is full of stores of the faithful remnant. In Biblical theology, the remnant are those faithful people that survive some catastrophe. Today, these are the people who come to church, faithfully to say their prayers — people of devotion and not necessarily of evangelistic vim and vigour. They are the beating heart of the parish. Eleanor Rigby, Father McKenzie: these are my heroes. And long term, these are our most effective evangelists. I am deeply offended that they are now called passengers.”

This row has not yet made many headlines in the national press, for in a sense it has not yet happened. The explosive growth in House Churches will almost certainly not occur in the modest time set aside for it: three a day would have to be founded if the figure of 10,000 by 2030 were to be reached.

The Church of England will continue to live or die according to what happens in the parishes, and in many of these, it has become second nature to ignore anything containing the word “strategy” or “vision”, and to get on with the task in hand, which often means the laity have already shouldered a greater share of the burden.

Wonderful things, undreamt of by the central bureaucracy, continue to take place in thousands of parishes.

Georgia L. Gilholy: Eton’s new sixth-form colleges will do little to promote social mobility

2 Jul

Georgia L. Gilholy is a Young Voices UK Associate Contributor. She writes about foreign policy, religion and culture for UnHerd, CapX, City AM, the Salisbury Review and others.

Last weekend Eton College announced its “unprecedented” partnership deal with “Star Academies”, the Blackburn-based educational trust responsible for the running of 30 free schools and academies in some of the most deprived areas of England.

The trust, whose schools have gained accolades for their high rates of “pupil progress”, was the brainchild of recently-knighted Sir Hamid Patel who originally kickstarted it as a small chain of Muslim schools.

The Eton-Star deal pact will involve the centuries-old public school funnelling hundreds of thousands of pounds into three spanking new sixth forms, across several currently unspecified locations in Northern England.

The Times has revealed that the schools will all be “highly selective” in terms of academic requirements, and will focus on recruiting pupils who live in particularly deprived areas or are on free school meals. They have promised to blend “Eton’s educational philosophy and rigorous curriculum”, namely intimate seminar-style classes, with the “ethos and approach” that has already served Star Academies well.

No doubt these schools will transform the lives of many of those lucky enough to gain a place. Unfortunately, many of the critics of private schooling have long been blind to the tremendous good that the altruism of many fusty old institutions such as Eton routinely spread via generous scholarships, bursaries, and partnerships with comprehensive schools.

More importantly, many well-meaning advocates of the comprehensive ethos, such as the late Baroness Shirley Williams, who consistently demonstrated a genuine concern for the disadvantaged and oppressed, have clung to it like dogma precisely because it is just that, and not because it has demonstrably improved social mobility as grammar schools once did.

This one-size-fits-all system has abandoned working-class children to an anti-talent culture and severely diminished curriculum, while as per usual, the elites responsible for these decisions (including Williams herself) ensure that their own offspring are well-catered for.

Yet given that the selection for these schools, and indeed other such colleges across the country, takes place at 16, the wider impact is negligible. Those selected for these schools will be those who have already managed to achieve decent grades in less than desirable circumstances. Many are not able to do so, and therefore never fully realise their potential.

At age 16 children have already sat their GCSE exams, the only grades (aside from predicted ones) now taken into account in university applications since AS levels were scrapped in 2015. In other words, the overwhelming chunk of the children seeking to gain admission to these and other such prestigious sixth forms will have already largely sealed their educational fate.

Moreover, this framework unveils the outright hypocrisy of our laws. Why is it illegal or even immoral to select by academic ability from 16 and above, but not from 11 or 13, ages when it is still early enough to turn things around for most kids?

Of course, this is not to say that GCSEs or in fact any exams are the be-all and end-all of life. Many people’s skillsets lie outside of academics. Plenty, though an increasingly small number, of us, prefer to move straight into employment, and may return to education later in life or not at all. Neither of these options signifies failure.

But this is far from just a personal issue, it is one with national and even global implications. If we expect children from deprived backgrounds to achieve the same level of academic success, within the same timeframe, as their middle and upper-middle-class peers, namely through admission to the best universities, it is simply not good enough to expect the private sector to “top up” the education of a handful once they have already sat their most critical set of exams.

At a time in the international power balance when democratic societies such as Britain urgently need to harness their talent and expertise, our education system has been degraded into a shell of what it ought to represent, leaving one in 20 of us functionally illiterate, and in which most opportunities are decided by our postcodes or the “bank of Mum & Dad” rather than our talent.

This is not to blame our woeful education system for all cultural and socioeconomic ills. The instability wrought by widespread family breakdown, in particular, is at the heart of the damaging cycle of deprivation in many traditionally working-class communities across the country. However, if we are not even willing to offer the next generation a stable, rigorous education system that affords as many as possible the chance to break the cycle, they will not.

What the Red Wall really is. But why it’s also a mindset – not just geography

24 Mar

Since the Conservative Party won its huge majority in 2019, newspapers have devoted a huge amount of coverage to “Red Wall” voters, who were widely credited for delivering the decisive election result. The phrase has become synonymous with traditional/working-class Labour heartlands, particularly in the North, where people somehow decided Etonian Boris Johnson was the man for them two years ago.

How could this be? It seemed remarkable that voters that had historically rejected, even despised, the Conservatives had such a change of heart. Many Tories have spoken about the need to repay these voters; that they lent them their vote and so forth, hence the endless promises of “levelling up” in the North and other parts of the country. Labour, too, has been trying to win back “foundation seats”, a new term for the Red Wall, through a strategy that recommends “use of the [union] flag, veterans [and] dressing smartly”.

At the same time, increasing numbers of political pundits have pointed out that there’s been a tendency to generalise Red Wall voters, in terms of who they are and what sort of politics they go for. The Red Wall actually covers quite a large part of the UK, yet the term often treats voters across it as a homogeneous entity, all wanting the same things. Writing for The Critic, Lewis Baston says the “mythical wall was a way of making a patronising generalisation about a huge swathe of England (and a corner of Wales)”.

What’s interesting is how much the Red Wall definition evolved from when it was first coined by pollster James Kanagasooriam in August of 2019. He used it to describe a geographical stretch running from “N Wales into Merseyside, Warrington, Wigan, Manchester, Oldham, Barnsley, Nottingham and Doncaster”, whose constituents, based on education and economic factors, might be expected to vote Conservative but tended to go for the Labour Party.

In his 2020 blog, Anthony Wells, Director of Political Research at YouGov, says the reason many such areas vote the way they do is due to “cultural, historical and social hostility towards the Tories”. In former mining communities, for instance, “the legacy and memory of Thatcherism and the dismantling of industry in the North in the 1980s” has lingered. Merseyside is “still extremely unforgiving territory”, he writes.

But the Conservatives were able to break down many other barriers in 2017 and 2019, in parts of Lancashire, Country Durham and Derbyshire. The most obvious explanation for the Conservatives’ big majority was its message of getting “Brexit done”, which unified voters across the political spectrum. Many were also turned off by Jeremy Corbyn, who projected a lack of patriotism among other things. Clearly the Conservatives’ manifesto and messaging appealed to a lot of new demographics.

But here’s where it gets trickier as the Red Wall was not just about Brexit, or any of the other variables it is sometimes attributed to. As Baston points out there are lots of marginal seats in the Red Wall, such as Bury North, which has “only voted twice since 1955 for the party that has not won the popular vote (1979 and 2017).” So it cannot be taken as evidence of an epic Conservative breakthrough. Others point out that there has been a “long-term structural shift against Labour in these constituencies.”

Of course, the Conservatives should be proud of making headway in new areas, but the Red Wall narrative has become too simplistic. Furthermore, Kenan Malik made an interesting point when he wrote that, “the red wall is deployed less as a demographic description than as a cypher for a certain set of values that working-class people supposedly hold, a social conservatism about issues such as immigration, crime, welfare and patriotism.”

Increasingly it seems to me that people use the Red Wall as a synonym for a worldview. We might say, for instance, that the Red Wall voters like displays of patriotism, such as the union flag. But you could say that for lots of people around the country. Dare I say sometimes the Red Wall is used as a way of getting an “unfashionable” view across (“but I doubt the Red Wall is enjoying the latest BBC programming”), where others might be worried to say it themselves. Perhaps the Red Wall is more mindset than geography.