Are Britain’s Conservatives taking a Republican turn? In the last week, two strange speeches, a resignation, and a think tank report have all suggested that Boris Johnson’s government is hoping to escape the consequences of a botched Brexit and a calamitous response to the COVID-19 pandemic by turning to a distinctly U.S. model of politics.
This makes some sense. Johnson’s victories in the Brexit referendum and last year’s general election relied on disaffected former Labour voters who placed cultural values ahead of the threats of economic disaster. They weren’t the only part of his coalition or even the largest, but they were the vital new ingredient of the majorities that overturned British politics.
These voters’ attitudes were examined and compared to party activists and members of Parliament in a report by the UK in a Changing Europe think tank. The results were quite startling. Instead of voters and MPs being more or less aligned in Labour and Conservative, with the activists in both parties further from the center, Conservative MPs are a huge distance to the right of both their activists and still more their voters when it comes to economic questions. But on social or libertarian questions, they are well to the left of their voters and their activists. They may even be slightly to the left of mainstream public opinion: On capital punishment, which half the population still supports, Conservative MPs are much more abolitionist.
Labour, by contrast, is slightly to the left of public opinion on economic matters and clearly to the left on cultural ones. But when the polling drilled down into the attitudes of former Labour voters who had gone for Leave in the referendum and the Tories in the subsequent general election, they were uniformly to the right, or authoritarian, side of even other Conservative voters. In American terms, they are the voters who were the matter with Kansas. They vote consistently against their own economic interests on the basis of their cultural values.
If anyone was supposed to behave like this in traditional British politics, it was the altruistic middle classes, voting for tax rises because they believed in a more fair society. Now we have a section of the working class voting for tax cuts because they want a society with more law and order. This very American phenomenon seems to be the last best hope of the Conservative Party now that Labour has a competent and electable leader. As one Conservative MP told the Atlantic’s Helen Lewis, “The party hoped beyond hope to fight the next election on identity rather than economics, given the British economy is likely to still be in the toilet by 2024. A therapeutic crusade against the ‘loony left’ while actually being fairly social liberal in comparison to the average voter would be just the electoral ticket.”
But what do they plan to do with the power they have? One answer was provided by the resignation, over the weekend, of Sir Mark Sedwill, the head of the civil service and, simultaneously, the national security advisor. This was clearly a move toward a much more politicized civil service and in particular one more malleable to the desires of the unelected advisor Dominic Cummings, who has fought the civil service ever since he was an advisor to Michael Gove at the Education Department.
Gove’s remarkable Ditchley lecture last weekend (which textual analysis suggests was written by Cummings) was much taken up with the praise of U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, as was Johnson’s rather wafflier speech on Tuesday. The degree of concentration on a rather mythical version of the United States in Gove’s speech was extraordinary: He mentioned “Europe” only twice—once as a place where the parties of the old left were breaking up and once as a place that was hostile to refugees. The chutzpah, from the man who masterminded the xenophobic Leave campaign, is breathtaking. But the word “Brexit” nowhere appeared in his speech. Neither, of course, did “Trump.” To paraphrase another absent U.S. president, Lyndon B. Johnson: If your mother-in-law had only one eye, and that one eye was in the middle of her forehead, would you keep her in the living room?
Even when Gove (or Cummings) diagnosed the ills of the world, the choice of words suggested that they were already speaking from the other side of the Atlantic: “As the British author David Goodhart analyzed in his book The Road to Somewhere, the gap between those with connections and credentials who can live and work anywhere and those with fewer resources who remain rooted to the heartland has only widened in recent years. His work, preceded by Christopher Lasch, has been supplemented by the writings of Paul Collier and J.D. Vance among others, and they all underline that those in the elite with cognitive skills, qualifications, and professional mobility tend to have, or develop, different social and political values from other citizens.”
That’s four authors cited, and only the British one is identified by nationality. And one has to wonder just how profound and groundbreaking it is for an Etonian like Goodhart to discover that the elite has “different social and political values from other citizens.” Do they teach anything else at Eton?
The elevation of FDR as a mythical leader, a kind of Moses whose example shows us how to lead a nation out of the wilderness, does mark a real break with British tradition, quite as much as the attempt to bend the will of the civil service to that of unelected political advisors like Cummings. When Roosevelt was alive, and at least until the Margaret Thatcher years, the idea among British politicians was not that they should learn from America but that they should teach them: Greeks to your Romans, and all that. It wasn’t a very good idea, but it was an important defense against the reality of fading British power.
It was first in the Tony Blair years that the British left started to use the United States as an inspiration. For the right, it was still Winston Churchill, and until very recently Churchill was certainly the wartime leader with whom Johnson most wanted to be confused. He had after all written a sort of biography of him. But under the strain of real government and real opposition, Johnson’s Churchill imitation has become impossible even for his own party to believe in.
The advantage of Roosevelt is that he is, for most British people now, an almost entirely mythical figure, quite as much as Moses. The attempt to claim his mantle makes, then, a kind of diversionary sense. What it diverts us from is the last and most significant way in which the Johnson government would like to ape the United States.
It is not just the weaponization of culture wars or even the rousing of the masses against the elite. It’s the attitude toward power and tradition. Donald Trump and FDR have nothing else in common, but both were understood to be riding roughshod over the inherited rules—both written and unwritten—that limited the power of the presidency. In the same way, the Brexiteer movement with Cummings at its center first used the referendum vote to bend Parliament to its will and now is using the general election victory to try to crush the independence of the civil service. There is no consistency, of course, in the British Conservative Party following FDR in all the ways in which he most scandalized conservative opinion at the time. But the Tories are not concerned with ideas and never much have been. That’s not to say they’re stupid, but they understand that ideas are only ever interesting as a means to power.