Conservative Party and Nation

The Conservative Party has long portrayed itself as the party of patriotism and nationhood.

The nation and nation-state have had a central place in British Conservative politics for more than a century, the Conservative Party’s status as a patriotic party safeguarding the constitution, Union and, formerly, Empire being an important factor in its success (Lynch 2000: 59).

Despite its alliance with landed interests, and now capital and business interests, and despite its cabinet in government so often being dominated by former pupils of a single privileged school (Jones 2014 ), it has succeeded in declaring itself to be a party of ‘one nation’, of all the people, sufficiently to gain repeated electoral success. Following its victory in the 2015 election, it even declared itself to be the party of ‘working people’ (Frayne 2015, The Daily Telegraph). In general elections since the Second World War it has usually attracted about a third of working class voters as well as its more ‘natural’ support.

The party’s nationalism has had, as Lynch observes, several facets and has been ‘significantly re-worked over time’ (Lynch 2000: 59). It was outward looking in its initial approach to the European Community under Edward Heath in the early 1970s. But it has also contained inwardlooking and racist elements, most notably represented by Enoch Powell, whose ‘rivers of blood’ speech in 1968 gained wide popular support— and expulsion from the shadow cabinet. Although the party leadership dismissed him, he enjoyed considerable support on the right of his own party and amongst the (white) public at large. Gallup and nation opinion polls recorded 74 and 67 % respectively in agreement with Powell (Whipple 2009). Powell ‘offered a post-imperial Tory nationalist strategy which aimed to safeguard parliamentary sovereignty and national identity from perceived enemies within and without’ (Lynch 2000: 59) whilst demanding repatriation for immigrants, opposing both EC membership and the message of multiculturalism, viewed as undermining national identity.

Both Lynch and, more recently, Kenny (2014) speak of Thatcherism as being a new turn in Tory nationalism—towards a narrower English position. It was ‘narrower’, that is, by contrast with former ‘One Nation Toryism’ which had embraced the post-war consensus on welfare, and been pro-European. And Thatcherism edged the Conservative Party ever closer to a more aggressive ‘English’ national viewpoint. As Michael Kenny has observed:

It was the manner in which the Conservative government under Thatcher chose to mobilize a divisive and Anglo-centred notion of English nationalism... that resulted in the profound unsettling of the forms of thinking about nationhood and state that had generally served as stable underpinnings for political life in the UK. (2014: 35)

Thatcher’s speech in 1978 prior to her election victory played upon public fears about immigration. In an interview with Granada TV ‘World in Action’ (27 January 1978) she began by speaking about rising numbers of people from New Commonwealth countries and projections of future minority numbers in the population. She said that ‘people are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture’. Note the two uses of rather in this statement, as if she was trying to be delicate on a sensitive issue. And she speaks of culture—not ‘race’. But the message was clear enough: the non-white population is too large. Her popularity rose in the period following the speech. In recent decades the Conservative Party has often sent out this kind of message, and it is only when the language is injudicious that rebukes follow. In 2001 when Conservative Member of Parliament (MP) John Townend made reference to immigrants ‘seriously undermining Britain’s Anglo-Saxon society’, the BBC declared that ‘this is far from the first time the Tory party has been forced to dissociate itself from the views of some of its leading lights’ (BBC, 28 March 2001). In 2002, the then Conservative Party leader in opposition, Iain Duncan Smith, suspended members of the ‘ultra-right wing Monday Club’ from the Conservative party on account of their ‘dis?tasteful’ views on race and immigration (BBC News, 9 May 2002); in doing this he was seen as betraying his own right wing. But other comments remain within the bounds of acceptability whilst clearly signalling concerns about national identity. In 2011 David Cameron declared that ‘state multiculturalism’ had failed; the statement was made in the context of ‘security’ and the way the state responded to extremism. But it still indicated a shift away from previous enthusiasm for ‘multicul- turalism’. More recently, Cameron’s comments on ‘a swarm of migrants trying to reach Britain’ drew much criticism (Guardian 2015). This ‘position-taking’ by the Conservatives strengthened their hand whenever they have wished to make ‘national’ or even nationalist claims. In the referendum in Scotland in 2014 and the general election of 2015 for the UK, opportunities for striking nationalist postures, both British and English, would be presented many times.

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