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How losers write history Britain's political future belongs to disgruntled outcasts

Why ask how history will remember him? (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

Why ask how history will remember him? (Leon Neal/Getty Images)


November 18, 2023   6 mins

This was the week that was. Fully a third of the parliamentary Labour Party rebelled on a vote that will have no real-life consequences whatsoever: political theatre for the impotent. Meanwhile, on the other side of the aisle, the Government announced it was bringing forward legislation to declare something true that the Supreme Court had just ruled false. “Insanity is contagious,” wrote Joseph Heller in Catch 22. Perhaps we’re all catching it.

So much of our political commentary is spent speculating about how these absurdist battles will play out. Will Keir Starmer’s judgement over Gaza be vindicated come election day? Will Rishi Sunak prove us all wrong? Is the Prime Minister showing courage or weakness in sacking Suella Braverman and bringing back David Cameron? What we all seem to agree is that history will be the judge, that when the general election comes around we will have our answers. Somebody will win and somebody will lose; one will have ridden the tide of history and the other will end up as mere flotsam. But there are currents in politics pulling at events far below the surface, often more powerful than those we obsess about in our day-to-day coverage.

“The success of… movements of protest cannot be measured by their immediate political failure,” wrote Lord Blake, the great biographer of Benjamin Disraeli, who in his earlier career led the rebel alliance of romantic Tory ultras called Young England who worshipped the old aristocratic order. By any metric, Disraeli’s Young England failed politically. And yet, for Blake, these movements cannot be understood solely by their parliamentary success, but must be regarded “as symbols and examples that lend an imaginative glow to the dull course of party politics; showing that there are other ways to fame than conformism, diligence and calculation”. The same is true today.

We must shake ourselves from the notion that victory and defeat are the only things that matter. There are other ways in which the course of a nation is affected, often with more profound consequences than what a leader says or does.

Britain’s relationship with Europe is the perfect such example. Between the Schuman declaration of 1950 — the foundational moment of today’s Europe — and Brexit, there were any number of apparently decisive moments which turned out to be less decisive than they first appeared. In 1971, the House of Commons finally voted to join the Common Market and that was that: a long-running drama came to a conclusion. Harold Macmillan, who had failed to lead Britain into the EEC the previous decade, waited in Dover to hear the news and lit a beacon to announce the historic turning point, which was then answered across the water in Calais. Four years later, the British public ratified the decision by a crushing margin in the country’s first ever referendum. The end.

As Robert Saunders captures in Yes To Europe, a triumphant Harold Wilson was hailed a political giant for his skilful handling of events. A cartoon in The Daily Express portrayed him parading in triumph through the streets of London, a Roman emperor in a chariot drawn by Ted Heath and Roy Jenkins with Margaret Thatcher throwing flowers from the sidelines. Behind him were the poor, huddled masses of Labour eurosceptics dragged along in chains. The Sunday Times summed up the wisdom of the day: “If politicians are to be judged by their ability in the end to get what they want, Harold Wilson is a great politician.” But politics has to be about more than this. While Harold Wilson got what he wanted, within a year he was gone, a broken man.

We never seem to learn this lesson. In 1977, Professor Anthony King published the first history of the referendum campaign, painting the “Yes” victory as a triumph for the moderate political centre against what would now be called the populists. King speculated what might have happened had there been a No vote: it would have undermined Wilson and Callaghan while strengthening the Labour Left. As Saunders says of King’s argument: “Benn or Foot might have become leader, opening a fissure between ‘the moderate centre’ and the ‘extreme Left’. Roy Jenkins and Shirley Williams might have left to form a new party, carrying many of their most popular colleagues with them, all of which could have had the cumulative effect of banishing Labour from power ‘for at least a generation’.” But as Saunders puts it: “This, of course, was almost exactly what happened a few years later.”

By 1980, Michael Foot was leader of the Labour Party and Thatcher had become prime minister. By 1990, Thatcher — who had campaigned for a Yes vote — had become euroscepticism’s first martyr. By 2000, the Conservative Party was preparing a “Save the Pound” election campaign and by 2010 its leader was vowing to veto the new European treaty if elected. And we all know what happened in 2020. The great current of history can move in the opposite direction from how it looks on the surface; a political riptide difficult to spot from the shore, but powerful nonetheless.

Sometimes political decisions move in one direction but the mood of a party or country moves in another. In retrospect, the Labour Right won their struggle with the Left in 1975, but were seen to have betrayed the soul of the party. Something similar happened for the Blairites after the Iraq war and for unionists after the Scottish referendum in 2014. Perhaps we are also seeing that play out now after the Brexit referendum of 2016.

While this week in Westminster was extraordinary, perhaps that’s not for the obvious reasons. Suella Braverman was sacked, the Tory right had the wind taken out of its sails by the Supreme Court, David Cameron returned and Keir Starmer saw off the Left of his Party. The centre is back in charge of both political parties and, by extension, the country. Whatever happens at the next election, there will be no great changes. Our relationship with Europe, Ireland, the Middle East, China and the United States will largely remain as is. We will maintain our nuclear deterrent, the rough balance of tax and spending, education and health policies. All will be well for those who prize macro stability.

But what is happening under the surface? Who is winning the battle for the soul of each party? First, let’s take the Labour Party. The obvious point is that Starmer has emerged from this week with his authority intact and his chances of becoming prime minister enhanced. His party is now even further ahead in the polls than it was before. As things stand, he stands a very good chance of not only being elected, but serving as prime minister well into the 2030s. All this can be true and important — and for it to also be true that having a third of your parliamentary party rebel on an issue of core judgement before you’ve even become prime minister is a warning of problems to come.

Should Starmer become prime minister, foreign policy will quickly intrude on his premiership. Donald Trump might well have already won the presidency or could do so soon afterwards. It goes without saying that a Trump presidency will present particular challenges for a Labour prime minister leading a pro-European, pro-Palestinian movement. Let’s remember that Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza may still be raging in a year’s time — or even in five year’s time. The humanitarian crisis may be even more acute, the pro-Palestinian Left even more angry. Looking at the Labour party today, its foreign policy remains remarkably similar to what it might have been under Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson or Tony Blair — and yet culturally the Left has become more more anti-American, anti-Israel, and pro-European. These are not things Starmer can simply lead in another direction, only manage.

On the Conservative side, it is hard to know where to start. There is more than a passing resemblance to John Major in the mid Nineties who, like Sunak, was more in line with establishment thinking than his own supporters’ instincts, and was forced into pathetic shows of nationalism to compensate for his overall failures of policy.

This week, Sunakism took control of the Tory party, with Cameron and other centrist figures brought into the cabinet. The prime minister’s Rwanda policy was then thrown out by the Supreme Court, who said it breached a whole array of international treaties that Britain had signed up to. In response, rather like Major’s doomed beef war with Europe, Sunak has gone to war to defend the policy, with the absurd notion that he will pass a law to simply declare the country safe. Like Major in the late Nineties, the likely result is that this will do little to ameliorate unhappiness within the Conservative Party or increase his chances of holding back the tide of support for Labour, which has declared its opposition to the scheme.

Perhaps the most important thing here is not whether Sunak will succeed or fail with his approach, but what will happen to the mood in the Conservative Party. From 1997 onwards, Britain’s place in the European Union seemed to grow ever more secure as Tony Blair triumphed signing up to one treaty after another, only for the Conservative parliamentary party to grow ever more sceptical until, eventually, the sceptics won.

Today, you have to wonder what is going to happen to Britain’s membership of the European Convention of Human Rights. Suella Braverman has been kicked out of the cabinet, but will Suellaism eventually take hold of the Conservative soul? This will not be decided in a single election, or even multiple elections, but by trends working away under the surface, buffeted by events, stories, scandals and political groupings operating beyond the remit of mere leaders, lending Blake’s “imaginative glow to the dull course of party politics”.

Braverman may never become Tory leader. She may end up leading a faction in parliament that suffers defeat after defeat, like Bill Cash in the Nineties or Tony Benn in the Eighties. But that doesn’t mean her politics will die or Britain’s membership of the ECHR will remain secure. The same is true of the Labour Left, which will not disappear simply because Keir Starmer triumphs in 2024 or does not.

Politics is not some placid, obedient sea able to be parted by whichever Moses is in charge at that moment. It is tidal and choppy, issues, constantly being shaped not just by leaders and calculation, but by events, scandals, ideas and, yes, the losers of politics.


is UnHerd’s Political Editor. He is the author of Betting The House: The Inside Story of the 2017 Election.

TomMcTague

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Spencer Dugdale
SD
Spencer Dugdale
5 months ago

Immigration, in which a growing number of people who do not share our history, culture and instincts, but who are allowed to play out ethnic and regional differences from overseas, to show loyalty to any counbtry but ours, is still the elephant in the room that media and politicians continue to deflect and distract from – except for Braverman who was promptly dispatched for saying what so many of us see. This article is just another distraction, another exercise in denial.

Simon Boudewijn
Simon Boudewijn
5 months ago

I agree, TLDR…..

The Conservatives and Labour are like super depressive Goth kids, self harming and against anything positive and traditionally British. They add to nothing, create nothing but squalor and self degradation for the Nation.

That and they are also super corrupt.

j watson
j watson
5 months ago

A small minority abreact to what it means to live in our country but we are changing them, and all who come here, far more than they are changing us. Worth remembering that even when going through bouts of low self confidence.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
5 months ago
Reply to  j watson

That was a joke right?

Dave Weeden
Dave Weeden
5 months ago
Reply to  j watson

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Or at least evidence. I take it you have some? Reminder: your claim seems to be “we are changing them… far more than they are changing us.” I put it to you that the marches “for Palestine” could not have happened they way they did without mass immigration; that’s only one way “we” (collectively) have been changed. How are we changing them? I think it was true that immigrants did assimilate more in the past, but there were fewer of them. If everyone around you acts in certain ways, it’s only human to act like them. If there are enough other people like you, you’re going to be much less influenced by the host culture.

j watson
JW
j watson
5 months ago
Reply to  Dave Weeden

Here’s a fact for you – currently 14% of NHS employees identify themselves as non British, and another 18% say their family heritage is non British. The NHS may have problems but it’s no hotbed of racial strife and illiberal acquiescence. Here’s some other facts – PM has Indian heritage and parents immigrants. Home sec has Afro-Cariibbean heritage. Scottish First Minister has Muslim heritage. Have a look at the English football team, and 43% of PL players are Black or Black heritage. Could go on, but brevity prevents.
I think you’ll find that the percolation and imbibing of British values in immigrants now and in the past much the stronger force. That does not mean some don’t resist it, nor that we do enough to drive our values – personally I’d have a formal naturalisation process that included understanding, appreciation of our values, and crucially competence in our language – a shocking missed opportunity of last 13yrs whilst distracted by other nonsense. But that aside I think you lack confidence in our values and their ability to act as a beacon of light of so many.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
5 months ago
Reply to  j watson

This is deluded, albeit well meaning stuff. Possibly yes, if you mean converting migrants to lightly worn, transactional and of course self serving ) “racism, racism, racism they cry!) “woke” values.

Nations cannot cohere with such levels of “diversity” of cultures and values. We have already had asylum seekers committing rape and murder. Yes, we have our own criminals – I think most ordinary people do not think that is a reason to import other peoples’.

Look for one example at Muslims’ attitudes to homosexuality. 50% believe it should be illegal – not, not disapprove of it. The latter would be more like 90%

Last edited 5 months ago by Andrew Fisher
j watson
JW
j watson
5 months ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

I think the Policy deficit is not so much with immigration and more with assimilation. I suspect we’d find more common ground there. I think we do insufficient on the latter and need to be much more robust on what is expected re: adherence to British values. Of course we need to define those a little more first but we’d coalesce around rule of law, tolerance, individual freedom, religious liberty, free speech but no incitement to violence, command of the language etc.
As regards your last point – go back a few decades and British attitudes would have been closer to that. It was of course outlawed and offenders imprisoned or chemically castrated – such as war hero Alan Turing. We changed and many of a Muslim faith have and will too. But I’d accelerate it myself by being much more unequivocal about British values. I think the anti-immigration brigade would be better served pushing this much harder. We need immigration and that won’t change much.

Andrew Fisher
AF
Andrew Fisher
2 months ago
Reply to  j watson

Thanks for your polite reply!

Alan Osband
AO
Alan Osband
5 months ago

Am I right in thinking religious texts are excluded from consideration as hate speech in the hate speech act . Surely if millions come here imbued with a religion whose texts overflow with hatred for infidels of every variety but especially Jews and polytheists , then the laws against hate speech are absurdly biased against non – Muslims . Forget Islamophobia , how about protection against the infidel phobia of Muslims . Of better still cling to our tradition of freedom of speech but watch carefully who we allow in . Too late

Chipoko
Chipoko
5 months ago

Well stated.

James Kirk
JK
James Kirk
5 months ago

I would say your growing number of people who do not share our history, culture and instincts are, in the majority, white and under 40. Which country is Sadiq Khan or Hamsa Youssef loyal to? Karachi? Kabul?

Andrew Fisher
AF
Andrew Fisher
2 months ago

Why is it denial? I know some people seem to be able to only think about one issue at any time, but the article wasn’t actually about that subject. That is discussed a great deal but isn’t the only one the country. The Labour Left – or indeed the party as a whole – is pro immigration, and about to form the next government, and it is their views, along with pro immigration free marketeers which count politically

The restrictionist immigration case has, sadly, and however unjustly, become totally impotent in this country. The country is simply never going to return to the 1950s on this.

Describing a state of affairs and agreeing with it are not the same thing!

Simon Neale
SN
Simon Neale
5 months ago

But what is happening under the surface? Who is winning the battle for the soul of each party? 

Unprecedented levels of immigration is happening under the surface. Immigrants and their descendants are winning the battle for the soul of each party.

Simon Boudewijn
SB
Simon Boudewijn
5 months ago
Reply to  Simon Neale

I was back in my old parts of London last year. 45 years of living elsewhere, but returning often – and so I have watched London change in strobe light like, stop Motion, snap shots. Like a time lapse film of termites eating a log.

It is not 1970’s London… A sort of foreboding and dark feel permeates – a feel of where will I be when darkness begins to fall, because being out here would be worrying. Odd and kind of ominous men stand about, or wander about, during working hours. Children shout obscenities and move about in groups scowling. Hard and very foreign woman carry shopping and push prams, shop signs are in words other than English, litter is all over, a kind of shoddiness and down at the heels vibe in what was once the World’s First City..
This is the current and recent past politicians life work. Their creation. They gave you this, it was what they wanted for Britain for some reason……

How about Unherd doing some investigation in WHY. Why did they destroy what was great? What are they up to? It is totally obvious they govern to promote decline, to wreck rather than preserve. What is it they want for us?

Alison Tyler
Alison Tyler
5 months ago

Not for us at all , but for some reward for themselves that they will not share with us perhaps?

John Riordan
JR
John Riordan
5 months ago

Britain at present is a lot like a ferry at sea with the doors wide open. It doesn’t much matter who’s the captain, what the heading is, or whether seas are choppy or calm: the ship will sink anyway.

So too with nations. Once a nation doesn’t even control its own borders, it isn’t really a nation at all, and so becomes ungovernable as one.

Last edited 5 months ago by John Riordan
Marcus Leach
Marcus Leach
5 months ago

Patrick O’Flynn has a very persuasive piece in the Spectator in which he suggests that Sunak and his close coterie of “liberal”, social democrats are resigned to defeat at the next election and are directing their election strategy to ensuring that it is ideologically sympathetic Tory MPs who will be the dominant survivors of the cull at the next GE.
With many of the distasteful right-wing oinks despatched, the Tory Party would then finally consolidate itself as the social democratic party Cameron originally envisaged. It would mean five years of Starmer’s Labour, but what does that matter when there is little ideological disagreement and when the new Tory Party will naturally regain power in 2029?
It sounds plausible to me. But if it is the plan, it will consign the Tory Party to history.
After five years of Labour’s heavy taxing and profligate spending. billions spent pushing through economically destructive Net Zero, mass immigration, granting every asylum application, inflicting full woke on the country and insurgent Islam, a cuddly Tory Party of wet social democrats will be a deeply unattractive proposition for voters. Instead there will be a yearning for a genuine right-wing party that promises to undo the last 30+ years of disastrous social and economic policy.

Last edited 5 months ago by Marcus Leach
Martin Smith
MS
Martin Smith
5 months ago

How long before an Islamic party arrives? First taking council seats in Bradford, Leicester, Luton, Tower Hamlets etc, then the councils themselves, then perhaps some cities then constituencies, boldly cocking a snook at regional and national regulations and laws, declaring them haram. Perhaps then sharia enforcement officers in some locales, churches and synogogues closed or islamified, english a second language, courts run by immans. Who among the weak and self-hating whites will oppose, and if they do by what means? What will Labour and Conservative mean then?

j watson
JW
j watson
5 months ago

A good cautionary tale. What I’d argue though is the most fundamental geopolitical matter of the next 5yrs, which would make much of the subject matter in the article seem parochial, is entirely unmentioned. And that is what Xi does in the South China Sea. Remember he said he would, by force if necessary, take back Taiwan during his tenure. His window for this is almost certainly between now and 2030.
So why should this matter that much to any horizon scan of British politics? Because within a few feet of everyone reading this will be micro chips made in that S China sea vicinity that if control moves to the CCP will send a shock-wave (to continue the Authors placid sea analogy) around the Globe making Brexit seem like a small ripple on a village pond. Businesses and economics worldwide would be cowed by the CCP and Orwell’s fears would have been massively accelerated.
To emphasise to many geopolitically it can seem distant and why worry? But if the DPP wins in Jan 24, Putin emerges intact from Ukraine and Trump gets anywhere near power again in early 25 that shock wave becomes v likely. How Britain allies itself now and in near future to counter this, and prepares for the consequences of at best an on-going Cold War 2, the most under discussed issue we have. Some squabble on the Tory right between Faragists and Badenochist’s better start formulating a deeper view on this, as must Starmer and the Labour tradition of standing up to totalitarianism. And perhaps burn a bit more time on this than Woke/Anti-woke side show stuff, which almost certainly CCP likes to stir too.

John Riordan
JR
John Riordan
5 months ago
Reply to  j watson

Re your final line, I’ve been saying the same myself for some time. The UK universites have been taking Chinese money for decades now, and it is impossible to accept that the seemingly inexplicable tolerance of Woke ideology by campus authorities isn’t actually approved of by Chinese financial donors.

This is impossible to prove of course, it’s just one of those ideas that is only possible to easily dismiss if one has poor or no judgement.

j watson
JW
j watson
5 months ago
Reply to  John Riordan

Yep JR very much agree. It’s much more insidious and crucial our politicians grasp it and speak much more about it.
Think about TikTok – what on earth are we doing letting a company controlled by the CCP into the heads of all our kids as increasingly their main source of news. It’s ‘digital fentanyl’ too as we know Jonathan Haidht also been conveying, albeit less through the prism of the CCP malign strategies. We should note in China their kids can only be on things like TikTok for 2 hours max per day and they only use it for educational purposes. They are v happy to spread a virus through our society and got a big head start whilst we are still waking up.
And as we saw earlier this year in Manchester the CCP actually runs it’s own Police enforcement units in the UK, as well as in other countries. WTF!
Still here on Unherd let’s debate cervix’s instead.

Simon Boudewijn
SB
Simon Boudewijn
5 months ago
Reply to  j watson

For global news analyst in a very sober and deep way, by people who quote their sources, it is very worthwhile watching ‘The Duran’ on Rumble or youtube. Typically a half hour, and as one would guess,very much at odds to the MSM sort of agenda.

This is one amazing thing – the source of news is breaking out of the iron fist control of the Corporate Media and Political powers. Rumble – much nuttiness though, is the censor free Youtube – Russel Brand was forced there – UK threatened Rumble if they did not shut him up and was refused. He is good to watch for his guests which can be very of high caliber.

It may be too late though… young people get their whole world view from Tick Tock, and we know the power of the Media algorithms, and so they are maybe lost already.

Alison Tyler
Alison Tyler
5 months ago

Avoid Tussell Brand no matter how entertaining, as he is bad news for all our moral wellbeings.

Martin Smith
Martin Smith
5 months ago
Reply to  j watson

But with the massive financial crisis developing in China its ascent to pre-eminence is looking far from inevitable. Isn’t the smart money on India now?

Last edited 5 months ago by Martin Smith
j watson
j watson
5 months ago
Reply to  Martin Smith

I think smart money stays with the US. A free society that continuously shows the ability to innovate always going to out-perform these countries, but I hear what you say about India too. The issue India will have to face at some point is the role of religion. It’s more secular in certain sectors than it’s Muslim neighbours, but it’ll still act like an anchor on full development.
My original point through was that Xi and CCP have already been sowing the seeds for their world primacy for two decades, and the next year or so will be absolutely crucial to where things are heading. We talk about it insufficiently, and talk of course has to move quickly to action.

Alison Tyler
Alison Tyler
5 months ago
Reply to  j watson

Worth worrying about Hindu nationalism though.

Paddy Taylor
Paddy Taylor
5 months ago

Victors write history.
Losers wait 20 years, bleating that it’s all so unfair, and then start writing revisionist history.

Alan Thorpe
AT
Alan Thorpe
5 months ago

Never trust the history that politicians present, winners or losers. As Churchill said “History will judge us kindly because I shall write the history”. Finally, we are starting to see some of the truth.

Richard Calhoun
Richard Calhoun
5 months ago

“Four years later, the British public ratified the decision by a crushing margin in the country’s first ever referendum. The end.”
This is misleading nonsense, we were not ratifying the decision, it had already been ratified.
We were voting to remain ‘within’ the EEC after only 4 years of membership or not.

Philip Clayton
PC
Philip Clayton
5 months ago

I think if you read the bible you will discover plenty of hate speech in it, a great deal of which in the old Testament is used to justify Jewish claims to the whole of Israel. I have never understood why people who call themselves CHRISTIANS spend so much of their time using the Old Testament to justify horrifying attitudes towards their fellow humans in direct contradiction of what was, purpotedly, the message of Christ. The WORD Islam MEANS peace, yet you seem astonished that, like the Bible, some Muslims, like some Christians, can find passages to support hatred and destruction. Remember, the Bible was used by people calling themselves Christians to JUSTIFY slavery; thousands of anti-slavery campaigners use the same Bible to justify attacking slavery and abolishing it. So stating that the Qu’oran is simply a hate filled book is simply a display of your ignorance.

Alison Tyler
Alison Tyler
5 months ago
Reply to  Philip Clayton

The core messages of Christianity are in the New Testament and the Christian faith, as taught by Jesus, has now a very distant relationship with that of ancient Israel, turning many traditional ideas upside down, and finding much of the Hebrew Bible unacceptable as anything other than a lesson or a warning of what not to do.

James Kirk
James Kirk
5 months ago

Neither Suella, Sunak nor Starmer have any leadership qualities. Suella couldn’t even get her civil servants to do anything for her. It would seem our next leader is still at school, hence Cameron and Mandelson. Sunak is run by external forces and if Starmer has any vision for the future he hasn’t come out with it yet.

Francisco Menezes
Francisco Menezes
5 months ago

When I think of Britain, I see Mrs. Slocombe. Funny, but… Well, you know it.