I have an undeveloped theory, knocking around somewhere in the noggin, that the reason British politics often feels so confusing is that the mental model we are attuned to, two giant parties fighting it out across the nation, is not the natural state of British politics, but rather the freakish result the Great Depression, National Government and Second World War.
In this model, pre 1945 and post 1981 politics, where the combined share of vote of the two main parties hovers between two-thirds and three-quarters, and significant national and regional differences in party concentration exist, is the natural state of British politics.
This ‘default state’ was held off for three decades by defined class identities, inertia and astute leaders who crowded out political competition by deliberately maintaining the Broadest possible political appeal.
However, a Thatcherite free-market rigour, Labour leftism and liberal resurgence destroyed these post-war exceptions in the early eighties, and while New Labour centrism and tory irreconcilability prevented it becoming immediately obvious, the death of both between 2005 and 2010 meant politics has finally returned to the status quo antebellum.
What’s fascinating is the instability and flexibility that this sort of politics creates. It allows for shifting alliances and unusual combinations. If we think of the Pre-1945 political system, not only is it often dominated by the type of issues that are recurring frequently today, from press ownership to moral turpitude and exploitation, but there are massive shifts in party support and identity, and of the political identification of party leaders themselves.
So a hero of mine, Christopher Addison, begins political life as a Lloyd George Liberal in Coalition with the Tories, and ends it as a Labour leader of the House of Lords. (His political legacy? Social housing) Churchill, his partner under Lloyd-George, ends up as a Tory PM, who appoints Lloyd George’s son to a Tory Cabinet.
In Moral matters, the temperance movement combined the interests of religious groups, women’s groups and socialists, while Disraeli’s “One Nation’ conservatism was able to combine conventional religious authority and pub landlords into the wonderful slogan ‘Beer and Bible‘. Naturally, Beer came first!
More broadly, the battle of parties regularly seemed to be about the surges and declines and struggles of third, fourth and fifth parties as much as about the strengths of the leading two. The Liberal-Labour and Liberal-Tory relationships in the interwar period are as significant as the Labour-Tory and Liberal-Tory battles, while earlier Irish nationalism, home-rule and Unionism represent political risk and opportunity for all parties, much as Scottish nationalism does today.
You even have, in interwar politics, a prevalence of the surging populist anti-politics we enjoy today. The Anti-Waste League might be a sort of Ur-UKIP, while Horatio Bottomley was a sort of 20s combination of Nigel Farage, George Galloway and Piers Morgan.
What might this mean? Well, it might mean that cultural and ‘moral’ politics rises in place of clear ‘class’ interests.
To pick one example, the current political pressure on issues like Fixed Odds Betting Terminals, high street bookmakers, pay-day lenders and so on feels more cultural-puritanical than class-ideological. The antecedents of these campaigns lie more in the Temperance movement than in the Social Democratic federation.
Naturally, modern opponents of liberal gambling and usury laws present them, not as a cultural or moral critique, but as a class one.
In this light, the problem with the betting terminal or the pay-day lender is that they represent a parasitical endeavour that is particularly burdensome to the working class. This is not very different to the way the temperance movement presented itself, and anyone who has read ‘Love on the Dole’ will be familiar with the image of the bookie as class parasite.
The political power of this approach should not be underestimated. However, it can play out in unexpected ways. The old Tory party often got strong support precisely because they were seen as the party of beer, pubs and the moderate pleasures of the working class. As Gladstone said after his 1874 defeat, “we have been borne down in a torrent of Gin and Beer’.
On the other hand, Winston Churchill (then a liberal) was defeated in Dundee by the wonderfully named Edwin Scrymgeour of the Scottish Prohibitionist party. Scrymgeour found himself comfortably aligned to the Labour party on almost every issue.
It’s hard not to see a similar element in some of the modern commentary on current moral and social issues. The anti-Usury and gambling campaigners may be right about the exploitation, but I do wonder if people will sometimes find the immediate pleasures of a Sam Grundy a more pleasant prospect than the moral purity of a Larry Meath.
Equally, just as with earlier political puritans, alongside real anger rooted in genuine experience, there is an element of middle class, prosperous, educated people telling the poor what’s good for them, and who is exploiting them, while reserving the right to indulge their own ‘vices’. There is, after all, a surprising correlation between people who wish to see drug legislation liberalised and those who wish to see gambling and high interest lending limited, just as in older times, betting legislation rarely applied to the gambling of the wealthy, and temperance campaigns rarely attacked a good claret.
More generally, such a politics might create various and fissiparous alliances and collaborations. There is no fundamental reason anti-gambling conservatives and Labour moralists should not combine on gambling laws, nor why permissive leftists and free-market libertarians should not oppose them.
This would feed into and support political alliances and linkages which relics like me, locked into our freakish and increasingly bizarre post war tribes, would feel entirely lost in.
Perhaps the model of future politics should look to the flexibility and shifting relations of a Tory Chamberlain, a Liberal Churchill or a Labour Addison as it does to the immovable, monolithic parties of post war Britain.