Boris Johnson’s Conservative “Tory” party’s big victory in the British election December 12 was achieved by winning seats that had been Labour since 1987, 1935 and even 1922. His majority thus represents far more working-class voters from the North of England – and far fewer rich Londoners – than any previous Tory government. To survive the next election in 2024, he must pursue a working-class Toryism quite different from the party’s policies of the Cameron/May era, or those of Margaret Thatcher.
By definition, all substantial election victories involve winning seats that had not previously been held. However in this case, because of the interaction of the election with the Brexit decision, many industrial and mining constituencies in the north of England and north Wales, that had been Labour heartlands for generations, were taken by the Conservatives. By and large the big-city constituencies in the region remained Labour; it was the less concentrated urban areas, albeit still mining/industrial, that switched to the Conservatives. As one Labour leader said on the BBC’s Election Night program: “we haven’t lost the big city working classes, but we do seem to have lost the small-town working classes.”
Geographically, the new Conservative majority is far less concentrated in southern England than were previous Conservative majorities back to Thatcher’s day. It has very limited representation in London and its immediate suburbs, where the party lost seats in this election. Representing their new voters well may therefore give the Tories the chance to reverse the disgraceful London-centered economic orientation of the last 30 years, which has crammed excess population into the capital and pushed up its house prices to a level that only foreigners can afford.
This has left younger Londoners disgruntled and indulging in Corbynite anti-capitalist fantasies. Ultra-low interest rates, excessive immigration and a desire to deepen links with the EU have all played a role in this insanity; all three factors can now be reversed. In the case of interest rates, the quicker this is done the better, since the shrieking and wailing from the coming London house price collapse will persist for years and the Tories need to avoid it drowning out the next election. A massive house price decline making housing affordable, together with other new Conservative policies I will outline below, will rightly reduce the huge anti-Tory bias among younger voters that was apparent in the 2019 results.
The media and the center-left are unanimous that the Conservatives’ need to address working-class voters will require them to increase government spending, especially on the National Health Service. Many crocodile tears have been wept about the death of fiscal conservatism. However, the extra spending required to appease the Tories’ new supporters can be more than balanced by eliminating the massive subsidies to politically-correct metropolitan leftism that litter the British budget. By slaying leftist cows, sacred only to wealthy London voters who are unlikely to back the Conservatives, better economic performance and room for both tax cuts and further popular spending can result.
For good or bad, the British people have decided that the National Health Service, fully funded by the state, is not to be tampered with. They are not entirely irrational in having done so. The NHS costs the U.K. 7.7% of GDP in 2016, on top of which private spending was an additional 2% of GDP. In the same year, the U.S. government spent 8.5% of GDP on healthcare, and U.S. private spending on healthcare totaled an additional 8.8% of GDP. Thus the U.S. public sector spends more on healthcare than the British one, while total spending on health is 78% higher, yet health outcomes are no better, with birth life expectancy 78.6 years in the U.S. compared to 81.2 years in Britain. Let us, as free marketers, admit that healthcare is a devilishly hard sector to get right, that blue-collar British voters’ liking for the NHS is not pure Marxism, and that Johnson’s government will have to spend some more money here.
The new government will also have to spend more on northern infrastructure. For the past 30 years, new infrastructure has been concentrated around London and the south-east, often at staggering cost. This has added to the overdevelopment of these areas and their living costs. A classic example is the HS2 train, far more expensive than it needs to be, devastating rural Oxfordshire, and ending only at Manchester, just as the North begins. The North needs more infrastructure, Northern workers need the jobs that infrastructure will bring, and the country needs the economic rebalancing that Northern infrastructure will cause; that infrastructure’s cost will be lower than in the south-east because it will be carried out with lower-cost labor and will be covering lower-cost real estate. The Ulster-Galloway bridge, with projected cost less than a third of HS2, is the kind of economy-enhancing project needed.
Many of the sacred cows that must be slaughtered are environmental. The ban on fracking, for example, entirely without justification from legitimate science, must be reversed forthwith. Fracking’s potential is greatest within the U.K. in those areas which have abundant coal deposits and a past coal industry. Fracking provides well-paid blue-collar jobs, similar to those in coal mining but without the mortal danger and the slag-heaps. It has regenerated the economy of rural Pennsylvania and is an ideal activity for the new Tory areas and voters; the objections to it are all generated by metropolitan liberals, very few of whom vote Conservative.
Similarly but even more crucially for the national budget, Britain should withdraw from the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, abolish subsidies to “clean” energy technologies and embark on a program of natural gas-fired power stations that can replenish the nation’s dangerously stretched energy resources. When the 1931 National Government coalition was formed the Liberals were given the Foreign Office, which led to World War II. In the 2010 coalition, they were given Energy, with less potential for disaster, but the extra costs and power shortages their rule generated should now be eliminated. Through environmental zeal, Germany has energy costs more than twice those of the United States; after Brexit the U.S. road is the one for Britain to follow.
Another area where Britain spends twice the world average, to the joy of gentry liberals and the anger of the working classes, is foreign aid. This does little good to recipients, except to their governments’ Swiss bank accounts; it should be halved. Boris Johnson’s announcement that he is to fold the Department for International Development into the Foreign Office suggests that he may be considering this; it would greatly help pay for the extra expenditure needed in other areas.
A further gentry shibboleth, that has been imposed on the working classes since the Wireless Act of 1904, is the £154.50 annual BBC TV license fee. Again, Johnson has announced he is de-criminalizing non- payment of this; if so he will make it an essentially voluntary payment, made by the intellectuals, the dutiful and the very rich, and rightly ignored by the vast majority of the population. This would be a very popular move up North, where this flat “poll tax” is a severe burden on many family budgets.
The final intellectual icon of the upper-class left, that the new Tory voters do not share, is university education. John Major in 1992 arbitrarily re-designated all the British polytechnics as universities, thus doubling the number of “universities,” wrecking the international reputation of British university degrees and setting up innumerable pointless research operations of very low intellectual quality and no practical use at all. Then in 1999 Tony Blair promised that 50% of British youth would go to university, a foolish goal (recently more or less achieved) that has wrecked the lives of millions, burdened them with debt they cannot repay and made it impossible for employers to separate the intellectual gold from the dross.
With students now paying fees of up to £9,250 ($12,000) annually for college education, the new Tory voters are generally getting a very bad deal from it. Without university-educated family, and with a plethora of third-rate “universities” in the North of England, youths of moderate capacity from this background are least likely to get their money’s worth from the education system and most likely to be “sold” a degree course of poor quality that will never repay them its cost from future earnings.
The government could save a great deal of money by reversing Major’s 1992 disaster, converting the ex-polytechnics either into German “fachhochschulen,” specializing only in applied sciences and not awarding doctorates, or into U.S.-style community colleges, where students could take courses “a la carte” gaining in a year or so only the capabilities they need for a particular line of work. Both the government and students could save huge amounts of money by this means; it would be offensive only to those who looked forward to or already enjoyed a comfortable professorate at a third-rate “university” with no intellectual heavy lifting.
Several commentators have proclaimed that in its trade treaty with the EU, the government should focus on modern service industries and ignore traditional industries such as fishing. This is precisely the reverse of optimal. Services, being intangible, can be carried out at long distances, so markets in the U.S. and the Far East can replace any EU business lost. The government should look closely at joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or at least at doing a trade deal with its members, all medium-sized and mostly long-term friends of Britain.
Conversely, fishing is highly geographically located, and its practitioners are from the new Tory areas, such as Great Grimsby (majority 7,331, won on a swing of 14.7%). To fulfil the needs of its new supporters, the government must expel foreign riff-raff from British territorial waters and allow British fisherman to take advantage of their bounty, on a sustainable basis that is designed by the domestic industry, not by foreign bureaucrats.
On immigration and policing, the views of new Tories are well-known, and Johnson must follow them. Political correctness is a disease, that affects mainly the over-educated, but whose strictures bear most heavily on ordinary people. In general, Johnson should follow the rule that anything strongly recommended at Samantha Cameron’s Notting Hill cocktail parties is likely to involve oppression of the working class and hence should be avoided or, if already implemented, repealed.
Benjamin Disraeli, the inventor of the “one nation” concept, had a passion for Metropolitan fads and fashionable liberalism, so would have hated the new Tory direction. Conversely, Robert, Lord Liverpool, the inventor of Conservatism and its finest practitioner in government, would see the Tory party finally coming home.
(The Bear’s Lair is a weekly column that is intended to appear each Monday, an appropriately gloomy day of the week. Its rationale is that the proportion of “sell” recommendations put out by Wall Street houses remains far below that of “buy” recommendations. Accordingly, investors have an excess of positive information and very little negative information. The column thus takes the ursine view of life and the market, in the hope that it may be usefully different from what investors see elsewhere.)