Almost five years on from the fateful vote, historian JAMES HAWES explains why the decision to leave the EU was the result of a Tory civil war – triggered by John Major’s 1992 victory – for eternal control of southern England
Karl Marx believed that history was all about a succession of class struggles. He was, as Evelyn Waugh might have put it, right up to a point.
Among the many things which drive history – pandemics, climate change, intra-national warfare and suchlike – are struggles within nations themselves. These, though, are not between rival classes but between rival elites.
From 1990 to 2019, the Conservative and Unionist Party was home to two. Understand that, and we are, at last, on track to uncover the truth about Brexit.
This is a vital mission, because we are in danger of giving up the fight. Somehow, it is fast becoming the unchallenged tale that Brexit really was the direct enactment of the long-brewed will of the British people.
For the new Conservative Party – that is, the English National Party – devotion to carrying out that supposed will has become the touchstone of patriotism itself: dispute the need for or sanity of Brexit, and you are immediately on the wrong side of an all-out it cultural war, like a Huguenot in France after 1685.
Readers of this newspaper will forgive the author for pointing out that he predicted this in mid-2019: “When Brexit goes wrong… they will cling to power by hiking up their cultural class-war between the supposed will of the English people and the allegedly treacherous old UK elite. That, after all, is how they won their coup.”
Worse, though, is that even among the erstwhile opposition, many now seem to believe (perhaps because it relieves them of the guilt for being so useless to the nation in 2016-2019) that they need to “back the referendum decision” not just as an allegedly necessary electoral tactic, but because it is somehow truly unchallengeable.
So let’s step back from the wreckage and try to see, as if we were examining some distant historical catastrophe, why David Cameron, who didn’t want a referendum, changed his mind at a time when voters themselves were so little obsessed by Europe that, as the Financial Times put it in March 2013, “it never makes the top 10 of their daily concerns”.
All nations prosper best when their elites are united. This is because a secure and united elite has no reason to embark on destructive adventures like the Reformation or the Civil War. In our history, the most obvious example is the elite of the 18th century.
They took a near-failed England which had gazed into the abyss of an ISIS-like populism under the Commonwealth, then been on the verge of second Civil War in 1688, and abolished it.
Now in principle united, they had no need of ideologies – every ideology being mere window-dressing for the desire of some would-be elite faction – and devoted themselves instead to prosperity. As the Gentleman’s Magazine of 1763 put it: “The Ministry distinguished with the name of Tory, was no other than another set of Whigs… The question being not, who shall be king, but who shall hold places of profit under the king?”
What split this world-beating elite was the thing which always splits elites: not defeat, but a surfeit of victory, delivering previously unimaginable spoils. The American elite (whose army was at least 70% ethnically English) rebelled against the Great British elite (whose army in America was 70% non-English).
And so it was with the Conservative Party: epochal victory, and the dizzy prospect of booty, destroyed it – and the UK. The unintentional author of this catastrophe was John Major, and its root was the abiding problem of England itself.
Major’s 1992 victory seemed to have broken at last the simple but death-locked pattern of UK politics throughout the preceding century. That pattern was ridiculously simple, and fatally intractable.
In 1884, the majority of males in the UK were given the vote in the Third Reform Act. At the very first opportunity, at the general election of 1885, the peoples of the UK, none of whom had been in any way consulted about its foundation, all made it immediately clear that they regarded themselves primarily not as citizens of the UK, but as members of ancient tribes, and were going to choose their MPs accordingly. The UK’s first mass-election thus became a gigantic demonstration of what we’d now call “valence voting”.
The Irish voted openly and avowedly for home rule, but Wales and Scotland, too, instantly grew restive. Within the year, ‘Home Rule for All’ was proposed by Joseph Chamberlain, and this was, by 1895, the publicly and formal policy of the Liberal politicians Roseberry and Lloyd George. Yet the real shock of 1885 – to anybody unfamiliar with the Tripartite Indenture of 1405, the Wars of the Roses, the northern rebellions against Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, or maps of the Civil War, at any rate – was the English.
The old north-south fracture in England had been plastered over by unelected, supra-national Great British/UK elites. Indeed, the whole modern English public school system was founded by the Rev Woodard in the aftermath of the Chartist near-rebellion, specifically to co-opt the northern English elite.
As Woodard himself put it in November 1851: “We in the south cannot realise the state of society. Dissent is not in any painfully obnoxious form here, nor are morals flagrant. To see it in the north, in the manufacturing districts, makes one shudder… We are determined to offer a good education, conducted on Church of England principles, to every shade of the middle classes… they are to be large public boarding schools… Our system of large public schools will quite alter the tone of the middle classes.”
It worked – so long as politics remained the province of the elite. But in 1885, democracy reopened the split. The south of England became, and has remained, an almost impregnable Conservative fortress; the north voted Liberal, like the Celts. The tribes of the UK having thus declared themselves, our politics between 1885 and 2015 revolved entirely around a single conflict: the Party of the English South (a.k.a. the Conservatives) versus the League of Outer Britain (successively known as Liberal and Labour). This created a domestic Cold War between two great power-blocks, closely balanced, each with its own secure tribal heartland.
For any elite, a constant state of non-existential warfare is ideal for keeping hold of power, and so both elites remained unchallenged. From 1945-79, the honours were split more or less evenly. Since each elite could hope next time to snaffle enough of the disputed borderlands between their two cores (helpfully called the Midlands), both had every reason to avoid the dangers of outright ideological warfare – until Labour played with populist fire: in 1974 Harold Wilson sneakily co-opted Enoch Powell, who had been sacked by the stout Edward Heath, to “put the boot in” (as the Sun delicately put it).
For the first time, the emotional connection – in 1974 entirely without any rational base – was made between being anti-immigration and being anti-Europe. Mrs Thatcher, by contrast, was a loyal member of the united elite in the 1975 referendum, when the Powellites and the Bennites worked as happily together as Farage and former members of the RCP would do in 2016.
Her three triumphs did not, at the time, seem decisive. She was ditched by her own party simply because they saw her as an electoral liability in the ongoing two-party war. They, the pollsters and the bookies assumed that, with interest rates at 10%, the housing market falling and unemployment rising, normal UK political service would be resumed. Neil Kinnock certainly believed it, and fatuously allowed himself to be filmed apparently celebrating the next victory of the Outer British League in 1992.
John Major’s unexpected triumph shattered the opposition and completely turned the heads of the Conservative Party. The Outer British League was, it seemed, powerless. The electoral maths implicit since Ireland left in 1921 was laid bare: if the Party of the English South could hold on to everything south of Trent (London, lest we forget, still backed Major) the Outer British League could sing at their rallies as loudly as they liked. The Tory elite were now looking at eternal power – and the natural result was that, apparently freed of any external threat, they turned on one another to divvy up the spoils.
Thatcher’s Hayekian Continuity Army now repented their cowardice and were determined that it would be they who inherited the UK, in order to pursue the Special Relationship above all others. In the early to mid-1990s this was not an irrational position.
Many thoughtful people, surveying the evidence on offer at the time, believed that the new, unipolar world was here to stay. Major himself had nailed our position as America’s #1 military wingman in Gulf War 1. Popular thinkers like Niall Ferguson implied that the Pax Americana was really just the British Empire 2.0, guided by our supposedly shared “Ulster Scots” values. But the important point is that however sane the anti-EU zealots might have been at this point, they did not even pretend that they were responding to any kind of popular will.
The men John Major himself famously called “bastards” saw themselves as a Vanguard: small wonder that Douglas Hurd in 1990 described them as like “some demented Marxist sect”.
As they well knew, no national poll in a decade had suggested that a majority of Britons wanted to leave the EEC. And indeed they did not, at this time, seriously believe that they could win a referendum on the EU. This does not mean, however, that they were quixotic. Demanding a referendum wasn’t a strategic move, but a tactical one. For they believed, quite rightly, that the issue of Europe could be an effective populist lever – not in the country as a whole, but in Conservative Constituency Associations.
And that was all that mattered. For as Major’s 1992 victory had surely demonstrated, he who rules the south of England, rules the whole shebang. The birth of Brexit was, in short, merely part of a Conservative Civil War for eternal control of the South of England and thereby (so it seemed in 1992) the UK.
Their rebellion almost destroyed the Conservative Party, and allowed the Outer British League to mount a spectacular comeback under Tony Blair. When David Cameron – the nearest thing the Tories could find to Blair – was elected leader, it looked like the end for the Hayekian Tendency. And so it should have been. At the 2010 election, with nobody else proposing an EU referendum, UKIP won just over 3%. That’s how much it didn’t matter to voters.
If either Cameron or Brown had won an outright majority, there would never have been a Brexit referendum. Everything that has happened since happened because Cameron found himself not quite in absolute power, and still faced with rebellion – not in the country (not even in Scotland, where the SNP held only six seats) but within the Conservative Party itself.
An eye-witness has twice told me how, at the G7 in Germany in 2015, Angela Merkel asked Cameron why on earth you even think of putting 800 years of parliamentary tradition at risk. His reply was simply that he “was going to win” – by which he meant, to win against his own rebel elite. That is was it was all about, and that is what has led us to this pass.
So we were not defeated by “the will of the people”. We were outmanoeuvred by a desperate and determined faction within the Conservative Party, who imagined that by seizing control of it, and thereby total political control of southern England, they would be able to take the whole UK anywhere they wanted.
Instead, as in the Reformation and the Civil War, their rebellion has destroyed the thing they wanted to own. There is indeed no turning the clock back. The UK will shortly be history. But history matters, and as we ponder what comes next, we must never accept our new elite’s version of the past.
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