We live, as the Chinese curse goes, in interesting times. On the endless chaos of Britain proving itself incapable of finding an acceptable posture for its place in Europe, any coherence in its posture in the world has gone begging. Whereas, a century ago, the known world sat up and took notice of what Britain did, this latest farrago may prove to be the swansong of Britain as a leading nation.
Adjustment to decline is never easy and a hundred years of decline is bound to leave scars on the national psyche. But some parts of British society do better than others. Academia and culture have made impressive transitions; youth had an outward outlook that would astonish their great-grandfathers; business—especially financial services—have gone global.
Other sections of British society have struggled to move from Rule Britannia to today’s modest reality. Prime among these are Westminster and the politicians inhabiting it, who beat patriotic chests to get themselves elected. This phenomenon is concentrated among the Tories and nowhere more so than the modern incarnation of the High Tory.
They once confined themselves to glaring out over their Lincolnshire estate, sporting ostrich feathers on their vice-regal helmets or murmuring over letters in The Times as they sip whisky-and-soda in the clubs of St James. Sporting the right school tie allowed one to run the ‘Empah’ with a nod and a wink to the right people. But, in the intervening century, tectonic plates in society have shifted. Brash upstarts who’ve never seen the inside of a public school now deal squillions in The City, Parliament is overrun with tradesmen and suffragettes and one can’t find domestics without falling foul of immigration laws. Bur The City’s ‘Big Bang” of thirty years ago was just a pop-gun, compared with the debilitation following the fall of MacMillan’s Cabinet of Etonian relatives though that odious Profumo affair.
“High Tories prefer a traditional, hierarchical society over utopian equality and holding the traditional gentry as a higher cultural benchmark than the bourgeoisie and those who attain their position through commerce or labour.” —Andrew Heywood
But, though plebian upstarts like Heath and Thatcher usurped their traditional dominance, the High Tories lived on in the shape of the ‘backwoodsmen’. Typically representing a true-blue seat on the shires. They fought entry into Europe, bayed ‘betrayal’ any time disarmament was mooted and were loyal supporters of Britain “punching above its weight” in world affairs. They were also a thon in the side of every UK Prime Minister who sought closer relations within the EU, even as former colonies sought their economic futures everywhere but the mother country.
Their demise has often been declared since the post-Profumo decimation of their influence—as when Thatcher led the Tory party into harsh commercialism and Cameron wrapped the party in the more empathetic ‘Compassionate Conservatism’. But they lived on, encouraging Thatcher’s hand-bagging of Brussels and hounding Major into body-swerving the Euro. But their finest hour came when they badgered Cameron into going to the EU to demand concessions and then forcing a referendum on membership when he failed. The campaign was so emotional nobody bothered to define what ‘ending membership’ actually meant.
The subsequently victorious Leave campaign was led by members like Boris Johnson and Jacob Reese-Mogg, supported by would-be members like Liam Fox and Michael Gove. The latter fell away when it looked like the Brexit favoured by High Tories was an uncompromising hard one that would cost their Cabinet jobs: no customs union; no free market; no free movement; no backstop to secure an open border in Ireland.
So, the remaining true High Tories have circled their wagons in the shape of the (facetiously named?) European Research Group (ERG), chaired by Rees-Mogg. Not wanting to be a member of the European Union is a credible position to take. Neither Switzerland nor Norway are members. But they wisely recognise they must accommodate the economic heavyweight on their doorstep and have strong ties that allow trade to flow between them. The ERG will have no truck with such lily-livered compromise. They want Britain to stand tall in the world as it once did, free of all fetters and striking deals wherever it suits.
Were this Edwardian Britain, bestriding the world as an economic colossus (or were it USA or China, today’s equivalents) this would be plucky, but plausible. But the ERG appear oblivious of today’s reality—that, instead of dominating world trade, Britain accounts for only a few percent of it. Not just the USA and China but rising giants like India’s 1bn, or Brazil’s 289m, or Indonesia’s 260m people now dwarf Britain. They can out-produce and out-consume medium-scale Britain and make the world of trade a very chilly place for a country no longer famous for making much of anything.
High Tories do not accept this. While they are entitled to their opinion, the fact that they dominate the ERG and that, in turn, controls one third of all Conservative MPs is a recipe for national disaster. While Thereesa May has made a pig’s ear of bringing Britain together on a coherent Brexit position and has not been helped by an effectively leaderless Labour Party, the fact that no other formulation of a deal is acceptable to the EU at this late stage and the ERG show no sign of accepting a backstop in any permanent form, means they are clamping the steering wheel of the British jalopy and steering it towards the No Deal cliff edge looming on March 29th.
Which is a shame. Because, on top of Honda pulling out, Airbus and Toyota withholding investment and chunks of The City decamping to Frankfurt, Paris and Dublin, a whole flock of economic chickens will come home to roost, even after the lorry jams at Dover are cleared. People will get angry. They will lwant scapegoats and need not look far to find them. It will not be a time for dinosaurs to be caught wearing a Old Etonian tie.