For the last two years writing about British politics has meant writing about the gradual collapse of the Tory party. That collapse will not be complete until late next year when the party faces the strong likelihood of defeat in a general election. But it accelerated last month when the Tories lost two out three safe seats in by-elections.
If the voting patterns of those by-elections are repeated in the 2024 general election, only about 100 Tory MPs (out of more than 600) will be returned to the House of Commons. National opinion polls currently show the Conservatives limping along twenty points behind Labour. If we want a glimpse of the more distant electoral future, surveys of voters between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five show them to be much less likely than the electorate as a whole to vote Tory: only one in ten of them intends to do so.
As always on these occasions, party spokesmen and sympathetic pundits searched diligently for signs, however faint, of a recovery in Tory fortunes. They found just one. The Tory candidate in Boris Johnson’s former seat of Uxbridge, a local councillor, managed to cling onto a modest 495 majority by campaigning against the expansion of London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone, or ULEZ, which imposes high daily payments on petrol- and diesel-powered cars in the zone. Expanding ULEZ to the city’s outer suburbs would include Uxbridge—and an estimated 20,000 drivers.
In the aftermath of the Uxbridge result, therefore, not only did the Tories suddenly grasp that delaying or diluting ULEZ might become a useful national political issue, but so also did Labour’s leader, Sir Keir Starmer. He promptly urged London’s Mayor, Sadiq Khan, to go easy on expanding ULEZ too quickly (that is, before the next election.) But since Labour is the natural party of regulation and intervention, there are very tight limits on how far a Labour leader can go in playing the card of populist resistance to progressive state planning. But while proposing only a modest and temporary reining in of expensive regulation, Sir Keir had inadvertently tipped off the Tories to the power of this issue—which also happens to be their natural issue.
John O’Sullivan appears in every Quadrant.
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Once that thought occurred to them, they had other thoughts—notably, that they might extend their ULEZ strategy of resistance to other issues: Net Zero, of course, and ESG, and CRT, and DEI, and all the other policy directives coming down to us from what Kenneth Minogue once called the government of Acronymia.
There’s been growing public disquiet—unnoticed by the politicians and civil servants or ignored by them when noticed—over a new style of government: new schemes like “fifteen-minute cities” that get adopted in international forums and slipped via national law into local planning regulations with little or no prior public discussion with ordinary citizens, even accompanied at times by the exclusion of elected officials or the silencing of critics, until one day council workmen appear in your quiet suburban street and start building anti-traffic barricades or removing gas heaters from homes. In their current desperation, the Tories are turning their minds to the political advantage (or necessity) of exploiting these issues and the public anger they generate.
It’s a tempting strategy, but there are formidable obstacles to it. One is that many of these policies were introduced with great fanfare by the Tories themselves. Boris in an earlier incarnation as London’s mayor introduced ULEZ, for instance, and later as PM he made Net Zero his personal crusade. Moreover, all recent UK governments have fostered a national belief in the overriding imperative of combating “the climate-change emergency” in order to “save the planet”. Not only has that pumped up the zealots of the environmental group Extinction Rebellion; it has also persuaded the respectable middle classes, including judges and chief constables, that they have no moral right to punish lawbreaking protesters or not to enforce the various global promises to cut carbon emissions.
It is the working and lower middle classes, closer to reality and not indissolubly wedded to their previous ideological convictions, who are likely to oppose policies that like Net Zero impose heavy economic costs and painful lifestyle changes without achieving their supposed benefits. Already we can see the germs of a class war around these issues in the fights developing between green zealots blocking the roads and people who have to get to work.
My own wager in such a war would be cast for the side that has a strong moral argument as well as a practical economic one—and above all the benefit of a repellent enemy with bad motives and secretive methods. By an amazing coincidence, such an enemy (I am tempted to add “of the common people”) emerged in the very week of the three by-elections to begin clarifying the conflict.
That enemy was a very improbable one, namely the notoriously elitist Coutts Bank whose customers have included the late Queen Elizabeth and her mother. Coutts today is reduced in social importance, being a humble subsidiary of the NatWest banking consortium, which has itself been 39 per cent owned by the UK taxpayer since 2008 when it suffered a meltdown and was rescued by the government.
Banks and bankers have not been popular in many places since 2008. But they have not usually been seen as sinister (except perhaps by Prime Minister Harold Macmillan who used to call them “banksters”.) They now enjoy that reputation because of how Coutts cancelled the account of Nigel Farage, a public figure best known as the successful campaigner for Brexit.
Over a city dinner, Dame Alison Rose, the NatWest CEO, leaked to a BBC correspondent the gossipy story that Farage’s account had been cancelled, hinting that the reason was financial. He reported the story as from an anonymous source. It became a big story. Instead of being embarrassed, though, Farage went on the attack, arguing Coutts had improperly leaked confidential information about a client and demanding to see any internal bank discussions leading to the cancellation.
The documents, which he promptly published, showed that the bank had lied in saying his account was being closed on financial grounds. Coutts had secretly compiled a forty-page dossier, full of left-wing clichés and unsourced rumours, about Farage’s political life from school onwards. It concluded he might be xenophobic and racist, or some people might think so at least, and that the bank would suffer “reputational risk” from being associated with him. He didn’t align with its “inclusive” values.
Farage enjoyed a complete victory, moral as well as political, over the establishment. Dame Alison and the CEO of Coutts both resigned. The BBC apologised for the story. Cabinet ministers intervened to make clear that there would have to be new regulations to protect bank clients from forced and unexplained cancellations. Coutts suffered from their dissociation from Farage rather than the reverse. The media—notably including the Guardian—seem to approve of these outcomes. And so did public opinion.
This approval was far from universal. Some Labour spokesmen refused to criticise Coutts. Twitter was full of “progressive” tweets denouncing Farage and declaring with relish that right-wing people should be deprived of bank accounts and other services that make their lives liveable and their political activities possible.
And it soon became clear that the banks are still closing accounts without explanation—apparently at the rate of 1000 a day—and sometimes for either avowedly political reasons or absurdly frivolous ones. Gina Miller—the anti-Brexit campaigner who almost derailed Brexit with her lawsuits—founded a new political party only to see its account cancelled on grounds of political risk! She will now be helped by Farage, who has established a watchdog body to protect people from “debanking”.
There’s a lot of debanking happening, not only by banks, and very often with official encouragement or even compulsion. It’s one way of ensuring conformity in the new kind of semi-democratic managerial capitalism that was gradually being established without people noticing until Coutts inadvertently revealed it.
What kind is that? N.S. Lyons, who writes the essential Upheaval blog for Substack, outlined in a recent Unherd article how the West is developing its own managerial party-states, softer than China’s but rooted in the same social-credit system of control, and also how this softer control works: “Critically, there can be no neutral institutions in a party-state. The party-state’s enemies are the institution’s enemies, or the institution is an enemy of the party-state (which is not a profitable position to be in). This is what ‘reputational risk’ really means: the risk of appearing to be on the wrong side of the party line.”
What may turn out to be the most significant result of the cancellation of Farage’s bank account is that it has radicalised ordinary people. It has been a window into a future in which social and economic institutions, not excluding the courts and law enforcement, are administered in accordance with rules and policies disguised either as initialisms like ULEZ, ESG and DEI or as synonyms for politeness such as “inclusiveness”, even though they have not undergone the formality of becoming laws in elected parliaments.
That may be why Tory ministers have shown unusual energy in denouncing the banks and promising new regulations to protect bank clients from discrimination on political grounds. They are likely to have a direct personal interest in democratic principles and civil protections in the very near future. As Dr Johnson remarked, nothing concentrates the mind so wonderfully as the prospect of being hanged in a fortnight.
We can now see our new political divide taking shape more clearly. It will be a struggle between a free, responsible and risk-taking people drawn from all classes, and a fearful establishment ruling a passive proletariat. All our previous political calculations are scattered to the four winds. Like US Republicans and Australian Liberals, the Tories have no choice but to throw in their lot with the first people. They are already hated by the second.