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The Cousinhood That Still Rules Britain

Why do the Tories keep winning?

It’s no secret that Britain has in recent years been something of a mess, yet the Conservative Party’s popularity continues unabated. Why don’t British voters blame Boris Johnson or his party for the chaos of Brexit, a botched pandemic response, or surging poverty? And why have the Tories been so successful over the decades? On Episode 27 of The Politics of Everything, hosts Laura Marsh and Alex Pareene ask Samuel Earle and Ash Sarkar, two British journalists, what explains the Tories’ extraordinary dominance.

[Clip of Boris Johnson speaking]: I’m shaking hands. I was at a hospital the other night, where I think there were actually a few coronavirus patients; I shook hands with everybody, and you’ll be pleased to know that I continue to shake hands. And I think it’s very important that we—people obviously can make up their own minds.

Laura: That is the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaking a year ago, in March 2020, about the coronavirus. Not long after that, he would himself be diagnosed with coronavirus.

Alex: So we’ve been fixated, on our show—and possibly to some extent in our regular lives—on our own government’s failures over the last year, and our government’s incompetence and corruption over the years that Trump was in charge. And as a casual consumer of world news, I feel like every time I hear about what’s going on over in the U.K., it sounds similarly not great. At least since Brexit, it seems to be a carnival of incompetence that nearly matches the Trump show. Here, there was a rejection in 2018 and 2020 of the conservative government that had been in charge, but weirdly, no one over there voted the bums out.

Laura: On today’s show, we’re talking about British politics.

Alex: And we’re trying to figure out what explains the Conservative Party’s extraordinary dominance over the decades. I’m Alex Pareene. I’m a staff writer at The New Republic.

Laura: And I’m Laura Marsh, the magazine’s literary editor.

Alex: This is The Politics of Everything.

Laura: Boris Johnson is in his second year as the prime minister of great Britain. He is one of three Tory prime ministers since 2010. He’s overseen some disastrous events in U.K. politics in the last couple of years—he’s overseen Brexit and the U.K.’s coronavirus response.

Alex: So how are the Tories still in power?

Laura: We talked to Samuel Earle, who recently wrote a piece for The New Republic about why it’s actually not surprising, and he’s going to talk to us about the persistence of Tory rule in Britain.

Alex: Later in the show, we’ll talk to Ash Sarkar about the role the British media plays in the Conservative Party’s success.

Laura: Sam, reading your piece on the Conservative Party and its incredible hold on the United Kingdom, I had to stop myself several times where I came across a fact that was to me just so shocking that I was convinced it couldn’t be true. And I think the central one is that of the Conservative Party’s 21 leaders, only three of them have not managed to become prime minister. But I went away and looked this up, and it is in fact true, and all three of the people who failed, failed in my lifetime, in the early 2000s. Just talk me through that. How does a party manage to basically get every single one of its leaders elected up to 1997?

Samuel Earle: It’s an astonishing fact, and like you, every time I see it again, it hits me anew. Up until the end of the twentieth century, the Conservative Party was still seen as being remarkably powerful and successful. “The most successful party in the world” is a moniker that has been attached to the party at least since the second half of the twentieth century. And so you have this incredible record of victory and prime ministers coming to power up until Tony Blair was elected leader of the Labour Party.

Alex: So, just to keep our American listeners oriented, this was in 1997.

Samuel: He is the most conservative of Labour leaders, and he is responsible for the sole three Conservative leaders who don’t become prime minister. And it is an incredible illustration of the grip it has. The genesis of the piece for me really came from so many of the Conservative Party history books associating its winning record with qualities like unity, competence, pragmatism. Over the last five or six years, you’ve really seen those qualities completely disappear, and yet the Conservative Party has kept on winning.

Laura: You and I are around the same age, I think—I’m in my early thirties. And so for most of my life, growing up, the Labour Party was in charge. And as you say, Blair is certainly the most conservative Labour leader, but from 1997 to 2010, it seemed like they couldn’t lose. And so to see the sweep of history that you present, I was sort of taken aback that maybe I had grown up during an exceptional period that we might not see again.

Samuel: I’m born in 1992. And the first election that I could vote in was 2010, when the Tories won in a coalition. And since then, the Tories have kept on winning. And so I slightly have the reverse feeling of just always feeling like I’ve lived under the Conservatives. I do remember Blair as having a progressive impact, but then when you dig into it, you see that actually his control over Britain was much more on Conservative terms than in Labour terms. And from that perspective, you start seeing a very depressing picture of the Conservative Party forever, for the last 50 years, and for a brief window almost mutating into Blair and then returning to the Conservatives.

Alex: So Tony Blair was the prime minister for 10 years. When I think back to my childhood, I’m like “Tony Blair, that’s the guy in charge of England.”

Laura: He leaves voluntarily in 2007. So Gordon Brown takes over as the party leader, and he’s the prime minister until 2010. There’s a general election, Gordon Brown runs as the Labour candidate, tries to get reelected as prime minister; he’s running against David Cameron, who wins or just about wins—that election goes into a coalition government with the Lib Dems. Then David Cameron is the prime minister until 2016.

Alex: 2016 was the year of the Brexit referendum.

Laura: He was on the Remain side and the referendum came down for Leave. So he says that he would resign if that happened. And he does.

Alex:. So can you bring us back to 2016? Because that seems like a really pivotal moment in the Conservative Party’s history.

Samuel: It was such a tumultuous time, everything was just changing so fast. You had Boris Johnson, who had at the last moment decided to campaign for Brexit, not expecting that Brexit would actually win. And then David Cameron resigns after the referendum, and Johnson is widely seen as the favorite to succeed him. He assembles what is referred to as a dream team, which is him alongside another experienced Conservative and another fellow journalist like him, Michael Gove. Incredibly, over the course of the leadership campaign, Michael Gove then decides that he wants to be prime minister. And then when he decides to run himself, suddenly both their campaigns collapse because it’s such a scandal, and they’ve split whatever vote they had. And Theresa May effectively becomes prime minister unimpeded, but they did eventually realize over the course of the 2017 election, that there was almost no personality there. And when voters also realized that, Labour came close to overcoming the Tories in 2017.

Alex: 2017 was the year of Jeremy Corbyn’s first general election as leader of the Labour Party.

Samuel: Then it was really only a matter of time before she was gone, and Johnson had done a good job to be waiting in the wings, and he took over.

Laura: Britain isn’t a country where you vote for the president the way you vote for Trump or Joe Biden: You vote Conservative, and the party has chosen who the leader is, but that could change during their time in office. Your focus is on this problem of how to understand the Conservative Party when they’re not presenting themselves as a competent, stabilizing force. So we have David Cameron, who I think actually does a good job of presenting himself that way. He’s a credible politician, and he’s very P.R.-friendly, he worked in P.R. Once he leaves office after messing up the EU referendum, the Conservative Party entered this chaotic period that I think you’ve been reckoning with, but with two very different forms of chaos: Theresa May, someone who is quite staid but not particularly competent, and then Boris, who’s bumbling and shambolic, and just sort of promises to bluster through to get things done.

Samuel: Yeah, so you’ve got three very different leaders, and there is a common thread running through them, which is whichever leader the Conservative Party membership and MPs deem gives them the strongest chance of winning an election.

Laura: So this is another question about their success, because the internecine battle for the leadership is a long-standing tradition in the Conservative Party. When you look at the way that Margaret Thatcher, who was the prime minister, was ousted by her own party in a backroom kind of coup, and then you look at the struggles to succeed Cameron—I remember that struggle between Gove and Johnson being particularly grisly, when I believe Michael Gove’s wife was involved in some way; they’re all journalists, they’re all leaking, they’re all writing columns. And there were so many people who slipped up and didn’t play the system in the right way and had to withdraw and hope to come back in a slightly less dishonorable form at a later date, which they inevitably do. How do they survive this level of mistrust and infighting in their own ranks?

Samuel: It’s a good question. And I would say, though, that they have got quite an efficient way of dealing with internal feuds, and as much as they rage on, once there is a winner, there is a tendency, much more than in Labour, to then get behind the leader. Whereas the Labour Party remained utterly divided throughout Corbyn’s reign. Once Theresa May took over, for the large part, the Tories followed her.

Alex: Do you want to quickly explain how the Tories elect their party leader, if that might help explain how these people win these battles?

 Samuel: So I think the Conservatives only introduced leadership elections in the 1960s, and until then the leader was just chosen by senior figures within the Conservative Party. But since then, it has evolved into what is now an election among the membership, who vote, and because the Conservative Party membership is increasingly small—it’s about 150,000 now—if a prime minister resigns, you end up at a tiny, tiny fraction of the population electing the prime minister of the country.

Laura: So something I want to get to is the nature of this very small party, because not only do they profess to stand for tradition, but the Conservative Party typically represents the aristocracy or moneyed interests in the U.K. You refer to one of its nicknames in the past having been “the cousinhood.” Where does that come from?

Samuel: So, because the Conservative Party for a large part of its existence has drawn it support from the aristocracy, which even in its heyday was such a small part of the British population, you had an incredible incestuosness, frankly, among the Conservative Party, which involved about a third of its 429 members of parliament in the 1930s being able to be placed on the same family tree, and two in every five belonging to the aristocracy. Now, as the aristocracy has waned, and the Conservative Party elite has evolved into other forms—landowners, petty bourgeoisie, etc.—it is no longer a family affair in the same way. Yet over 40 of 55 prime ministers in British history have gone to either Oxford or Cambridge. And the result is that I would say, if you are in the upper echelons of the Conservative Party, there’s probably never much more than three degrees of separation from someone who you went to school or university with.

Laura: I found very interesting in your piece a point you make about British people’s cultural tastes, the fact that they love shows like The Crown and Poldark and Downton Abbey. How much do you think that has an impact when people go to vote; how much do you think it makes them comfortable with being ruled by a kind of benign-seeming elite?

Sam: It’s a kind of background noise that acclimatizes Brits to those ancient and anachronistic forms of power that even in their anachronism and outdatedness still hold this quaint appeal that I think really does resonate around the country. There’s no real appetite for republicanism. The House of Lords ceased to be hereditary in 1999, but even now it’s merely appointed by the two main parties. And there is this glow around Oxford and Eton and how old these institutions are, and I think that does speak to a certain part of British character, which values that history.

Alex: From the American perspective—and I know some of the people that we have elected lately—but I hear about that history, and I sort of see Boris himself, and I just think, “Who does this appeal to?” It’s a little tough, because even our rich jackass who just got elected was a sort of anti-elite rich jackass, but I guess Johnson just practices a different kind of that anti-elite politics.

Sam: I do think it’s an interesting comparison, because even among the hypocritical posturing of right-wing politicians who so often pretend to be outside of the establishment while being in it, I think Johnson does stand out for just how much of an establishment figure he is. And yet through Boris Johnson’s treatment of politics as a joke, his constant unseriousness, and his unique use of language, we’ll call it, he does manage to convince [people] he’d come across as someone who is unlike other politicians. A famous test in British politics is who would you rather have a pint with, X or Y, and Boris Johnson consistently does well on those kinds of questions. He seems like a person who you could have a conversation with, who speaks his mind a little bit more freely than what can frankly be quite robotic alternatives in the houses of Parliament.

Laura: So what’s clear, talking to Sam, is that Tory rule really has been the norm for most of British history, and the party’s willingness to get behind whoever is in power helps them hang on to rule once they are voted in.

Alex: One thing that helps them fall in line seems to be their very close ties to the press, so we wanted to look a bit more deeply into how the British media treats the Tories. After the break, we talk to the British journalist Ash Sarkar about the symbiotic relationship between the British press and the Conservative Party.

Alex: Before the break, we were talking about the history of Conservative Party dominance over British politics, and how they’ve maintained their power for so long.

Laura: We asked Ash Sarkar, a contributing editor at the independent left-wing media organization Novara Media, for her sense of what the media landscape looks like in the U.K., and how it skews politically.

Ash Sarkar: I mean, the first thing you’ve got to know is that it’s billionaire-owned. So 75 percent of British newspapers are controlled by conservative-supporting billionaires. Rupert Murdoch can account for 25 percent of circulation. Viscount Ruthermere, who’s a tax exile, accounts for another 35 percent of circulation. These are right-wing-leaning papers. And then right-wing-leaning papers also generate the majority of framing and stories in broadcast media: One study in 2015 found that 61 percent of broadcast news stories have their origins in right-wing papers. So you’ve got a conveyor belt between a billionaire press putting out the messages, which are conducive to billionaire interests in the papers, then that finding its way in the more tightly regulated environment of broadcast media. In the U.K., it’s kind of the flip of America: We have a less partisan broadcast environment and a much more partisan newspaper environment. I understand in America it’s the opposite. You save all your headbangers for TV.

Laura: That is—yes, that’s correct. You’ve written about Boris Johnson’s open racism and some of the comments that he’s made in print, which presumably went through proofreading and copy editing, and what are deliberate comments—these aren’t off-the-cuff remarks—are really shocking. And yet it’s my sense that there is a tendency in British media to render cuddly and bumbling these Conservative politicians and to convert the offensive remarks they make into sort of lovable gaffes. Do you think there’s something in the British press that inherently favors that style of politics?

Ash: Well, I think there are two factors that you’ve got to take into account here. One is, Who’s the target? and the other is, Who’s the perpetrator? So let’s start with Who’s the target? Boris Johnson has made comments about minorities that are just absolutely horrendous and indefensible. They were published, and that’s because they weren’t actually that far away from the kind of mainstream of opinion that was being offered in the media at that point. So the majority of news coverage of Muslims that … study after study [has found] is negative, associated with criminality or terrorism. Black people, as well, have hugely negative press coverage. So if you’re using horrible slurs, you might be deemed a bit more vulgar or a bit more crass, but you’re not that far off from what everyone else is doing anyway. And then you’ve got, Who’s the perpetrator? So we know that, for Jeremy Corbyn, accusations of racism and particularly antisemitism were a career-defining issue, and indeed a mortal wound, and there was an intense sensitivity to the tone and the language and the register that he spoke and wrote in, whereas Boris Johnson has written very openly antisemitic things in some of his godawful novels and nobody batted an eye. And that’s because there’s selective outrage depending on who the person is who said the thing. And the other thing to remember about Boris Johnson is that he’s not just an upper-class Tory. He’s also an ex-journalist. He is the insider’s insider. He really is. There is, I think, a lingering sense among a particular part of Westminster journalism, which goes, “He’s one of us.” So he’s never invited the kind of proper scrutiny that any prime minister or any politician of any policy ought to have.

Alex: I’ve written here in the U.S. about the relationship between the conservative media and the Republican Party, which I see, at this point, as the media driving the Republican Party, here. It seems like the relationship is almost more fluid there, where there’s even less of a distinction between the Conservative Party and the conservative media, like Boris is one in the same. Is that accurate?

Ash: What you’ve got to know about Westminster media and Westminster politics is that everyone’s banging everyone, and if they’re not banging everyone, then they’re employing everyone. There is a revolving door between political journalism and politics proper. So Allegra Stratton, who’s the prime minister’s new spokeswoman, she has her origins in political journalism. She was the political editor of ITV news. Before that she was at Newsnight. You had Ross Kempsell, who did a journey from political radio into Downing Street and then out again, and before he got a job at Downing Sreet, he distinguished himself by doing this absolutely pathetic softball interview with Boris Johnson, going, “What’s one of your hobbies, prime minister?” So that the prime minister could go, “I like painting wine crates into a beautiful big red bus.” It was client journalism, but that’s the thing: If you’re a good client journalist, either you’re rewarded with access—so, insider briefings and interview time that other journalists are struggling to get—or you’re awarded with a job at the end of it. It’s really not that subtle.

Laura: So this is very unusual. In the U.S., it’s very different—in the U.S., the idea of a journalist becoming the president would be crazy, and I’m always trying to explain it to people. George Osborne, who was the chancellor, is now the editor of the Evening Standard, which is the free newspaper that everyone can get in London. If you ride the tube, pick up a copy, you’re getting a nice package of opinion that has been formed by the person who used to run the whole Treasury. It’s a weird pipeline, where probably the easiest way to become a successful politician would be to become a columnist.

Alex: You’re saying I should move to the U.K. and become a center-right columnist if I want to get into politics?

Ash: The mechanisms of accountability are completely broken. The relationship between press and politician should be predator and prey. That’s what it should be. And it doesn’t matter who the politician is. I think that that’s what it should have been for Jeremy Corbyn. I think that that’s what it should be if one day you’ve got President AOC, that’s how I think it ought to be, as well. But if you’ve got a revolving door between the press and politicians, then something clearly isn’t working here, because a politician should feel so pissed off at how they’ve been hounded by the press that they would never dream of giving a journalist a job, and they would never dream of entering that profession themselves.

Alex: So Ash, you’ve written for The Guardian, which is essentially the paper of the left wing in the U.K., but you’re a senior editor at an alternative media company, Novara Media. Why did you choose that as sort of your main affiliation, as opposed to just working for The Guardian?

Ash: Because I couldn’t get a job anywhere else!

Alex: That’s a great answer.

Ash: My politics are with Novara Media. You say that The Guardian is the paper of the left. It’s not really. The equivalent would be the paper of Nancy Pelosi. So it’s the sort of establishment wing of the center left. Whereas Novara Media, we emerged out of a movement context. So all of us met when we were occupying our universities when the at-the-time coalition government between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats conspired to treble university tuition fees, and we identified that there was an intellectual space which needed filling for the left. So we were having all of these discussions, not just about the immediate politics of what was going on but the kind of theory behind it. And as Jeremy Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, that’s when we really started getting into current affairs. So that was in 2015, and we’ve almost reverse-engineered our mission purpose from there, because when you’re doing news and current affairs media, it’s not just about exploring ideas in a kind of cozy ivory tower or closed-off niche. You start wanting to reach the biggest audience possible in order to achieve a political purpose. And The Guardian, God love them, they do put out some good stuff, but ultimately they’ve been an obstacle to that politics rather than a facilitator of it.

Laura: The movement of young people who were radicalized or became interested in politics  around the same time as you is huge. But the coverage of it in the mainstream media has not been exactly receptive. How would you characterize the way that the rising left has been portrayed?

Ash: I would say, well, first you’ve got to work out who the electorate is. Is the voter, the legitimate voice in politics, a young person who’s been burdened and crushed by student debt, forking out half of their income per month on an ex-council flat from some awful landlord—is that the legitimate voter? Or is it a retired, socially conservative homeowner who lives somewhere in England? That older homeowner has been the model of the voter and in particular the swing voter for very many years now. So when you’ve got another cohort of people saying, “Hey, maybe we’re a legitimate force in politics, particularly if that cohort are opposed to the interests of the people who own the newspapers, who set the broadcast agenda, well, you’re going to get demonized. So it meant that Corbyn supporters were characterized as frothing, mad Marxist extremists, as antisemites, as people who are in league with Muslims, a.k.a. terrorists, and were completely traduced in the papers. And that had really violent effects. During the 2019 general election, Labour canvassers were attacked, and these were kind of old sweet social democrats and socialists going around with their clipboards. Some of them ended up with broken ribs. So there was a real character assassination of the entire political movement. And it was brought in order to defeat that movement.

Laura: So the Tories have traditionally marketed themselves as, “We are the party of just making sure everything stays the same.” That’s sort of the idea of conservatism, that’s how they present themselves, yet since 2010 we have seen more political issues come onto the table in Britain, and more cans of worms opened, than I think anyone ever anticipated. The idea of leaving the EU becoming an active, serious issue, and all of the problems that have come from that—I think in the mid-’90s, people would have been completely incredulous that that could happen. So it seems like the fabric of the British political system has just been slowly falling apart. And if you pull any one thread, it’s like, “Oh, all these unintended consequences could ensue from that.” Would you characterize Tory rule as particularly unstable since 2010?

Ash: Well, I’d historicize it a bit longer. This idea that Conservatives fundamentally are about conserving the status quo isn’t quite right. They’re about conserving the interests of the ownership class, right? And then who that ownership class is obviously changes, but different historical trends—moving from a productive to a rentier economy being a massive one—and Conservatives actually have proved remarkably adaptable to those changing contexts, and indeed have accelerated those changes as well. So who’s the most successful Conservative politician of the last century? It’s Margaret Thatcher. We’re still living under Thatcher’s rule, 40 years later. And she tore up the social contract. She tore up the compact that had been made between labor and capital and which had lasted since the Second World War, and we’re still feeling the repercussions from that.

Alex: So 1979 is when Margaret Thatcher became prime minister. And I think this is a really interesting analysis of the Conservative Party, because what Ash is describing is what a lot of people would call the neoliberal turn in a lot of countries, and especially Western European countries. There was a social democratic order, which was that capital and labor could get along, capital could be managed, there would be some sort of socialistic elements of the government. In the U.K., they built the NHS—completely government subsidized health care for all. And there’s this turn that happens beginning in the late 1970s or the ’80s that’s blamed on a million different factors, but what happens is the financialization of the economy, what Ash describes as a productive economy, which is people in factories and coal mines becoming an economy that’s much more about financial derivatives and things like that. And the suggestion is that the Conservative Party has adapted to all of this in a way that has allowed them to continue to be successful, while Labour, with the exception of those Blair years, has really struggled.

Ash: My argument really is that if you look at Conservatives through the lens of their own branding, which is, “We’re traditionalists, we’re about stability,” then of course all of this comes as a surprise. But when you look at perhaps there having been two Conservative parties, one which takes you up to 1979, and then another, which has been more chameleonic in lots of ways, that has proved adaptable, then a lot of things make sense. So you look at a chancellor like Rishi Sunak, who once upon a time was a deficit hawk, now making some quite big splashy promises in public spending, increasing corporation tax. Those look like counterintuitive things for him to do—well, no, he’s following in the footsteps of those great adapters within the Conservative Party, and the Conservatives are in some ways a lot better at reading the room and judging what’s politically possible than Labour are. Labour is a party of people who are very, very sorry that they’re not in the Conservative Party because we know you the country like them so much. They’ve got absolutely no faith in what it is they do or what they stand for. And that’s the problem, which is the Conservatives are quite happy to go, “This thing we stand for now is completely different from what we stood for 10 minutes ago—but you’re going to like it anyway.” Whereas Labour are so obsessed with appearing authentic that they can never truly do so.

Laura: Alex, to answer your question at the very beginning of the show—why is Boris still in office after not a particularly brilliant two years and disastrous handling of Covid? I think the answer is that almost every cultural, historical, and structural factor in British politics conspires to favor the Tories. And meanwhile, you have an opposition that can’t get good press and that can’t gain new seats.

Alex: Well, it’s nice to end on a positive note for once. Speaking as an American who enjoys criticizing what I think of as the fecklessness of the Democratic Party, it’s good to know that it could be much worse.