(Tim Stanley is a historian, leader writer for The Daily Telegraph, and contributing editor for the Catholic Herald.)
Laura Perrins: Tim, is a post-Brexit political revolution upon us?
Tim Stanley:The situation has the potential to be a revolutionary one. Revolutions often happen when people realise that the institutions that supposedly exist to represent them aren’t doing their job. The Brexit rebellion thus conforms to a historical pattern. The establishment asked the public’s opinion – much like Louis XVI called the Estates General or Nicholas II expanded the powers of the Duma – and, because it didn’t like the answer, the establishment now threatens to ignore the very forces it has unleashed.
If – like France in 1789 and Russia in 1917 – the public reasonably concludes that the bodies created to articulate their views are in fact a fraud, then they will seek representation in some other manner.
It didn’t have to be like this. Britain voting to leave the EU isn’t that big a deal – we are half out already – and our country is economically and socially stable. No, the troubles that have emerged are political and of Remain’s making. They have created this scenario by refusing to accept the result of the referendum. Should they continue, then I understand those who fear the consequences. If the British people feel that their desire to leave the EU is being ignored by Parliament then there’s a high chance that they will lose faith in Parliament itself. That’s the point, in historical terms, when a manageable moment of crisis turns revolutionary.
LP: In a recent Telegraph piece you said: “Both Labour and Tories must accept the result of the referendum. The Conservatives must elect as their leader someone who is committed to Brexit and who will make it work. Failure to do this will result in a deserved electoral backlash.”
So who are you backing for the leadership? May was Remain. Does this rule her out? I am finding the whole thing very uninspiring.
TS: I haven’t decided who to back: I’m still taking counsel from friends. I’m looking for a candidate who recognises the gravity of the situation and who can rise to it.
There’s a tendency in Tory politics – the Baldwinite tendency – to see crisis as an opportunity to revert to established norms. Calm down and carry on. We do need calm: if only to tame those silly, skittish markets that seem to fly into a panic every time the British public disagrees with a Times editorial. But we must also have a PM who recognises the change that has occurred.
The worst thing we could have is a Kerensky figure who fails to do what he has been chosen to do (take Russia out of the Great War) or a Louis XVI who says one thing while doing another (plotting with the Austrians). The good news is that I find none of the candidates objectionable. George Osborne would have been in that category.
LP: You also said “the economic and cultural stranglehold of London over the rest of the country must be broken.” I am a Londoner so I take offence at this. I do not believe we should cut the rest of the country off, but London does not have a ‘stranglehold’ over the country – Londoners work harder and arguably keep the rest of the country afloat. If London stagnated it does not mean the rest of the country would prosper. And Londoners make a lot of sacrifices to live there – such as living in overpriced smaller houses for a start. So come on, let’s be havin’ ya!
TS: Fair enough! I’m not saying, of course, that London is parasitic or that all Londoners think and feel the same. But we do have a crisis of representation. Government policy is dominated by meeting the needs of the City, while cultural power is located firmly in the capital.
Londoners have themselves become victims of this. I felt tremendous sympathy with the anti-gentrification campaign in Brixton. We all welcome new money and cleaner streets, but the rise of house prices and rents has gone hand-in-hand with a new corporate identity that is killing a sense of place and belonging, and driving out the locals.
I once went into a Starbucks in London just as it was about to close. They informed me that there was another up the road. Literally two minutes away I walked into what appeared to be the exact same café: same coffee, same cakes, almost same staff. Where was I?! Was this London? It felt like an episode of the Twilight Zone.
When I was a youngster, my late father took me to a place called Cardboard City, near Waterloo. It was extraordinary, terrifying: hundreds of homeless people, alcoholics, drug addicts, all desperate and shivering and, crucially, living out in the open. I’m not nostalgic for that kind of poverty and I don’t think it’s gone away – I still see it in the soup kitchens – but what concerns me is that it is now invisible to millions of wealthy people who imagine London is a paradise of glass towers. It’s been swept away and hidden. There’s a dangerous disconnect between life as the corporate planners are trying to pretend it is and the reality. Again, that kind of tension breeds revolution. My point is that London, real London, is being killed by fantasy London, too.
LP: Finally you also said that “The next Conservative leader has to articulate a vision that has broad appeal and that restores a sense of national purpose. We need imagination“ …and ‘a more moral nation.” The truth is that for this happen we need to stop funding with taxpayer money immoral behaviour. A more moral nation would stop living beyond its means (both national and household debt has grown exponentially). A more moral nation would cut down on tax evasion, and building ridiculous glass structures for rich Russians when an average working family cannot afford their own home. A more moral nation would cut back on low skilled immigration that is undercutting the wages of those who are already here. A more moral nation would stop penalising marriage and mothers at home. But no politician is going to implement the radical reform that is needed?
TS: There is a direct link between self-government and morality. The American revolutionaries understood this. They believed that an independent man would be more sober, more faithful, harder working etc. The American Revolution succeeded where France and Russia did not because it devolved power to communities and individuals rather than elevated the State. This is what our Brexit revolution must do. It must not stop at independence but also empower individual Britons to stand on their own two feet.
The BBC made a show about why people voted for Brexit. It was heart-breaking. They spoke to men and women – white and non-white – who had lost their jobs or who were struggling to make ends meet. What they wanted, and few politicians understand this, isn’t a hand out. They wanted dignity. A feeling that the playing field is level and that they can compete fairly. They want moral independence.
Given the pace of political change in Britain now – Cameron, Farage, Clegg all gone – don’t be surprised if the future political leadership comes either from MPs we haven’t heard of or from outside Westminster altogether. It’s exciting. As revolutions always are.