The Australian centre-right coalition defied the odds recently to win re-election. As the results came in, former conservative PM Tony Abbott said an interesting thing: the old Left-Right dynamic is fading; the new contest is between “the working” and “the wealthy”.
This observation obviously contains some self-serving hooey. Poor people still tend to vote for the Left, the rich for the Right – and many of the retirees who who made a real difference in this election haven’t worked for years. What Mr Abbott was trying to do was recalibrate the old class conflict to his advantage, to turn it into a contest between those who back expensive, progressive projects like green energy versus the toiling masses who can’t afford the increase in prices or taxes.
Behind the materialism is a hint of culture war. Wealth implies decadence, snobbery; working suggests dirty hands and old world values under attack. Prior to the election, Labor leader Bill Shorten demanded to know if Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who is a Pentecostalist, thinks gay people go to hell. Mr Morrison replied that he did not but who cares anyway? “I am not running for pope; I am running for prime minister.” Mr Shorten wanted the proximate issue to be gay rights and, if everything the media tells us about the liberalising of Western society is true, it ought to have helped him win. Instead, in the minds of many Australians, it looked like an assault on the religious conscience – and Labor probably lost some traditional voters over it.
I mention all of this because Britain is (at the time of writing) voting in the elections to the European Parliament, a vote that ought to be about one thing but has slipped beyond the control of politicians and become quite another. We were supposed to leave the European Union on March 29, in which case these elections wouldn’t happen. But we delayed and delayed and, rather embarrassingly, we now have to take part. As a result it’s become a referendum on the establishment’s mishandling of Brexit and the two parties that have tried to satisfy everyone and failed – the governing Conservatives and Labour opposition – are believed to be haemorrhaging votes to parties that take a more coherent approach. The Lib Dems and the Greens, who want to stay in the EU, are likely to do well. The Brexit Party, which wants to walk away without a withdrawal deal, could top the poll.
Now, this is frustrating. If we must hold these European elections, it should be an opportunity to discuss in microscopic detail why we’ve struggled to leave on time and how to fix it. Leaving is difficult and unless handled carefully could do real damage, which is why I favour one of the softest Brexits of all, AKA the Norway Option, by which we essentially leave the EU but pay for continued access to its markets.
The Brexit Party is against this because the Norway Option requires us to keep an open border to European migrants but also because many top anti-EU activists are rather wealthy free market types who want us to spurn Europe’s heavily regulated markets in favour of global free trade – never mind that that this could expose our farmers and manufacturers to competition that would absolutely bury them. As with Mr Abbott’s fantasy class war, you can see the fancy footwork in the Brexit Party pitch.
But here’s the thing: it’s not just about Europe. The issue in this election is democracy and the fact that the mainstream parties said they would deliver Brexit and didn’t. Whether it could ever be delivered on the terms they first promised is irrelevant: if you pledge to go to the moon and fail even to get as far as Dover, you deserve punishment. By the time you read this, millions of Brits are likely to have given parties they’ve always voted for a good kicking. It’s this peculiar unity of purpose in the Brexit Party that has brought together shires, suburbs and post-industrial working-class towns under one banner. Their material needs are different but their cultural outlook is increasingly the same. They believe in the nation state and wish to self-govern, as do I.
The more we are told this is backwards-looking and (by some bizarre leap of logic) racist, and the more we are told to change our minds, the more we dig in. Like the religious liberty question in Australia, a lot of people are saying “Don’t tell me what to think!”
A key reason why liberals have lost so many battles in recent years is that they have forgotten how to persuade, preferring to lecture or shame. The reaction of some Labor supporters after their defeat was to wish some sort of environmental apocalypse on those who voted against them. These liberals present themselves as flawless angels of light and their opponents as demons, unaware of how many they are turning off with the tone of their message. Like the street preacher shouting about the end of the world, the public tunes out and their prophecies blend uselessly into the roar of the midday traffic.
Tim Stanley is a journalist, historian and Catholic Herald contributing editor