Politics is arguably too interesting right now. Recent elections have produced a series of shock results. Brexit, Trump, Corbyn. It’s as though the Grand National has been won by a slightly under the weather donkey – three times in a row. I used to be infuriated when people asserted that ‘politicians are all the same’ or ‘voting doesn’t change anything’. Now, truthfully, I think I miss these phrases. Both the liberal-democratic (Western) order and the conservative movement, which to my mind should be committed to upholding that order, are in a state of flux. The pieces are in the air, and we don’t yet know where they’re going to land. But we can speculate, as I did when I spoke to Edwina Currie, MP for fourteen years who held Government office under Thatcher.
I should start by confessing my sloth. This interview was conducted before the recent General Election, when British politics looked to be in a very different place. The Tories looked secure and it was generally assumed that May was on track to increase her Parliamentary majority, possibly by a landslide. Thus on the face of it publishing so late scarcely looks fair to my subject. Reminding people of their pro-election musings once the results come in is rarely kind. And yet in this case it scarcely matters, indeed it could well be a virtue. Many of the issues we discussed, like populism, distrust for ‘mainstream’ politicians and the young/old divide, are if anything even more pertinent than they were before the vote. The future direction of British conservatism and the Conservative Party, around which the interview was premised, seems a good deal less certain than it did just a few weeks ago.
We begin by discussing to what extent there is a disconnect between mainstream politicians and the electorate, and the impact this is having on our politics. Currie is concerned that, at least to some degree, such a divide exists. Partly she attributes this to the moral failings of some conventional politicians noting that ‘the elites in Parliament have disgraced themselves…that really annoyed the electorate, the feeling that they are being taken for granted’. The Parliamentary expenses scandal, revealed in 2009, in particular has done lasting reputational damage. But Currie thinks the division goes much deeper, to values and beliefs as well as duck houses. She notes that ‘many people hold views the liberal elite regard as disgusting’ adding that canvassing during elections can be a ‘startling experience’ as you find ‘people on the doorstep saying things you regard as quite shocking’.
Brexit campaigners celebrate Britain’s decision to leave the EU in June 2016.
Essentially Currie’s argument is that on a range of issues establishment opinion reached a consensus, what she describes as ‘groupthink’, which is not shared by the general public. And that this has created space for alternative or ‘populist’ movements to flourish – the likes of Brexit, Trump and Corbyn. She explains that ‘group think means…all right minded people believe this or that…and it’s a shock to the system to discover that there are an awful lot of people out who don’t believe that’. In particular ‘In London, especially in North London, there tends to be a group think…you’ve spent all your time with people you find convivial…people who think like you’.
One example we discuss is immigration, perhaps the issue on which the divide between public and elite opinion has been the most politically explosive in recent years. Currie notes that ‘immigration is not a challenge if you are educated and in a secure job. It is a challenge if you’re uneducated and in transient work or you feel you can’t cope with globalisation…and there are a lot of people like that’. Alas Currie asserts that the response of some in the establishment, on this and related issues, has been to ‘sneer at the voters’. This is dangerous because in a democracy, as recent events have shown, ‘the voters have the last laugh’.
More generally Currie feels that modern politicians are failing to connect with voters at an emotional level. She explains that too many in public life ‘don’t do emotions’, relying instead on figures and quasi-academic speech. And yet ‘if you’re going to change a culture you don’t do it through statistics, you do it in the end by appealing to emotions’. This perhaps is one of the keys to Jeremy Corbyn’s success, and Theresa May’s current difficulties. Even his most vocal critics, and I aspire to count myself amongst them, admit he’s good at connecting with and inspiring some people. During the election Corbyn’s emotional rallies went up against May’s stiff upper-lip managerialism, and we all know who had the better electoral campaign. The same applies, in a somewhat different way, to President Trump – though Currie’s overall assessment of the man is pretty scathing. ‘The tragedy with Trump’, she asserts, is that ‘I’m not sure he’s got much in the way of policy’.
Donald Trump with his supporters at a 2016 election rally.
We discuss the key dividing lines in British politics. Not so long ago social class was clearly head and shoulders above the rest, now it’s not so simple. Currie, in particular, notes the growing importance of age in determining political allegiance. She argues that the Conservative Party’s support for grammar schools was ‘primarily aimed at older voters’ noting that ‘we remember grammar schools and many of us like Theresa, like me, like Jeremy Corbyn were beneficiaries of them’. I ask specifically whether the most potent divide in British politics is between the old and the young. She replies that ‘I think there’s quite a lot in that’. This seems to have been borne out by the general election result. Research by pollster Ipsos MORI found that Labour and the Tories achieving their best recorded results with ABC1 (middle-class) and C2DE (working-class) voters respectively, whilst the gap between young and old voters was the widest since the companies records began in 1979.
Speaking to former politicians is rarely anything but fascinating. They offer a perspective – and experience – which is hard to replicate elsewhere. If it feels like the conservative movement is entering a period of crisis, besieged by populists of the hard-left and hard-right, it’s worth remembering that we’ve seen dark days before. Above all Currie’s message is that politicians, including conservatives, need to listen more. To take the electorate as they are, not as we imagine them to be. Following Brexit and the rise of Trump and Corbyn, this is a message we can ill afford to ignore.