When I saw a headline on the New Statesman website last week about “a budding progressive alliance”, my first reaction was excitement. I’ve been boring friends for at least a year now about the need for a realignment of British politics with a new progressive centre party coming to the fore. (I even wrote a rather fanciful blog last September predicting the emergence of such a force by 2020). I never thought the country would actually vote to leave the EU, but it was clear from the moment Cameron promised a referendum that, far from healing the split in his party, it would make it much worse.
But as I read the first few paragraphs of the NS piece, my excitement drained away. Rather than something new, what I was reading about is a manifestation of something very old. It’s the same idea of a “progressive alliance” that has been on the table since Labour emerged on the scene more than a century ago, splitting the progressive vote and in time displacing the liberals as the main party of the Left in Britain. Here we had a Labour shadow minister sharing a platform with prominent Lib Dems, Greens and SNP politicians (maybe there was someone from Plaid there too: it hardly matters).
The fifth paragraph confirmed beyond all doubt that this is the same old politics. Caroline Lucas is quoted as saying: “the Tories are readying themselves now for another round of disaster capitalism using the post-Brexit turmoil to further shape the economy in their interests.”
I wanted to scream in exasperation. I really do believe that if there is any silver lining to the Brexit vote, it is the opportunity it affords for a serious political realignment and a radical change in the way politics is done. But if there is to be a new politics and a revival of the liberal, pro-European centre, we have to move beyond the facile rhetoric of left versus right.
We are shooting our own foot off if we can’t get past the notion that everyone in Britain who votes Conservative is part of an undifferentiated bloc of evil. There is a yearning amongst a significant proportion of the electorate right now for politicians who will tell us hard truths rather than lies, who will offer nuance and fair-mindedness instead of simple prejudice. Well perhaps one of the first hard truths progressives need to come to terms with – one of the first prejudices we need to shed – is that not all Tories are scum.
To continue using rhetoric that suggests otherwise is wrongheaded on two levels. At a moral level, it’s frankly just as reprehensible as those Brexiteers who cheerfully engage in anti-immigrant dog whistling. Immigrants aren’t to blame for all our problems; nor are Tories. At a tactical level, every time the Tories are attacked simply for being Tories, it reminds them of their instinct for unity – at a time when we should be doing our best to accentuate just how divided they are.
Yes, it’s true that a majority of Tory activists support Brexit. And yes it’s true that Johnson, Gove, Hannan et al did something reprehensible in harnessing their campaign to the basest instincts of the British people and cheerfully deriding facts, experts and rationality. But they are not representative of all Conservatives.
There are millions of Conservatives in Britain who fit the following description:
- Socially liberal, ie they believe not only that being gay isn’t something that can be “cured” (ahem Stephen Crabb) but the thought wouldn’t even cross their mind that being gay is something that ought to be cured.
- Believe passionately in equality of opportunity and social justice.
- If they were to list the things that, as Conservatives, they wish to conserve, the NHS, the BBC and the environment would all be near the top of the list.
Sure, these same people may also champion private enterprise, prefer lower levels of taxation and favour academies over comprehensives, but then I’m not so sure they’re wrong to do so.
Now is the time for progressives to open their arms to people of all parties who fit this description and say “welcome, you are one of us.”
That there are many Brits who, since the 24th of June, have been feeling, often for the first time, ashamed of their country, is a sadness. That there are many Conservatives who are feeling, often for the first time, ashamed of their party, is an opportunity. We need to seize it before Theresa May succeeds in putting the genie back in the bottle.