It’s a tough time to be a Brit – the state of the country is not good.
It’s even tougher, though, to be a Conservative Brit.
As British, we voted in and backed the dreadful 14-year legacy that the ruling Conservative Party has bequeathed us in an increasingly dishevelled-looking nation.
This torrid run looks very likely to end at the next General Election – expected in the second half of 2024 and which must be held no later than January 28, 2025 – with what could be a landslide win for the Left, the Labour Party.
Come that election, as a Conservative in good conscience, one has to ask: Do I give the Tories what they deserve and help cement that landslide/plunge-the-dagger-in by opting to vote Labour?
Based on my recurrent trips to Left-leaning Spain that began during Covid lockdowns when the Iberian Peninsula and its Caminos became a route out of the quagmire back home – again, thank you, Conservative Party – the answer is shaping up to be an awkward “Yes”.
It’s an interesting one as far as the European Union is concerned, given there is more of a push in the opposite direction toward the Right in various Member States. Some commentators are predicting big gains by the Right come the EU elections 2024.
Yet, the UK’s situation should give European Conservatives pause for thought. At least about the need to deliver on your promises and the risks around not doing so (some are predicting the Tories could be obliterated at the election; that seems overblown but who knows?).
The Left is far from keeling over in defeat and should not be written off quite yet – not to mention that it can point to successes. Cue Spain.
Spain appears to be doing just fine with its left-leaning love-in; it is seemingly offering a healthy dose of socialist-based affability wherever you go.
Compared to the UK, the infrastructure and transport systems work, the cities are more vibrant and clean, most things are cheaper – you can go out and have a meal and a drink and not feel ripped off – and the majority of Spaniards sound relatively upbeat compared to the increasingly long faces here at home in Britain.
In addition, Spain’s standing as a staunchly progressive member of the EU does not appear to be doing it too much obvious harm (you regularly see signs attesting to EU funding and investment around those nice cities and in the countryside at some renovated park or pleasant historical attraction).
For those of us in the UK, the supposed “release” of Brexit to allow a flourishing sovereign nation with a steady “Conservative” hand on the rudder has thus far been shown to be an utterly hollow, dreadful deceit.
“Life in Britain has become more invasively regulated than it has ever been,” noted a Guardian article that is actually relatively sane and accurate (tellingly, it was written in 2015). “The cult of the market has produced a society throttled by bureaucracy.”
You only have to look at London to see how bad things have become.
While, for now, the UK capital hasn’t quite sunk to the depths of Brussels, compared to the likes of vibrant, family-friendly Berlin, London groans with lethargy, grimness and all the depressing hall marks of the rat-race taking its toll on individuals and the social fabric.
Admittedly, it has a Labour Mayor presently, although the Tory Government is as much to blame, having influenced the macro-level hollowing out of the city. Ever that “nation of shopkeepers”, we basically sold central London to foreigners (to think of those brave young men who formed the red squares at Waterloo; the heart weeps).
Walking around boroughs such as South Kensington and Marylebone, it’s like being in a foreign country, although without the usual interesting stimulation you get from being in a foreign country.
Most people I point this out to tend to reply: “Oh, well, those bits of London have always been like that.”
To which one wants to respond: “Oh, well, that makes it all right then. Please excuse my absurd concerns about our capital turning into a vanilla version of the plotline of Michel Houellebecq’s dystopian novel Submission.”
In his book The Four Loves, CS Lewis, in his analysis of “love of country”, spoke of the risk of “demoniac patriotism” and how bad leaders “may by propaganda encourage a demonic condition of our sentiments in order to secure our acquiescence in their wickedness”.
But, at the same time, Lewis also noted GK Chesterton’s point that a man’s reasons for not wanting his country to be ruled by foreigners are very like his reasons for not wanting his house to be burned down; because, as Chesterton put it, he “could not even begin” to enumerate all the things he would miss.
As Lewis noted: “It would be hard to find any legitimate point of view from which this feeling could be condemned.”
And yet too many British – and EU – politicians appear incapable, or scared of, acknowledging and speaking to this reality.
Walk around a Spanish city, you are very aware you are in Spain. It “feels Spanish”. There are people from different countries, especially South America, and of different skin colours, yet there is also a sense of Spanish corporate identity – and guess what, Holy Smoke, the place and the people all seem better for it.
Yes, London is a bit of an outlier given its cosmopolitan history and its once serving as the epicentre of Empire. And, true, there are plenty of areas of London – and around the UK – where you have multicultural, ethnically diverse communities that still exhibit that corporate British identity and don’t make you feel like you are not in Great Britain.
The only problem is that, unlike the wealthy foreign denizens of South Kensington, wherever Britain feels like Britain at the moment, you also find people struggling due to rising costs and increasing legislation and bureaucracy making any semblance of human flourishing increasingly out of reach.
Modern Britain is becoming that country it was during the 1970s – a grim place full of grim people grimly struggling to get by. Brits increasingly inhabit “a nightmare fusion of the worst elements of bureaucracy and the worst elements of capitalism”, as anthropologist David Graeber is quoted as putting it in the 2015 Guardian article.
Clearly Spain is no Nirvana. No country can be. There are plenty of Spaniards who are livid with the current Government, especially the deal struck with Catalan separatists that many argue is unconstitutional and threatens the integrity of Spanish democracy.
At the same time, in Spain I sometimes get a sense that many people “go along to get along”, avoiding ruffling feathers as long as they can keep going to the nice bars and restaurants (which really are splendid) for some nice canjas of beer and tapas (again, all very good and satisfying admittedly). Just to keep it all tranquillo and progressively nice – an EU-sanctioned trait if there ever was one.
I don’t admire that so much. Brits by nature still won’t acquiesce so easily, which I do admire.
Unfortunately, beyond that British pluck and contempt for meddling and conformity, there’s less to be proud of in the modern UK (of course we lick the Spanish with our storied glorious past – but what good does that seem to be doing us at the moment?). And our politicians, especially the Tories, seem to have little gumption for improving things, let alone conserving what advantages and virtues we have left.
Writing for the London Evening Standard on January 20, columnist Melanie McDonagh notes that, currently, there is “quite a lot” of a certain type of politician who will “adopt whatever pose, whatever language, happens to be in fashion at the time”, while remaining “light on policy, light on commitment to their party traditions, keen to swim firmly in the direction of the present tide”.
Regular Brussels Signal readers may well be thinking: “Goodness, those British politicians sound like they are turning into the European Commission!” And they wouldn’t be far off with that comparison.
So, with all that, what would you have a Conservative, Eurosceptic voter do come the UK General Election?
There is a sense of simply being (morally) obliged to symbolically switch from Right to Left, as any turn would be better than the path and direction of travel the UK is on right now.
I accept there is huge risk with a Labour government – it could easily bankrupt the country (again) with their members’ ideas and policies of grandiose largesse, while they endorse a number of positions that violate key issues of conscience for your average Conservative voter.
Then again, so do and did – during lockdowns – the Tories.
They all seem to be at it, running roughshod over basic moral principles that a large part of the population still actually think might be worth considering.
Maybe Labour will surprise in a good way. It’s not impossible. Maybe we’ll even get a bit more of that Spanish flavour as a result of a Labour government sprinkling some Socialist fairy dust over this depressed land. That wouldn’t be so bad. Just adopting the way the Spanish pour wine would be a bonus.
In a bar in London – at Christmas, mind you, supposedly the time of giving – I saw a bartender pour wine into a glass using a measuring cup. It struck me as a particularly EU-endorsed regulatory way of going about things, especially for a country that espoused all that Brexit-related rhetoric of “freedom”.
Today in the UK, one encounters with increasing frequency such unsettling EU-type moments – not always but often related to restrictive control – when you feel like there is some sort of cabal going out of its way to co-ordinate all these little annoyances and random changes to the flow of life to break your spirit.
Again, I think of those red squares at Waterloo. You can almost hear Napoleon laughing from his grave, not that many UK politicians seem to be listening.
“Remember Waterloo,” said Lewis, explaining how the “past is felt both to impose an obligation and to hold out an assurance”, before quoting the poet William Wordsworth: “We must be free or die who speak the tongue that Shakespeare spoke.”
James Jeffrey is acting online editor for the Catholic Herald.