An interesting piece of research and analysis by the Social Market Foundation and Opinium has destroyed the already faltering myth of the “progressive majority” within the British electorate. According to that discredited narrative, under the benevolent influence of the European Union, Labour and other “progressive” parties, the BBC and complicit liberal media, over the past couple of decades Britain has embraced left-wing political views to the extent that liberalism is now the majority political culture.
Gordon Brown (remember him?) called it “the Progressive Consensus”. The unprincipled acceptance of this imposture by a Conservative leadership deracinated from its party’s philosophy and grassroots opinion fuelled the doomed Tory Modernisation project. The totemic issue was the EU: no progressive nation could turn its back on that icon of progress. It followed, therefore, that Leave could never win a referendum on Brexit; indeed, it would be politically dangerous to alienate the progressive majority by making even slight concessions – hence David Cameron’s non-negotiation and return to Britain ostentatiously empty-handed.
Brexit blew that delusion out of the water. The British electorate is conservative-minded. Emran Mian, director of the Social Market Foundation, outlined the headline findings of the new research in a piece published on the ConservativeHome website on 14 September. Using the technique known as “cluster analysis”, Opinium identified eight “tribes” of varying sizes within the electorate. Just two of these, entitled by the researchers “Our Britain” and “Common Sense”, taking a right-of centre stance, account for 50 per cent of voters.
In addition, “Swing Voters” (7 per cent) and “Free Liberals” (in an economic sense), also at 7 per cent, would be potential supporters of Theresa May, as might a proportion of at least one other tribe. That reflects a formidable basis of support for traditional conservative, overwhelmingly anti-EU policies. How could Theresa May best secure the support of that potentially massive coalition in 2020?
Emran Mian draws the obvious conclusion from the research: “As a result, our cautious Prime Minister may decide [to] proceed on the basis that her safest route to political security is to give these groups, the bedrock of any enduring Conservative majority, what they want…” What they want, the research shows, is above all to get immigration down to five figures and to leave the Single Market.
The new focus on the Single Market shows how the European debate has moved on. In June it was about leaving the EU; in September it is about leaving the Single Market. It is a second triumph for the Leave camp to have succeeded in isolating the Single Market issue from all the obfuscations of the intransigent Remain lobby and to be succeeding in educating their voters in its pitfalls – a level of sophistication on a complex EU issue that was unthinkable six months ago.
In the immediate aftermath of the referendum there was much inane chatter about “respecting” the wishes of the 48 per cent Remainers too. But that is impossible. In/Out are contradictory concepts, mutually incompatible. The “consensual” ploy derives from the vestigial media influence of the defeated political class. It is a snare and a delusion. After a general election the party with an overall majority does not conscript half a dozen shadow ministers into its Cabinet and dilute its key policies with their rejected prescriptions.
There is even less justification for doing the equivalent after a referendum, when only one policy has been in contention and the public has made a more focused decision than at any election, leaving no moral justification for watering down the result. If Remain had won, how many concessions would it have made to the Leave camp? None: it would have accelerated EU integration.
Concessions to Remain would be senseless and would extend the EU conflict – not least within the Conservative Party – into another decade. Watering down Brexit would produce an incoherent, financially vulnerable and unsustainable settlement, creating a running sore rather than an assured future.
What this new research has achieved is to provide Theresa May with a clear road map to Conservative hegemony after 2020, by making it clear that the Prime Minister should give the tribes representing a clear majority of voters “what they want”. We used to call that democracy. This prescription amounts to what was never attempted under David Cameron: to give voice and authority to the conservative majority of the nation by offering an authentic Conservative agenda.
The bubble of the “progressive majority” has been burst. The arrogation to itself by the political class of the authority and decision-making that rightfully belongs to the electorate must be consigned to the past. We are witnessing the emergence of a New Politics and it would be a good opportunity, too, to ditch the obsolete terms “left” and “right”. Why should 21st-century public life be straitjacketed by a terminology derived from fortuitous seating arrangements in the French National Assembly of 1789?
We are living in a time when politics is becoming transformed at lightning speed and opportunities may easily be missed. But the intuitive perception that we live in a conservative, not a “progressive” country has now been reinforced scientifically and that should give us additional confidence to grasp the opportunities of an exciting post-EU future.