Until a few years ago, Australia used to be referred to as the ‘Lucky Country’, but I always felt that in reality it was the United Kingdom that was truly fortunate. We could boast a political and economic evolution both less turbulent and more enduring than that of our neighbours. We have also been remarkably lucky in repeatedly finding the governments and generals that we needed at key times in our history. But our luck may finally be running out. Jeremy Corbyn and his band of Marxist fellow travellers view our lack of revolution as a matter of shame rather than pride, and do not accept the legitimacy of fundamental elements of our constitutional settlement. The highly unusual presence of such a group on the threshold of power threatens the destruction of the legacy of stability and good governance built up over countless generations.
One hypothesis concerning Britain’s relative stability suggests a golden thread that runs right from the Doomsday Book through to 1979. At numerous critical points in our development, the ruling elites have shown an ability to assimilate the middle classes who might otherwise have become disillusioned with the status quo, and to offer sufficient amounts of reform early enough to appease those who had become dissatisfied to the point of violence. This is a thread that runs through the Magna Carta, the Glorious Revolution and the various electoral and other reforms introduced in the nineteenth century. I think it would be a challenge to suggest that our relatively benign political and economic evolution, with the lack of death, destruction and instability for all that would have otherwise arisen, is entirely down to the fact that as a nation we have an innate genius for sensible governance. Good fortune has played a significant part in this process.
At key junctures we have been lucky enough to find leaders whose capabilities have fitted the requirements of the time like a glove. Robert Walpole, in his long and stable tenure, established many of the enduring elements of our government and defended the principles of the Glorious Revolution through which we became a constitutional monarchy. Pitt the Younger was a superb administrator and reformer who ably prosecuted war with France but more importantly was able to chart the carefully calibrated course between reform and repression which avoided destructive revolution spreading to these shores. The Duke of Marlborough’s flair and brilliance enabled victories in Europe which elevated Britain to the status of major power while the Duke of Wellington’s qualities were ideally suited to countering Napoleon and his generals.
During the period of our decline we have, if anything, been even more fortunate than during our ascent. Lloyd George and Churchill represented war leaders who were respectively highly suitable in one case and the only possible choice for national salvation in the other. Furthermore, it is impossible to think of any politician in the world with the energy, intelligence, vision and obstinacy of Margaret Thatcher, who would in 1979 have successfully addressed the twin evils then facing Britain: dominant and abusive unions and the disdain for entrepreneurialism inherited by the professional classes from our highly permeable aristocracy. And still our luck persisted. Labour’s unexpected loss in 1992 brought about the wholesale reinvention of the Party by Tony Blair. This resulted in the necessary refinement of the Thatcher reforms rather than their reversal.
Then, in 2015, fortune ceased to smile so broadly on us. Unlike many Conservative commentators, I always felt it was hubristic to take delight in the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader. He was after all, as Leader of the Opposition, a mere mishap away from becoming Prime Minister – and he was someone who regarded the sweep of British history as entirely malevolent. The shock result of the 2017 General Election therefore marked a moment which will either be seen as the beginning of the end of a centuries’ old run of luck, or as yet another example in our record of swerving away from precipitous calamity at the last minute.
It certainly seems, in retrospect, improbably unlucky that a polling company whose surgical accuracy in 2015 had ensured a Conservative majority should cause total mis-targeting of election resources in 2017. But it is not just bad luck for the Conservative Party, because their poor performance leaves the hard left firmly entrenched within the Labour Party.
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Venezuela truly does represent a terrifying precedent for us with the election of a far left ideologue and his consequent unrealistic and extreme economic policies leading inevitably to financial chaos before social authoritarianism. The entire political establishment, from the centre-left of the Labour Party rightwards, needs to understand that neither our historic good fortune as a country nor our long democratic traditions will protect us. After all, we do not have the safeguard of a written constitution or a formal separation of powers. For all our evolution we remain an “elective dictatorship” in which the Prime Minister has relatively untrammelled powers. All those who believe in our democracy should be straining their every sinew to protect it from the possibility of Jeremy Corbyn becoming Prime Minister. Sadly, the bulk of the parliamentary Labour Party does not seem to comprehend the fact that Corbyn represents a nuclear level threat to the very foundations of our free society.