The Cultural Normalisation of the Tory Mindset: Challening the South East of England’s Dominant World-View

James Hawes, in his book ‘The Shortest History of England’, makes several points about the dominance of the Tories in England:

  • The Tories have been the dominant political force in England for most of its history. They have been able to maintain this dominance by appealing to the interests of the wealthy and powerful, promoting a conservative and traditionalist vision of society, and exploiting the north-south divide in England.
  • The Tories have been able to adapt to changing circumstances over time, adjusting their policies and strategies as needed. They have also been successful in appealing to a sense of English identity and nationalism, which has been a powerful force in English politics for centuries.
  • The Tories have promoted a pro-business and free-market economic philosophy, which has resonated with the entrepreneurial spirit of the South-East of England.

We caught a glimpse of this dominance at work, when Theresa May’s remarks about “running through fields of wheat” as a child became a defining moment of her political career. The comments were made in an interview with Julie Etchingham on ITV’s Tonight program on June 5, 2017. They were widely reported in the media and became a phrase closely associated with her. The comments were the subject of much parody on the internet and became a meme.

This anecdote was seen by some as a reflection of the normality of Tory culture, as it depicted a seemingly innocent childhood act that could be seen as a metaphor for the traditional, rural, and somewhat privileged background often associated with the Tory party. The act of running through wheat fields, typically associated with the countryside and farming communities, could be seen as a symbol of the rural and traditional values often associated with the Tories.

However, the comments also sparked controversy and were seen by some as a trivialization of the concept of wrongdoing, leading to criticism and mockery. There were concerns that a large group of people could be inspired by May’s comments to also run through fields, potentially damaging crops in the process. Farmers feared that thousands of people could begin trespassing on their land and damaging crops as they copycat Theresa May running through fields of wheat. Images and videos have already appeared on social media showing people mocking May by running through wheat fields.

In her final major speech as prime minister, May said that one of the silliest things she ever did was answering that question, indicating her regret over the “field of wheat” confession. This suggests that she recognized the disconnect between the perception of her comments and the reality of the challenges faced by many people in the UK.

However, In the heartland of the South-East of England, Theresa May’s expression of the Tory mindset is not just a political stance, but a deeply ingrained cultural norm. This world-view, steeped in tradition and conservatism, has shaped the social, economic, and political landscape of the region, and by extension, the entire country. The policies that emerge from this mindset, such as the establishment of academy schools, the reduction of public services, and the promotion of free-market risk-taking, are not mere political strategies, but reflections of a deeply held belief system.

Regarding the Tories policies:

  • Academy Schools in England as a ‘public-school-like’ system: Academy schools are state-funded schools that are directly funded by the Department for Education. The government has introduced policies to encourage the establishment of academy schools in England, such as the Academies Act 2010, which aimed to replace the dual system of academies operating side by side with schools maintained by the country’s roughly 150 democratically elected local authorities with a single system in which all 20,000 schools in England would become academies by 2022. The government also has a role in overseeing the performance of academy schools.
  • Public finances limited through austerity: David Cameron and George Osborne, who were Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer respectively from 2010 to 2016, adopted and introduced economic policies that benefited a traditional Tory economic and social position. These policies included austerity measures, pro-business policies, welfare reform, and support for the financial sector. Critics argued that the austerity measures introduced by Cameron and Osborne were unnecessary and caused the slowest economic recovery on record. They argued that the policies led to a permanent reduction in the size of the economy and had a negative impact on public services.
  • Liberalisation of property investment by foreign funders: Cameron and Osborne’s liberalisation of economic investment from abroad, particularly access to property assets, led to an increase in foreign investment in the UK, a rise in property prices, and concerns about income inequality. The liberalisation also led to an increase in foreign ownership of UK businesses, concerns about loss of control over key sectors of the economy, and concerns about national security. Critics argued that this rise in property prices made it more difficult for ordinary people to afford to buy homes, and contributed to the growing problem of income inequality in the UK.

The Academy Schools: A Mirror to Public Schools

The establishment of academy schools in England is a prime example of the Tory mindset at work. These state-funded schools, which operate outside of local authority control, are often seen as an attempt to recreate the public school system within the state sector. The idea is to provide a ‘public-school-like’ education to a broader demographic, ostensibly to increase social mobility.

However, critics argue that this policy is less about social mobility and more about maintaining a certain social order. The academy school system, they argue, is designed to replicate the hierarchical structures and values of the public school system, reinforcing the cultural norms and values of the Tory mindset. The focus on discipline, tradition, and academic rigour, often at the expense of creativity and inclusivity, reflects a world-view that values conformity and order over diversity and individuality.

The Retreat from Public Services: A Blow to the ‘Undeserving Poor’

The Tory mindset also manifests itself in the approach to public services. The austerity measures introduced by the Tories following the 2008 financial crisis led to significant cuts in public spending. These cuts were justified as necessary for economic recovery, but they also reflected a deeper ideological stance.

The retreat from public services can be seen as a rejection of the idea of collective responsibility for social welfare. In the Tory world-view, individuals are primarily responsible for their own well-being, and state intervention should be minimal. This approach often leads to a distinction between the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor, with the latter seen as a drain on public resources. This perspective, critics argue, ignores the structural factors that contribute to poverty and inequality, and instead blames individuals for their circumstances.

The Promotion of Free-Market Risk-Taking: A Boon for Wealthy Foreign Investors

The Tory mindset is evident in the party’s economic policies. The promotion of free-market capitalism and risk-taking is a key tenet of Tory ideology. This approach is seen as encouraging entrepreneurship and economic growth. However, it also benefits wealthy foreign investors, who can take advantage of the liberalisation of the UK’s economy.

The influx of foreign investment, particularly in the property market, has led to a rise in property prices and increased wealth inequality. Yet, these investors continue to bankroll the Tory party, further entrenching the party’s commitment to free-market policies. Critics argue that this approach prioritises the interests of the wealthy over the needs of the wider population, exacerbating social and economic inequality.

However, several local councils in England are now facing financial difficulties due to poor investment practices, including bankruptcy, warnings of bankruptcy, and high levels of debt:

  • Northamptonshire county council declared bankruptcy in 2018 due to financial difficulties.
  • Somerset was warned by auditors that it could go bankrupt.
  • Torbay considered abandoning its unitary status due to financial problems.
  • Croydon council was declared bankrupt in 2020 for the third time in two years due to high debts and poor investments.
  • One in six English councils could run out of money as early as next year, according to research by Grant Thornton UK LLP.
  • Warrington council, along with many other local authorities in England, made investments to boost their incomes and offset cuts in central government funding.
  • Thurrock council in Essex has debts of about £1.3bn after a series of failed investments, largely in solar farms.

The Tory mindset, dominant in the South-East of England, has shaped the country’s social, economic, and political policies in profound ways. While this world-view may resonate with some, critics argue that it reinforces social hierarchies, exacerbates inequality, and prioritises the interests of the wealthy. As the country grapples with the challenges of the 21st century, the question remains: can a world-view rooted in tradition and conservatism adapt to a rapidly changing world?

Decoupling Based on a Myth that isn’t shared:

Brexit can be seen as a crystallisation of the Tory worldview, a moment where the party’s longstanding values and beliefs were brought into sharp focus. The decision to leave the European Union was driven by a variety of factors, but at its heart, it was a manifestation of Tory nostalgia, exceptionalism, and a preference for mythological rectitude over practical reality.

The Brexit campaign, led by figures such as Boris Johnson, harkened back to a mythologised past where Britain stood alone and independent, free from the constraints of European bureaucracy. This narrative tapped into a deep vein of Tory nostalgia for a time when Britain was a dominant global power, and a belief in British exceptionalism – the idea that Britain is inherently different from, and superior to, other nations.

However, the reality of Brexit has been far more complex and challenging than the simplistic narrative presented by its proponents. The decision to leave the EU has had significant economic consequences, leading to a diminution of the productive capacity of the economy. Trade barriers, regulatory changes, and uncertainty have all taken their toll, impacting businesses, workers, and consumers.

Boris Johnson’s amplification of Tory nostalgia and exceptionalism has, critics argue, led to a disconnect between the mythological narrative of Brexit and the practical realities of leaving the EU. The challenge for the UK moving forward will be to bridge this gap, to confront the realities of Brexit, and to develop a new vision for the future that is grounded in reality, rather than nostalgia.

The De-Normalisation of the Tory Mindset: A Prerequisite for Modernisation

If the next Labour government is to kick-start growth and modernise the UK’s economy and social relations, a crucial first step will be the de-normalisation of the embedded and normalised Tory worldview. This will not be an easy task. The Tory mindset, with its emphasis on tradition, conservatism, and free-market capitalism, is deeply ingrained in the cultural fabric of the South-East of England, and by extension, the country as a whole.

However, the need for change is urgent. The UK is at a crossroads. On one hand, there is the potential for a modern, progressive future, in line with modern Europe, where social justice, inclusivity, and sustainability are prioritised. On the other hand, there is the risk of further fragmentation and division, with the potential for Scottish independence and Irish reunification, and the continued dominance of a ‘Singapore-on-Thames’ mindset that views the interests of the South-East of England as paramount.

The ‘Singapore-on-Thames’ model, with its emphasis on low taxes, minimal regulation, and free-market capitalism, may appeal to some, particularly wealthy investors and corporations. However, this model risks exacerbating social and economic inequality, undermining public services, and leaving the UK isolated and out of step with its European neighbours.

In his insightful analysis, James Hawes posits that the dominance of the Tory party is not a mere political phenomenon but is deeply embedded in the very structure of the UK. This dominance, he suggests, is a reflection of the normalisation of the mores of the ruling class or elite who disproportionately benefit from this status quo.

Hawes argues that the Tory mindset, with its emphasis on tradition, conservatism, and free-market capitalism, has been so thoroughly normalised that it is often seen as the default or ‘natural’ state of affairs. This normalisation process, he suggests, is not accidental but is a deliberate strategy designed to maintain the power and privilege of the ruling elite.

This world-view, according to Hawes, is not just reflected in the policies and practices of the Tory party, but is also deeply ingrained in the cultural, social, and economic fabric of the UK, particularly in the South-East of England. It shapes everything from the education system to the economy, from social attitudes to political discourse.

The challenge, as Hawes sees it, is to de-normalise this mindset and to challenge the structures of power and privilege that it supports. This will require not just political change, but a fundamental shift in cultural norms and values. It will require a willingness to confront the deeply ingrained beliefs and assumptions that underpin the Tory world-view, and to offer a compelling alternative vision for the future of the UK.

If the Labour Party is to affect lasting change, it must challenge the dominance of the Tory world-view and offer a compelling alternative vision for the future of the UK. This will involve not only policy changes, but a fundamental shift in cultural norms and values. It will require a reimagining of what it means to be a modern, progressive society, and a redefinition of concepts such as success, prosperity, and well-being.

The task ahead is daunting, but the stakes are high. The future of the UK, and its place in the world, hangs in the balance. The next Labour government has a unique opportunity to steer the country towards a more inclusive, equitable, and sustainable future. The challenge will be to seize this opportunity and to convince the public that a different, better future is not only possible, but essential.

The task of de-normalising the Tory mindset and shifting the UK towards a more progressive future will require more than just policy changes. It will necessitate the formation of a broad coalition of non-Tory voters across Northern England, Wales, and Scotland. This coalition will need to be united not just by shared political goals, but by a shared cultural vision for the future of the UK.

The resurgence of non-Tory forms of expression will be crucial in this endeavour. Art, music, literature, and other forms of cultural expression have the power to challenge dominant narratives, inspire new ways of thinking, and bring people together around shared values and aspirations. They can play a vital role in challenging the Tory culture and promoting alternative visions for the future.

However, building this coalition will also require a willingness to confront and critique the Tory culture directly. The Tory mindset, with its emphasis on tradition, conservatism, and free-market capitalism, has been normalised to such an extent that it is often seen as the default or ‘natural’ state of affairs. This mindset needs to be castigated and demonised if it is to be destabilised from its predominant position.

This is not to suggest that all aspects of Tory culture are inherently negative or harmful. Many people are attracted to the Tory party because of its emphasis on personal responsibility, entrepreneurial spirit, and respect for tradition. However, when these values are used to justify policies that exacerbate inequality, undermine public services, and prioritise the interests of the wealthy, they need to be challenged.

Building an anti-Tory coalition will be a complex and challenging task. It will require a delicate balancing act, uniting diverse groups around a shared vision, while also acknowledging and respecting differences. It will require a willingness to confront difficult truths, and to challenge deeply ingrained beliefs and assumptions.

However, the potential rewards are significant. A successful anti-Tory coalition could not only shift the political landscape, but also transform the cultural fabric of the UK, paving the way for a more inclusive, equitable, and sustainable future. The challenge for the next Labour government will be to seize this opportunity and to lead the UK towards this new future.

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