Tuesday, October 19, 2010
Throughout the 20th Century, the Tories could generally rely on the support of approximately a third of workers. Without this support, the Tories could never form a parliamentary majority. Further, without the active and voluntary participation of many workers in the Conservative Party apparatus, its ability to fund and sustain its operations would be seriously weakened. The Tories have been aware of this situation since workers first achieved the franchise. However, it was the emergence of a mass Labourism with stable support after WWII, and the emergence of modern polling, that led the Tories to adopt a focused electoral strategy of building support among the lower middle class and skilled workers. The fact that the Conservative Party is the single most successful electoral vehicle in the United Kingdom in the 20th Century, and specifically since 1945, is a direct result of the Tories targeting and cultivating working class votes. Yet the success of this strategy demands explanation, for it would seem that the Tories have little, materially, to offer the working class. Workers who directly benefited from the NHS, social security, council housing, etc., have nonetheless voted for the party that put up most resistance to these measures. It would be like urban workers backing the Tories of the 'Corn Laws'. So what gives? The following mainly discusses explanations focusing on deferential political attitudes.
Embourgeoisement or deference?
A great deal of left-wing academic work has been done to unpick and disentangle the motives that lead workers to vote for a party of the ruling class. A 1960 study by the marxist sociologist Raphael Samuel suggested that working class Tories were ‘deference voters’. Much mainstream analysis at this point in the postwar era hinged on the idea that workers were becoming more ‘middle class’. These workers, it was held, identified with the Tories as a party reflecting their changing status, and their ability to ‘get on’ in the world. This was not a new idea. Marxist theory at the turn of the 20th Century had focused on the impact of bourgeois culture on workers, and their concomitant aspiration to become middle class or ‘petit bourgeois’. Engels himself had been repulsed by “the bourgeois 'respectability' which has grown deep into the bones of the workers” of England. Lenin was of the view that ‘bourgeoisified’ workers constituted a ‘labour aristocracy’ who benefitted from the profits of imperialism and were thus in alliance “with the bourgeoisie against the mass of the proletariat” - a theory with more than a few gaping holes in it.
But this focus on ‘embourgoisement’, Samuel argued, was misleading. There were then, as there are now, a great many workers who thought of themselves as ‘middle class’, and whose support for the Tories reflected aspirations that they felt could be fulfilled within the system. But such aspirations were just as compatible with reformism as with conservatism. In the main, Samuel found, workers who voted Tory identified themselves as working class. They looked up to the Tories, and their support was more deferential than aspirational. This was as true among younger voters in urban environments as it was among older voters from more stable, hierarchical rural communities. Typical of the quotes assembled was this, from a 61 year old plumber: “The Conservative Party is the gentleman’s Party. They’re the people who have got the money. I always vote for them. I’m only a working man and they’re my guv’nors.”
This recalls John Stuart Mill's summary of deferential politics: “The relation between rich and poor, according to this theory (a theory also applied to the relation between men and women) should be only partly authoritative; it should be amiable, moral, and sentimental: affectionate tutelage on the one side, respectful and grateful deference on the other. The rich should be in loco parentis to the poor, guiding and restraining them like children.”
Tory voters believed that those with money knew how to handle it better than those without, that that they were made to rule. “Ruling,” the sentiment went, “should be left to the ruling class”. Another quote from a Clapton warehouseman ran: The Conservatives have got more idea of what they’re doing than the people who come up from the working class - the mines and such like. Working class people are not the sort to run the country, because I don’t think they understand it really. I’m sure I wouldn’t if I got up there.” Importantly, in the era of Butskellism, it was believed that the Tories looked after the poor: “A few years ago I would have said they stood for themselves—making money and getting rich. But now they’re certainly looking after us.” Lastly, Samuels argued, Labour itself was increasingly distant from its working class base, and declined to attack the prevailing nationalism and business ethic which the Tories were promoting.
The American social theorist Eric Nordlinger also emphasised the importance of deferential attitudes, arguing that conservative workers were influenced by a particularly English tradition of deference with roots in the Norman conquest and the creation of a centralised state – a claim that remains controversial, to put it no more strongly than that. Nonetheless, the prevalence of deferential attitudes driving working class Tory voters was one of the most commonplace findings of researchers working on this topic in the 1960s. Mackenzie and Silver, in contrast to Raphael Samuel, did detect a lower prevalence of ‘deference’ voting among younger conservatives. They also noted that ‘deference’ was negatively correlated to income: the higher up the income scale voters were, the more ‘secular’ and less ‘deferential’ their motivations were.
If it was true, however, that deferential attitudes underpinned conservatism among the working class, what could explain these attitudes? The sociologist Frank Parkin argued that the problem should be reversed: given that the dominant institutions of society were far more amenable to Conservative ideology than to socialist ideology – with exceptions being the Labour Party, the trade union movement, the cooperatives and the Methodist churches – the real question was how working class socialism proved to be so resilient. This was partially a satirical attack on the idea that there was something ‘deviant’ about conservative attitudes among the working class.
But by drawing attention to the effects of the dominant ideology in workplaces, schools, the armed forces, the monarchy, the established church, and the mass media, he offered a pluralist explanation of working class conservatism that is strikingly similar to that offered by some marxists. A study by the marxist sociologist Bob Jessop, for example, argued that deference in political culture resulted from the pressure exerted by dominant value systems produced by the public schools, private enterprise, the armed forces, the monarchy, etc. Through these institutions, Jessop argued, the ruling class socialised the subordinate classes to accept their domination. Subordinate value systems, those dissident cultures developed by the working class, were under constant pressure from the ruling culture to moderate themselves and internalise the logic of the capitalist system. The Tory Party was, as a party emerging from the aristocracy and committed to hierarchy, right at the centre of the dominant instutions producing this servile, deferential culture.
Or something completely different?
But deference of the type identified by Raphael Samuel cannot explain working class conservatism today. And while I stick to my point that the Tory base is narrowing over the long-term, and that the decline in support among workers has a lot to do with this, it still makes sense to speak of mass conservatism. Since the 1960s there have been enormous social changes associated specifically with an attack on deference toward elites and existing institutions. When Jessop was writing, the Conservative Party's long dominance was in serious trouble, its ability to operate as a hegemonic party of the ruling class endangered by the miners and the shop steward movements, by political radicalisation, by changing demographics and by a tremendous fall in the standing of the establishment. Thatcher's transformation of the Conservatives adapted to this. Though a 'traditionalist' in many ways, she was also noted for being hostile to many of the traditional objects of deference. And the more gauche 'estate agent' element in her support could hardly have been classified as 'deferential' in its social attitudes. Furthermore, the Tories under Thatcher abandoned the paternalistic Butskellite policies that attracted 'deferential' support in the Fifties and Sixties.
The most comprehensive study of the Conservative Party after the Thatcher era, by Paul Whiteley, Patrick Seyd and Jeremy Richardson, found that the existence of explicitly deferential attitudes among the Tory members, never mind the voters, was negligible. Asked to agree or disagree with the view that 'It is best to leave government to people from the upper class', only ten percent either agreed or strongly agreed, with 79% disagreeing. There is a slight class correlation with deferential attitudes being mildly more prevalent among petty bourgeois (12%) and working class members (15%) than among the 'salariat' (ie, professional middle classes, company bosses etc.). There is also a left-right distinction, with 20% of those on the hard right of the party either agreeing or strongly agreeing with such ideas, compared to only 6% on the party's left. And members over 65 tend to be more likely to endorse such sentiments. But these are trends within a minority subset of opinion among the most committed Conservative supporters, and it is not clear how decisive a factor such ideas would be. It's also worth saying that in the same period in which deferential values experienced secular decline, so did the Tory vote, and so did the strength of party identification, with the number of 'very strong' Conservative voters dropping sharply. This would suggest that there has been a 'secularization' in the motives of Conservative voters.
So, deference in the sense of accepting the benign dictatorship of an aristocratic elite is present in the Conservative Party, but not common enough to explain the bulk of working class conservatism. On the other hand, deference is a complex attitude and has many different registers. If we follow Jessop's lead, seeing political deference as one aspect of a wider commitment to the institutions of capitalist society, we can see how deference would survive in different ways in a post-aristocratic age. Working class conservatives, Whiteley et al found, tend to be more likely to hold socially authoritarian attitudes, and economically interventionist attitudes, than the salaried and petit bourgeois members of the Conservative Party. They tend, that is, toward statism.
This isn't necessarily 'progressive' or egalitarian in economic terms. While working class Tories are far less likely to support private medicine than the lower middle class and the salariat, they are also slightly less likely to support spending more money to alleviate poverty. More generally, despite Thatcher's attack on corporatist institutions, there is still a strongly interventionist attitude among a large number of Tory members, almost half of whom would favour an incomes and pricing policy to control inflation. The impact of socialisation is important here - younger Tories, who had been raised in the era of Thatcherism, who had never known the Macmillanite version of Conservatism, were far more likely to have internalised economically anti-statist views. But I think we can start to see a trend here for working class Tories in particular: if they are not deferential toward an aristocratic elite, they are deferential toward the national state. The nation-state, which the Tories are by way of vociferating about most stridently, is for them the best defence against trade unions, immigrants, wideboys and spivs, and the best guardian of a stable, cohesive, well kept society.
Lastly, there is no Platonic, essential 'working class conservative'. There are millions of working class voters whose support for the Conservative Party is 'secular' and thus highly changeable. For example, millions of skilled workers abandoned the Tories as the effects of Thatcherism made themselves felt, and David Cameron has only succeeded in winning a minority of these back. There are many working class Tories who, for example, are basically pro-market individualists with liberal social attitudes, and a sizeable minority who are 'progressive' in the sense of favouring some forms of redistribution, more grassroots democracy, less punitive social attitudes, and a more inclusive nationalism. Those are the folks, I suspect, whom Cameron won over. But the 'deference' voters, today those who vote Tory out of authoritarian patriotism, probably constitute the core Tory support among the working class.