I hope Kelvin MacKenzie’s call for a ‘Southern Party’ is a joke. If it’s not, and it’s at all indicative of wider centre-right thinking about the future of the UK, we should be nervous: because it’s deeply worrying, utterly wrong, and profoundly un-Tory.
Why? Let’s take one bit of Kelvin’s mini-manifesto to start with:
This area needs its own party. It needs a leader who believes that the striving classes in the South are overtaxed and overburdened. I want somebody to argue for me at the ballot box and not look on the ambitious and the wealth creators as another wallet to steal from.
Now compare that to Alex Salmond talking about Scotland:
An independent Scotland can be a beacon for progressive opinion south of the border and further afield – addressing policy challenges in ways which reflect the universal values of fairness and are capable of being implemented within the other jurisdictions of these islands, and beyond
What do they have in common? Well, they’re purely political visions. MacKenzie thinks the south should go it alone because it’s a little bit more right-wing than the rest of the UK; Salmond think Scotland should go it alone because it’s a little bit more left-wing than the rest of the UK.
In their quest to look progressive, the SNP have ended up arguing relatively small political differences with England should justify constitutional change. MacKenzie uses the same logic, but in reverse.
Traditionally, neither of these would justify regional or national feeling. Nationalism is usually based on ethnic ties, on minority rights, on shared history or culture or language – but rarely on short-term policy positions alone, which are far less enduring.
This is a new understanding of identity, and if you take it to its logical conclusion it’s a bit unnerving. However clumsily, democratic states allow people rub along with each other. We might not like rule by our political opponents, but we accept it as legitimate. What happens when identities are based solely on thinking roughly the same thing? Whatever happened to a view of nation-states that can unite people of different opinions under something bigger than themselves? Or good old-fashioned ideas about the bonds of a shared culture?
MacKenzie’s piece is a bit of a rant, but there will be Tories in the south who murmured approval into their Sunday G&Ts. They should think again. The north might be difficult territory for the party, but to just accept that and plan some rump of southern-based conservatism isn’t just defeatist. It’s a worryingly short-term way of thinking, and promotes an exceptionally narrow view of political identity and patriotism.
That’s not a very conservative approach, surely?