To understand how this happened, it’s necessary to understand how British conservatism works. Conservative politicians have long been skeptical about claims for the benefits of ethnic diversity and rehabilitation rather than punishment.
They usually prefer “common sense” solutions and patriotic pride to purported expertise and naive internationalism. They have also tended to place more faith in leaders.
This helps explain why they are so often tempted to appeal to voters’ nativist, nationalist and authoritarian attitudes.
It doesn’t hurt, either, that issues like crime, immigration and foreign policy/overseas aid can help them split the center left’s traditional electoral coalition of the cosmopolitan, liberal middle class and the less cosmopolitan, less liberal working class.
In the past, however, conservatives didn’t fully yield to temptation.
Since mainstream center-right parties were often in government and needed to be responsible rather than merely responsive to their voters, they politicized wedge issues but only occasionally genuinely prioritized them. Conservative politicians flirted with populism but rarely went further.
This opened room for the radical right
Conservatives’ squeamishness created a space for more radical right-wingers — populist politicians willing not just to stir the pot and keep it simmering but also to turn up the heat and see it boil over.
These more radical politicians appealed to voters (and tabloid media) who wanted to go back to a society that was less inclusive, less insecure, less tolerant, less politically correct, less apologetic and, for some at least, whiter.
These populist politicians were unlikely to make it into government. However, they could and did press their conservative counterparts to actually live up to their rhetoric.
Panic over Nigel Farage’s UKIP, together with the need to keep the Conservatives together, explains Cameron’s promise in 2013 to hold a referendum on membership of the European Union.
Even though UKIP won no seats in the 2015 general election, it did win nearly 4 million votes, ensuring the referendum would actually be held a year later.
Farage’s influence on the referendum led Cameron’s successor, May, to agree to leave not just the E.U. but also its single market and customs union.
When Farage’s new political vehicle, the Brexit Party, took 30.5 percent of the vote in the 2019 European Parliament elections, compared to the Conservatives’ measly 8.8 percent, it was almost inevitable that May would step down and be replaced by a “no-deal” Brexiteer like Johnson.
Farage’s parties have played a huge role in driving the Conservatives to the right, but only because the differences between them and the Tories have only ever been of degree rather than kind.
It is possible that the Conservative Party will revert to a more centrist “one nation Toryism” once Brexit has actually happened.
However, it may also be that the Conservative Party has gotten so used to sounding like a radical populist party to protect its flank that it has, for all intents and purposes, become one.
By Professor Tim Bale, deputy director at The UK in a Changing Europe. This piece was originally published by Washington Post.