Extreme urbanization is making the left more intolerant – and killing urban conservatives

It’s largely forgotten now, but the political polarization is woven into the very fabric of London. In the 18th century, when rivalries between Whigs and Tories were at their fiercest, various squares in the West End were built around the assumption that the two groups would live together.

While Hanover Square in Mayfair was built for the Whigs, further south St James’s Square became the Tories’ natural home, near their unofficial meeting place – the Cocoa Tree cafe in Pall Mall. In the 1930s, workers at the site found a bolt hole designed so that Tory pickers could make a quick escape if authorities showed up.

At the time, the Whigs were the party of the merchants of London, and their rivals that of the country, where they enjoyed wide support. But the capital could be a dangerous place for Tories, seen as suspect in their Jacobite sympathies.

Two or three political realignments later, we are back where we left off. Since last week, the City of Westminster, home to these fashionable West End squares as well as the seat of government itself, has been freed from Tory control; such a seismic event in the great political realignment as Kensington’s loss in the 2017 general election.

In fact, all of London is emptying of Tories, with the party losing Wandsworth and retaining only four boroughs. It’s not just the capital either: the Conservatives no longer have councilors in most major cities.

As with many social models, in this we follow the United States, where Bill Bishop coined the phrase “The Big Sort” to describe how Americans were becoming increasingly polarized by geography, and who made cities one-party enclaves, as progressive values ​​become the norm and conservatives leave.

My own constituency in north London had been a suburban Conservative seat since its formation in 1983, but swung between three different parties during the 1980s and 1990s; in the last election, Labor had a majority of 20,000 votes. Labor has now ruled my borough, Haringey, for 51 years, longer than the Communists ruled East Germany, and with about as much success. The last time the Tories won Haringey, in 1968, they also won Hackney, Lambeth, Lewisham and in total 28 of London’s 32 boroughs. Truly a different world. Today, they can barely appoint councillors.

After the 2018 midterms, Republicans barely had a single urban congressional district, having lost Staten Island to New York (by far the least densely populated part of the city). The same is happening here, as Labor has performed poorly outside major urban areas. Indeed, the big divide in British politics today is density. One of the biggest and most important signifiers of whether someone is voting Conservative is whether they have a car or not, and if they have a car they are much more likely to own their home and have a family. All of these factors greatly increase a voter’s propensity to vote for right-wing parties, and in Britain they are in decline, driven by rising population and rising property prices.

Conservatism is our default state, that’s why people who tend to be apolitical are essentially small-c conservatives, maybe even why alcohol is supposed to make us more right-wing, bringing us back to factory settings . Liberalism is new and could be seen as an evolutionary response to urbanization. It is associated with traits suited to city life: higher levels of trust and a wider circle of trust towards strangers and outgroup members, greater innovation and invention, aided by the effect of agglomeration, more sexual adventures and promiscuous behaviors, lower religiosity, lower fertility, and also higher levels of mental illness (liberals and urban dwellers are both more likely to suffer from psychological problems) .

But just as liberalism is a product of urbanization, perhaps modern progressivism, including its often abrasive intolerance of other opinions, is also the result of extreme urbanization. While 27% of Americans in 1976 lived in counties with at least 20 victory points for a candidate, in 2016, 60% did. In Britain, the percentage of safe seats increased by 50% between 2015 and 2017. More safe seats means more extremist politicians, but also more intolerant populations.

On top of that, it has also unbalanced the composition of the media, with outlets overwhelmingly staffed and based in major cities. The density problem is part of why so many people were shocked by the Brexit outcome – because half a million voters live in postcodes where 90% of people voted to stay (and a large number of them will be in the media).

The paradox of modern cities is that they are, in some respects, the most intolerant places. If you live in a big city, chances are your friendship circle will be much less diverse in terms of background, education, and political views than if you live in a small town. A 2019 study found that in large cities, people had the fewest friends with differing opinions and had the most negative opinions of people who disagreed.

The most intolerant place in the United States was Boston, which rather ruined William Buckley’s famous line that he would rather be ruled by the first 2,000 people in Boston’s phone book than Harvard faculty. . Today, you’d rather be ruled by neither – and the shoddy quality of city government in America, and the acute and extreme nature of their politics is not encouraging for what lies ahead in Britain. There may come a time when London’s few remaining Tories may have to think about finding a bolthole to escape the narrow-mindedness of the big city.


A version of this article first appeared on Ed West’s Substack “The Wrong Side of History”

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