I should feel quite at home at the tea parties. I was present at the last round of them. It was another country and another time, but the anger was as genuine, the sense of betrayal by the political class was as real, and the idea of an endangered heritage was as painful.
Also, then as now, there was a certain disconnect from reality.
The place of these tea parties was throughout the dwindling British Empire. There, middle-aged people, who had spread the concept of British exceptionalism and borne the Second World War, felt everything they had built and fought for was slipping away.
What was seen as a terrible leftward drift was opposed virulently by a phalanx of patriotic organizations, but most notably the League of Empire Loyalists, founded in 1954.
The Loyalists were good yeomen who loved the Britain they believed had existed and was endangered, along with the position of Britain as the world’s dominant power. They believed in Britain’s special writ to civilize the world, police it and sometimes settle it. Compared to the militarists of the 18th and 19th centuries, these were soft imperialists but believers nonetheless, held together in a loose federation throughout the British colonies and dominions.
In Britain, the Loyalists formed a political bloc on the far right of the Conservative Party. They were on the fringe in Britain, but they were taken seriously in the colonies as a legitimate expression of wide discontent with the decline of British traditions, British leadership in business and British moral authority.
Loyalists inside and outside Britain railed against politicians in London, much as today’s Tea Party activists rail against Washington.
In Britain, support for the Loyalists was limited because so much had already changed. The British public had already accepted the dissolution of the empire; after all, its jewel, India, was gone.
Although the Loyalists raged against non-white immigration into Britain, this had not yet been identified by most people as a society-changing occurrence. Mainline British Conservatives feared that the leader of the loyalists, Arthur Chesterton, had been a fascist sympathizer in the 1930s. Even though he had broken with the fascists and written a book about it, he was still suspect.
Where I was in Rhodesia, the Loyalists were seen as the hope for saving Britain, of returning her to greatness and somehow turning the clock back to “the good old days,” whenever they were imagined to have been. Many, including my parents, believed the Loyalists would bring about a glorious new Elizabethan era under the young Elizabeth II, who had been crowned a year before the founding of the League of Empire Loyalists.
For those outside of the British Isles, the league was back to the future. But in London and across Britain, the Loyalists were just a right-wing pressure group (known in Britain as a “ginger group”), claiming support from a handful of Conservative Members of Parliament but shunned by the Tory leadership. In the United Kingdom, they were sidelined as “Colonel Blimps,” a satirical comic figure who ridiculed the conservative middle class and had been enshrined in criticism by George Orwell.
The League of Empire Loyalists lasted 10 years, but its aspirations were sealed after six years with Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s “wind of change” speech. The league’s domestic issues — the fight against socialism, the uncontrolled flood of immigrants from Asia and the Caribbean, and the growing power of the unions — were taken up by more sophisticated entities, like The Monday Club, operating inside the Conservative Party.
There is a limit to the analogy of the Tea Party movement to the Loyalist movement of the 1950s and 1960s. But the people are eerily the same. They share a decency, the sense of being let down and the feeling that something has to be done. In the British case, nothing was done until Margaret Thatcher much later addressed some of the concerns of the Loyalists (unions, state ownership, immigration and global stature). She did not bring back the empire, but she did make the Brits feel a lot better about not having it anymore.
Who will do that for the good people of the Tea Party movement?