Over this last week (May 13–17), two conferences took place that revealed the deep malaise among Conservative MPs as well as the projects aimed at shifting the party and the government much further to the right.
Recent Shifts within the Conservative Party
On Saturday, a Conservative Democratic Organisation conference was held in Brighton, and on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday a National Conservatism conference was held in London.
When Kier Starmer described these as ‘Mad Hatters tea parties’, his metaphor accidentally alluded to something he had not intended: the United States Tea Party in the Republican Party, which organised the party’s extreme right 15 years ago, preparing the ground for Donald Trump and today’s dominance of the Republican Party by extreme right-wing politics.
So what’s really going on, and what are the key forces at work? The background for these two extreme right fiestas was the major defeat of the Conservatives in the recent local elections, where the Tories lost more than 1,000 seats and control of 44 local councils.
Influence of Extreme Right Views and Impact on Elections
The writing is on the wall. Many Conservatives have privately conceded that defeat in next year’s general election is likely. What animates Tory MPs, of course, is that even the lowliest backbencher with no government job gets £87,000 a year, plus expenses (which can be sizeable).
Both Tory right conferences blamed the Sunak government for this drastic situation. Despite the keynote speeches by Priti Patel and Boris Johnson at the Conservative Democratic Organisation, it was the conference organised by the transatlantic Edmund Burke Society that was much more serious and had a much more specific policy agenda.
Keynote speaker Home Secretary Suella Braverman implicitly attacked her Cabinet colleagues for failures on immigration. Her argument is that not only must illegal immigrant small boats be dealt with, but that legal immigration must also be slashed. Braverman was complaining about the fact that many thousands of workers come to Britain to work in the NHS, care homes, agriculture, construction, and many other fields. She called for British workers to be trained in these sectors to avoid the need for immigrants. Actually, Braverman knows full well that a substantial reduction in immigration before the next election is impossible. Her speech was designed to place her in a position to bid for the leadership if the next election is lost. Braverman also wants to clamp down on student visas, which of course would hit university finances. The common mantra of the right is that Brexit was betrayed, both in relation to immigration and the 4000 or so EU laws and regulations that remain on the statute book, and that Sunak has delayed scrapping.
In both these fields—foreign workers and EU laws—the Tory right-wing nationalists are breaking with the interests of many employers. In particular, the NHS and care homes would lose a huge percentage of their staff if visas for foreign workers were slashed further. Many more businesses in the hospitality sector—many hotels and restaurants—would be forced to shut down.
Rising Nationalism and the Culture War within the Conservative Party
While the Conservative Democratic Organisation is seen mainly as a vehicle for an unlikely Boris Johnson comeback, National Conservatism is elaborating a new post-Thatcherite project that is chilling. Its key axes are nationalism, social conservatism, and hostility to immigration. Most of all, it rejects multiculturalism and demands the integration of minority immigrant communities into pre-existing white society.
It has links, as shown in its invitations to Eric Kaufman and Frank Furedi (see below), to the hard right milieu outside the Tory Party that is focusing on a war against ‘cultural Marxism’. Kaufman is the author of the Penguin book Whiteshift, which argues that immigration must be managed at levels so as not to alarm existing, mainly white, communities and that, given the level of mixed marriages, a substantial non-white population is inevitable, but in the long term the non-white sector of the population will decline sharply.
A key part of National Conservative thinking was revealed in the speech by Miriam Cates, MP. She argued that a key problem was Britain’s declining birthrate. The implication is that unless British women have more children, more immigrants will be needed to boost the workforce. What is the cause of the declining birth rate, now down to 1.6 per woman? According to Cates, there is a lack of family-friendly tax regimes and the indoctrination of the young with “cultural Marxism,” which inculcates anti-family ideologies like feminism into the minds of young people.
Cates’ argument is for a return to a society clearly based on the value of the family and motherhood. This is straight out of the playbook of Georgina Meloni, Italy’s fascist prime minister, and Marine Le Pen, leader of the French far right. Which is not surprising because Georgina Meloni spoke at the 2020 National Conservatism conference in Rome, where she repeated her normal speech about the nation, religion, marriage, motherhood, and resistance to the ‘woke’.
A central point of Cates’ speech was that there are too many people going to university and ‘too much education’ in general. All those university students come out with useless degrees in sociology, English literature, and cultural studies and are steeped in cultural Marxism!
Cates’ speech was followed by an intervention by Tory MP Danny Kruger, who said that:
The normative family, the mother and father sticking together for the sake of the children, is the only basis for a safe and functioning society. Marriage is not only about you, it’s a public act to live for the sake of someone else.
This is straight back to the 1950s, where women were trapped in loveless and sometimes violent marriages ‘for the sake of the children” and because wages for women were often too low for a single mother to support children, even compared to today’s dire standards.
The Edmund Burke Foundation was set up in the United States and plays a supportive role for national conservatism in Britain and internationally. It is close to recognising the nascent National Conservatism faction in the Tory party as its United Kingdom section. Its American head spoke at the conference and repeated a theme often made by the ‘anti-woke’ right: that the Left is at war with the West. Its war with the West comes from cultural Marxism, a catch-all phrase often used to lump together feminists, LGBTQ and trans activists, anti-racists, and, of course, the political left of all stripes.
Edmund Burke was the theorist chosen as an emblem of this nationalist right because of his most important book, Reflections on the Revolution in France. Often called the most eloquent expression of British conservatism, Reflections defends monarchy, aristocracy, and property—a manifesto of the most right-wing and socially retrograde section of the new-born capitalist class and, of course, the declining aristocracy. Burke’s argument came in 1790, just after the French revolutionary process had started, and before it reached its most radical phase in 1792–3. His royalist argument defended the aristocratic ancient regime, not the upcoming capitalist class.
Ten Downing Street has pushed back on Danny Kruger’s speech about the ‘natural’ hetero-normative nuclear family being the only basis for a stable society. This shows how the Tory leadership may not be able to avoid the culture wars against women, trans people, and LBGHTQ people that are rumbling away in the Conservative Party.
Putting together the speeches of Suella Braverman and Miriam Cates, you might have thought that there was the basis for a more or less coherent body of thought and action. Perhaps able one day to take over the Conservative Party and also, maybe in the long term, the basis for a new party. But the intervention of Michael Gove, the only other senior Tory to speak apart from Braverman, put a dampener on all that. He said that you don’t win elections by fighting culture wars, but mainly on the basis of economics and improving public services and the lives of ordinary people.
Well, good luck with that. It is precisely the mammoth failure of the government to deliver anything but misery for millions of people that torpedoed Tory support in the ‘red wall’ seats in the local elections.
Some observers saw Gove’s intervention as an attempt to defend his alleged protégé Kemi Badenoch, who, according to the Tory right, had been ‘thrown under a bus’ by Sunak, who sent her to tell the Commons that the government was giving up on ditching 4000 EU laws which evoked a furious response from the usual suspects of the European Research Group.
Some prominent speakers at the conference from outside the Conservative Party, like leading right-wing theorists Frank Furedi and Birkbeck College lecturer Eric Kaufman, base their position precisely on the need to fight a culture war against the Left, which takes the modern form of ‘cultural Marxism’ and the ‘woke’. ‘Culture wars are real’ says Furedi, accusing the Left of driving them.
In time for the conference, Kaufman helpfully posted a paper on the National Conservatism website showing widespread scepticism about all the political parties, including from places that might be considered both Tory and Labour strongholds. He concludes his paper with:
All told, this data shows a powerful mood of disaffection in the country, with barely a fifth of voters satisfied with today’s political options. Tory voters are particularly unhappy, which spells trouble ahead for Rishi Sunak unless he is able to fulfil key pledges like tackling the cost of living, stopping the boats and reducing waiting times in the NHS.
This is a series of tasks that are absolutely impossible to achieve by the next election.
Evidently, the two conferences are a bit more than ‘Mad Hatter’s tea parties. The ideas may be bonkers, especially the little-advertised climate science scepticism and opposition to green energy, but the attack on Badenoch in the Commons and the criticisms of Sunak and the Cabinet by former home secretary Priti Patel and Suella Braverman have let numerous cats out of the bag. The right wing of the Conservative Party wants a deepening of Brexit politics towards harsh nationalism and attacks on the left and minority communities. They have in mind the politics of Italy’s fascist prime minister, Georgina Meloni, and Viktor Orbán in Hungary, two people who have spoken at National Conservatism events in Europe.
Illiberal Democracy, Disenchantment, and Unintended Consequences
The conservative right is heading towards ‘illiberal democracy’ of the Hungarian type. Its natural allies are ‘new fascism’ regimes and parties like Vox in Spain, Rassemblement National in France, and Fidesz in Hungary, as well as its Edmund Burke patrons in the United States.
The thinkers on the Tory right are preparing not only for a post-Sunak Conservative Party but also for the longer term, when perhaps a Starmer Labour government has also shown itself incapable of dealing with the fundamental economic and social problems in Britain.
The paper by Eric Kaufman referred to above shows a very high level of political disenchantment in metropolitan areas with all the parties that, in the 2016 referendum, voted heavily against Brexit and which normally return big Labour majorities in local and national elections. There is arguably still a lot of room for a new left-wing, anti-capitalist, and eco-socialist party. But that’s a topic that needs another article and another debate.
A final amusing footnote of the Monday conference was the revelation by Jacob Rees-Mogg that the new Tory law requiring voters to produce photographic evidence of identity had blown up in the Conservatives’ faces. The 3% of voters who turned away from the polls were mainly older people, the ones most likely to vote Tory. Which shows, said Rees-Mogg, that gerrymandering rarely works.
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