As Tory party moves towards the far-right, it's time to talk about fascism – Henry McLeish

Moderate, decent Conservative MPs seem to be going along with a populist, authoritarian and nationalist kind of politics, despite clear warning signs from the US about where this can lead

A disunited United Kingdom, a decaying democracy and a country in decline represent massive challenges in themselves, but when accompanied by a governing party in turmoil over its politics and future direction, then there is real cause for concern.

Comparisons with the United States are obvious. The rise of Trump and his ‘Maga’ movement suggest, according to historian Heather Cox Richardson in her new book, Democracy Awakening, “a country that once stood as the global symbol of democracy has been tottering on the brink of authoritarianism”.

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There will be apologists for the rise of the extreme right in conservative politics in the UK, including sections of the media, business and financial interests, and sceptics who argue we are too practical, too moderate, too sensible and too British to embrace political extremes. But current behaviour within the Conservative party paints a different picture.

US President Joe Biden has described Maga Trumpism as 'semi-fascist' (Picture: Scott Olson/Getty Images)US President Joe Biden has described Maga Trumpism as 'semi-fascist' (Picture: Scott Olson/Getty Images)
US President Joe Biden has described Maga Trumpism as 'semi-fascist' (Picture: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Westminster is in the grip of right-wing fanaticism and factionalism. Some Conservatives MPs seem content to build a political “triple lock” on an as-yet unsuspecting electorate comprising of populism, authoritarianism, and nationalism – in this case English. This approach – PAN for short – seems to intimidate the moderate majority of decent Tory MPs, who by their silence and inaction are giving salience and succour to ideas and policies they fundamentally abhor. This is how PAN works.

Ultimate aim of fascism

The triple lock has taken root in identity politics in the United States and has become a successful but destructive political strategy. The Big Lie – that the US election was stolen from Trump – is the key to right-wing ambitions. Advocates of authoritarianism and right-wing politicians argue that democracy is too slow, too complex and time-consuming and is failing the people. Instead, they argue, we need strong leaders who take important decisions without seeking consensus, abiding by court decisions or taking note of international obligations: to them, isolationism is important even though it will eventually be ruinous. For extremists, the people become everything and then nothing – this is the ultimate aim of fascism

The rise of the right continues unabated. Suella Braverman, the disgraced and twice sacked Cabinet minister, continues to dictate Tory immigration policy through the pages of the Daily Telegraph. In addition to shredding her Prime Minister’s immigration policy, she has suggested that the homeless make lifestyle choices to live on the streets. And people who support justice for the Palestinians are participating in “hate marches”, she claims! Are these the mere rants of a troubled soul or are we in need of new language to describe something which goes beyond what is decent and acceptable? Freedom of speech is precious, but when it becomes dangerous, divisive and inflammatory, why is it allowed to go unchecked by the leadership?

UK vulnerable to authoritarianism

For Jacob Rees-Mogg, the “honourable member from the 18th century”, right-wing rhetoric is cloaked in a posh, eccentric, often amusing and understated manner, but again there is no doubting his contempt for traditional conservatism and Sunak. Then there is Tory vice-chairman Lee Anderson MP, who last week suggested that if the Rwanda policy failed then illegal migrants should be sent to the Orkney islands. This is a deliberate contempt of Scotland. Obsessed with Brexit and taking back control, again, he is a nationalist who embraces authoritarianism as shown by his contempt and hostility towards the UK courts and international agencies such as the European Court of Human Rights. His outbursts are tolerated partly because of his prominence in the red wall seats won by the Tories in 2019.

In response to the Supreme Court decision to declare the Rwanda deal unlawful, Sunak has adopted a worrying path of defiance in suggesting he will obliterate the court decision by passing a new law. There is no easier parliament in the developed world to do this. The UK is uniquely placed to accommodate authoritarianism by virtue of its first-past-the-post electoral system, providing an elected legislative dictatorship and absolute sovereignty with no written constitution. Black in the Supreme Court becomes white in Westminster, so Rwanda moves from unlawful to lawful in the stroke of His Majesty’s pen. What next?

This is an opportune time to rethink the language of right-wing extremism in the modern era, to avoid it being dismissed as a fringe activity of the few, but instead as a way of thinking increasingly acceptable to the many. Democracy is hard work and those who value its benefits, need to wake up.

Donald Trump echoes Hitler’s rhetoric

Speaking to the Brookings Institution, Madeline Albright, former US Secretary of State, would not call Donald Trump a fascist. Instead she described him as “the most undemocratic leader the US has ever seen”. She did, however, remind us that “in defining fascism, it is not an ideology, it’s a process for gaining and keeping control, by exacerbating social divisions, encouraging tribalism and the use of violence to maintain control”.

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Updating the meaning of fascism seems timely. Politics is a spectrum of ideas, and we must locate where the voices of Braverman, Anderson, Rees-Mogg and others fit. Joe Biden has described Maga Trumpism as “semi-fascist”, and far-right Dutch leader Geert Wilders has been described as a “cuddly” or “soft” fascist. This emerging debate requires more honesty from those on the right of UK politics, and a new language from the sane mainstream to describe old ideas in a new garb.

At a recent Veterans Rally in Hialeah, Florida, Trump described the Democrats on Capitol Hill as “vermin”, a term frequently used by Hitler. For those who think the UK is immune from this rhetoric, it is worth reflecting on how racism, anti-foreigner sentiment and xenophobia now dominate the extreme right’s obsession with immigration.

Hitler, Mussolini and Franco and their forms of fascism are well documented. But the march of the modern far-right needs to be taken seriously, especially when they are at the heart of the Conservative government and party.

Henry McLeish is former First Minister of Scotland and a visiting professor at the University of South Florida



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