'National Conservatism' movement is a wake-up call to those who think the horrors of the 1930s can never return – Joyce McMillan
If you have even glanced at the main UK news bulletins, in recent days, you can’t fail to be aware that Westminster politics has lately been experiencing a strange festival of right-wing oddity and extremism, possibly unparalleled since the 1930s. First, a confused element of the Conservative right, led by Priti Patel, took its bucket and spade to Bournemouth, where fans of Boris Johnson met to lament his dethronement as Prime Minister, and to hail him as the Great Leader who would win the next general election, if only recalled to power.
Then, on Monday and Tuesday, the Edmund Burke Foundation of Washington held its National Conservatism conference in Marsham Street, a stone’s throw from Westminster; and this proved an altogether more serious affair, since unlike Boris Johnson and his fan-base, the event involved at least some signs of ideological coherence.
The star turn was Home Secretary Suella Braverman, who mounted the podium in true Orwellian style to insist that cruelty to refugees was kindness, and that efforts to acknowledge the role of slavery in British history were elitist and illiberal. Jacob Rees-Mogg made the eye-watering revelation that the UK government’s recent introduction of voter ID at elections was an attempt at “gerrymandering” that had blown up in the government’s face, because it hit the wrong people, namely elderly Tories.
A female Tory MP opined that the main problem facing Britain was its low birth rate, and blamed too much education for making women reluctant to breed. Another speaker blamed John Lennon – now 43 years dead – for daring to imagine a world with no countries; and several speakers railed against the “cultural Marxism” (a phrase, it has been pointed out, of dubious origins) which is apparently now controlling minds and institutions across the UK, and “destroying our children’s souls”.
Meanwhile, outside the conference, a succession of attendees in bad hats and worse suits told fascinated journalists how it was “just natural” to be a Conservative; and a protester on the pavement played the old socialist anthem Bella Ciao, a tune which most of those present seemed not to recognise, so deep was their appreciation of recent European culture and history.
There was, in other words, something clownish and risible about the whole affair; but as the great Charlie Chaplin once understood so well, opponents of this resurgent far-right politics of “faith, family and flag” should never make the mistake of thinking that these forces are harmless, simply because they are often ridiculous. That most of what was said at the Nat-Con conference was fantasy-based nonsense, unsupported by any systematic evidence, goes without saying. As in the 1930s, this is a politics absolutely designed to distract from the major real-life issues facing 21st-century citizens, notably mounting poverty and economic inequality at both a national and global level, and the potentially terminal threat of global heating.
It’s therefore no accident that barely a word was spoken about either of these issues at the gathering, and that also absent was any serious or hard-headed analysis of who really holds practical and economic power in our society, and what they are doing or not doing to help us tackle those two burning issues. In that sense, the Nat Cons are in effect a branch of showbiz, the well-funded celebrity jesters of those huge corporations, assorted oligarchs, and compliant governments who do control the basic circumstances of our lives, and are increasingly intolerant of any politics that seeks to name their power, or hold it to account.
Nor, sadly, can we in Scotland pretend to be immune from the influence of this new wave of right-wingery, which now has a major presence in public debate across Britain. In the current fierce backlash against the long centre-left leadership of Nicola Sturgeon, for example, many strands of these same right-wing tropes can be seen, and are sadly being encouraged by many who would never think of themselves as allies of the Conservative right.
The poisonous Scottish debate over gender recognition legislation, the puce-faced rejection in some quarters of recent Green influence on SNP policy, and above all the sudden absolute dismissal, by many influential voices including some in the SNP, of Nicola Sturgeon’s government’s substantial and often successful efforts to mitigate the worst impacts of recent Conservative austerity on the poorest households – all of these, whatever the intentions of those involved, directly feed into the politics of bitter reactionary anti-feminism and transphobia, the resolute climate-change denial, and the sneering dismissal of any attempt at practical social democracy, that form key elements of the right-wing platform on view at the National Conservatism event.
As the 21st century unfolds, in other words, it becomes increasingly clear that we are involved in a titanic struggle between a real-world politics which strives, however imperfectly, to deal with the huge and frightening problems we face, and a politics of reactionary fantasy which offers an escape from those issues in the shape of endless harping on illusory threats from largely powerless groups, and increasingly oppressive behaviour towards those groups, as towards all effective dissent.
In such times, it’s essential that each of us, as a voter and a citizen, maintains a clear moral compass about who is actually or potentially on the side of this 21st-century wave of oppression and fascism, and who, however flawed, remains fundamentally on the side of liberal democracy and reality-based politics. At the moment, it’s both shocking and dispiriting to observe how many people, in Scotland and beyond, seem to have no such compass at all. Yet it is worth hoping that this week’s events at Westminster may at least begin to act as a wake-up call, to those still basking in the comfortable belief that the horrors of the 1930s can never return, and that brutal right-wing authoritarianism could never happen here.
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