Mainstream conservatism has lost its ideological defences against the far right.
All over the world, mainstream conservatism has reached the moment of its psychological surrender to the authoritarian right. In the US, the Republican Party is using control of state legislatures to roll back 50 years of abortion liberalisation. In Austria, the conservative People’s Party pinned the country’s future on a coalition with the pro-Putin, far-right Freedom Party, and stands bereft now that coalition is in ruins.
In Australia, the newly-elected Liberal-National government has wasted no time in unleashing its security services to raid the troublesome state broadcaster. Meanwhile in Britain, the future of the Conservative Party will be shaped around priorities dictated by Nigel Farage and the dark money that stands behind him.
The next prime minister will be chosen by just 120,000 Tory members who are 97 per cent white and 71 per cent male, and among who women under the age of 24 constitute just 0.75 per cent. Many will be former Ukippers, Many will, by now, have joined throngs of racist pensioners at Brexit Party rallies, chanting “Ni-gel”.
But it’s not just entryism by Ukippers that is pushing the Tories rapidly to the right. It’s also a kind of moral “exitism” from politics being practised by the British bourgeoisie.
For decades, the Conservative Party loyally represented the interests of British boardrooms: privatising public assets hand over fist, deregulating finance, bestowing knighthoods on the asset strippers and crushing the bargaining power of trade unions under the steamroller of the law.
The problem is, the British business class no longer knows what they want. They would like, if they could, to stop Brexit, but they don’t know how. During the last days of the Labour-Tory talks, they crowded into Jeremy Corbyn’s office — the CBI, the National Farmers’ Union and the automative body — to plead with him to sign a soft Brexit deal. But he can’t.
So they are stuck with whoever emerges from the pageant of misfits that is the Tory leadership race. On the one side stand candidates who say, and really mean, that they would relish leaving the EU without a deal: Esther McVey, Dominic Raab and Andrea Leadsom.
At the other end, in the shape of Matt Hancock and Rory Stewart, you have the no-hope candidates of the liberal wing, promising to rule out no-deal and accept whatever form of Brexit the current parliament can deliver. This position makes complete sense both from the point of view of business, social stability and the traditional Burkean philosophy of the Tory party. But for this very reason, the candidates backing it are doomed.
In the middle there is a pool of prospective leaders who want to threaten no-deal in order to get a rewrite of the Withdrawal Agreement, allowing them to change tack to a Canada-style free trade agreement. If, as seems likely, the last two people in the race are drawn from this pool, it will then become a question of who can bellow neo-colonialist rhetoric the loudest, and that will probably be Boris Johnson.
In the process, all the coolness under fire that has been the hallmark of the Conservative political elite is being lost. The Tory party no longer looks and sounds like Noel Coward on the bridge of a destroyer in some World War Two movie, more like a Saturday night in a naval port after the clubs close. Handbags and fists are swinging, peroxide blondes are wrestling in the gutter. And the person who comes out top will no longer have the task simply of mollifying 60-odd MPs from the Eurosceptic ERG. The winner needs to demobilise Farage’s Brexit Party as a mass movement and, as far as possible, reabsorb it into Conservatism.
The future of Britain now depends on whether this is possible. If the Tories elect a leader prepared to risk medicine shortages and civil unrest, they stand a chance of mollifying the hardcore of British right-wing voters who would prefer economic collapse to an open and tolerant society. If not, we are going to be stuck with a permanent party of authoritarian xenophobes, a permanent split on the right of politics, and the fragmentation of the party system.
Here are the plausible scenarios if Johnson, once elected, cannot persuade Farage to demobilise his new party. First, a no-deal Brexit on 31 October becomes the default strategy of the government. It doesn’t matter that the threat is designed to force the EU to negotiate: it cannot do so. The Withdrawal Agreement forbids it and there is no sitting EU Commission until 1 November.
To stop no-deal, there then have to be enough Tory MPs prepared to vote no confidence in their own government. If that happens, let’s assume the EU grants a further extension to Article 50 and an election takes place, sometime in November. So long as Farage remains determined to stand candidates in Tory-held marginals, that opens the door for a Corbyn-led Labour government.
So it is logical to expect whoever is Tory leader to attempt an electoral pact with the Brexit Party. In a nightmare scenario for Labour, this would mean Farage standing candidates only in Labour-held marginals or Labour targets in Leave areas: Farage and his opaquely-funded party would do the heavy lifting for xenophobia in the English Midlands leaving the shires of southern England free for the Tories. The price of that pact will be hard Brexit, hard racist immigration policies and the further erosion of electoral law
It’s hard to understand how all those PPE degrees, all those speeches at the Oxford Union, all those internships in Washington produced a generation of Tory politicians prepared to destroy their own political tradition. The best explanation is what the Goldsmiths University economist Will Davies calls “the disenchantment of politics by economics”. During the 30-odd years of the neoliberal era, politics “became” economics. Politicians like Nick Gibb, and his spin doctor brother Robbie, prided themselves on “doing what works”. Edmund Burke was their guide, ideology their enemy, doing as little as possible was their definition of conservatism.
But now nothing works. Not the economy, which is propped up by the Bank of England, not the outsourcing model, which is bankrupting one big service corporation after another — and not austerity. Brexit has gummed up the mechanisms for technocratic government.
As a result, mainstream conservatism has lost its ideological defences against the far right and fascism. Politicians like Sebastian Kurz in Austria, Scott Morrison in Australia and Esther McVey in Britain don’t actually want to be far-right populists — but they want to look and sound as close to them as possible.
In Britain, the litmus test for this was the Trump visit. This was not a “state visit” — it was a staged political intervention into British politics. Trump’s targets were Sadiq Khan, Meghan Markle and the British security chiefs who gave the go-ahead to Huawei’s 5G operation. His aim was to so boost Farage’s credibility that, in order to win Trump’s endorsement and goodwill, the incoming Tory leader would have to cut a deal with the Brexit Party.
After a no-deal Brexit, whoever is in charge then has the excuse for a hurried trade negotiation in which the NHS —and what’s left of the UK’s defence industry – are “on the table”. All this is no secret. Trump signalled it transparently and loudly.
All it would taken is for one, brave Burkean conservative to tell the American president to get lost. To say: “It is no business of the US president to put his hand on the Queen, to insult the London mayor, to belittle a member of the Royal Family, to trivialise the anniversary of D-Day and to consort with fascists.”
But none did. They all, like Johnson, imagine themselves as the modern Churchill but they turn out to be just the modern equivalents of Lord Halifax and Neville Henderson.
Trump’s visit is a signal that, from now until he is ejected from the White House, he will meddle in the politics of the British right, aiming to shape it into a force for racism, misogyny and oligarchic power. The owners of the right-wing media will fall into line.
But Trump’s embrace will put British conservatism in a death grip. If the progressive majority is prepared to make its own tactical alliances, we can keep the right out of office for a generation.
Paul Mason is a New Statesman contributing writer, author and film-maker. As economics editor at Newsnight, then Channel 4 News, he covered the global financial crisis, the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement and the Gaza war. His latest book is Clear Bright Future: A radical defence of the human being.