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Elective Dictatorship: The Plot by Britain’s Radical Conservatives

Since the middle of the last decade, the British Conservative Party has become increasingly captured by a radical right-wing faction that has taken the party down a path of nationalism and populism. They have resorted to autocratic tactics to protect anti-immigrant and anti-worker policies, eroding the institutions and customs that protect British democracy under the law. Things only seem set to keep getting worse.
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Boris-Johnson

Boris Johnson, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs gives a press conference in Brussels, Belgium on Apr. 05, 2017. © Alexandros Michailidis / shutterstock.com

July 01, 2023 05:27 EDT
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The coalition government led by the Conservatives, or Tories, together with the Liberal Democrats from 2010 to 2015 largely continued the traditional “One Nation Tory” style. However, a coalition of radical-right activists, both inside and outside the Conservative Party, was growing. These discontents were implacably opposed to Britain’s continuing membership in the EU and demanded that Britain quit.

Should such activists, in that period and now, be termed “fringe Conservatives,” “ultra-Conservatives,” “radical right,” or “hard right”? The authors prefer “radical right,” since it encompasses the gamut of all such rebels.

Origins of the Neo-Right in the Brexit Debate

In those years, shrill advocacy for the Brexit concept quickly emerged. Tory Members of Parliament (MPs) had founded the European Research Group (ERG) in 1993 to counter, if not eliminate, EU influence on Britain. During the coalition years, the ERG, along with its supporters in business, the media and radical-right advocacy bodies, placed intense pressure on Prime Minister David Cameron to hold a referendum on Brexit. In 2013, Cameron agreed to offer the electorate a non-binding referendum on whether Britain should remain in the EU. Since, out of some 355 Conservative MPs, the ERG’s membership and subscribers in total are never thought to have exceeded 60, the outsize influence demonstrated by their success is evident. The ERG tail has continued to wag the party dog, or try to, ever since.

Campaigning both for and against Brexit was robust. However, the overall pro-Brexit campaign was on the whole better organized, better funded, and used far more advanced digital, online and social media methods to persuade voters. Crucially, it was also far more ruthless, employing blatantly alarmist “fake facts.” The official Vote Leave campaign also applied large-scale data mining techniques similar to those later used by Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign in the US. This was done under the direction of Dominic Cummings, whom Cameron once reportedly referred to as “a career psychopath” (see later). The 2016 vote delivered a small but clear majority preference to leave the EU.

While Brexit arguably had lofty objectives, its implementation and subsequent realities have witnessed missed targets and major long-term economic damage.

Radical-Right takeover of the Conservative Party

Since 2016, the Brexiteer/ERG agenda has morphed into a generalized radical-right agenda. The insurgents not only espouse uncontrolled free market economic priorities and harbor a revulsion for the EU, but also gleefully and noisily assert a right-wing authoritarian stance on law-and-order issues. They display an unmistakable animus against the welfare state, benefit claimants, those suffering from social and economic deprivation, immigrants, asylum seekers, ethnic and religious minorities, and victims of human rights abuses and other injustices.

Such proclivities, which pander to populist reactionary sympathies, have more in common with those of far-right parties and groups outside the Conservative Party—such as Reform UK, Reclaim, Far Right For Britain, the British National Party, the English Defence League, Britain First and other fringe groups—than with traditional party values.

Although it is somewhat less extreme, this conversion of the traditional Conservative Party is analogous to the radical-right takeover of the US Republican Party over a similar time frame. The “new” Conservative Party of the 2020s is thus Conservative in name only. Disturbingly, much of the electorate is unlikely to be aware of this radical change from its One Nation heritage.

The authors were both One Nation Conservative supporters for over 30 years until the scale of the Brexit debacle and the increasingly authoritarian nature of the Johnson administration became clear in 2019. There is substantive evidence of a concerted and sustained effort by Britain’s ruling Conservative Party since 2019 to impose permanent, illiberal, radical-right governance on the nation. Some of the top-down subversion and coercion (such as proroguing Parliament in 2019) is done openly, as if were perfectly normal and morally acceptable, while other examples involve long-term stealth against the public interest. Although One Nation Conservative MPs still exist, their numbers and influence have been all but obliterated by the dominance of the ERG, its derivatives and its fellow travelers. 

Case 1: Imposing Costly Private Healthcare

As we reported in detail last year in Fair Observer, deliberate underfunding of the state National Health Service (NHS) and social care system over 13 years has brought these services into not just a state of chronic dysfunctionality but also virtual collapse. While publicly appearing to champion the NHS, in reality the long-term Conservative policy is to have free market private provision become the only viable alternative in the vast majority of cases. Their ideological imperative appears to be to place the delivery of such services under the primary control of private companies and to ensure that, in effect, state provision withers on the vine.

The NHS and private provision have had a long and largely successful symbiosis since the 1980s, with the primacy of NHS provision assured by state funding paid for by patients via general taxation and National Insurance. Private provision contracted to the NHS has been a vital contributor. However, with the Health and Care Act 2022, the government appears to be pressing ahead with their new “healthcare salvation” model to replace the current NHS model with a direct pathway for private care companies, many of them foreign-based, to access NHS funds. Far from salvation, the impact is likely to be catastrophic for the level and amount of healthcare the NHS can provide, since NHS post-Covid recovery money and other funds will be diverted to boost the preferential use of private care. 

Until now, the limit has always been that private care providers had to be awarded an NHS subcontract in order to access funds for clinical procedures. However, recent reports indicate that NHS patients are now being given a direct choice of where to obtain their clinical procedures: either private hospitals (with weeks to wait) or NHS hospitals with months or even years to wait. This choice decision is now taken at the Integrated Care Board (ICB) level, much lower down the managerial hierarchy than previously and apparently without regard to budgetary limits and fair distribution of funds.

Whilst this sounds like good news for patients, the cost differential between private and NHS is huge, and some ICBs have already spent their annual budget as a result of this new relaxation. The NHS patients budget—worth about £200 billion (around $250 billion) per year and funded by tax monies and National Insurance contributions—is now unprotected and vulnerable to profiteering by private corporations. Ultimately, the public will pay the price out of their own pockets via additional taxation and private medical insurance premiums. Speed of provision is likely to improve for those who can access it. However, the new system does not guarantee that private clinical provision itself will be superior to NHS provision, nor does it guarantee that affluent patients or those with private medical insurance will not be given preferential treatment. 

The Tories have more or less acknowledged that the high likelihood of electoral defeat in 2024, their long-term rundown of the NHS, their drawn-out reluctance to reach a negotiated pay and conditions settlement with exasperated NHS staff, and an accelerated policy push for private healthcare have all merged into what some argue is a deliberate “scorched earth” mess to hand over to an incoming opposition government.

Case 2: Flagrant Attacks on the Judiciary, Civil Service, and Human Rights

The law is under attack by the radical right, which is trampling over the public interest and human rights. For example, in 2019 the Conservative government tried to prorogue (temporarily close) Parliament for five weeks to facilitate executive processes without scrutiny. The Supreme Court unanimously held that this action was unlawful, as it would have prevented Parliament from supervising the executive. Since then, the Conservative government has vowed to put a stop to what it regards as “judicial interference” in its governing activities.

Determined to push through its political agenda unhindered by judicial scrutiny, the Tories are proceeding in 2023 with legislation to (1) automatically and rapidly deport asylum seekers while denying their access to legal representation or appeal, contrary to international law and UN Convention (more specifically, to deport them to Rwanda—a destination with a highly dubious human rights record—if they cannot be returned rapidly to their country of origin or last known country), and (2) curb the powers of the Supreme Court and the judiciary to intervene in this or other controversies. The Public Order Act 2023, for example, changes the fundamental right to public protest to one of limited freedom, with police making preemptive arrests on suspicion of a protester’s intent.

In June 2023, the Parliamentary Privileges Committee (with a majority of Conservative MP members) found that former Prime Minister Boris Johnson deliberately lied on several occasions to Parliament—a cardinal sin—and to the Committee. He was disingenuous in his evidence to the Committee by denying that he had many times broken COVID social distancing rules: the so-called Partygate Scandal. The report was scathing in its conclusions. Johnson, adopting a blusteringly Trump-like response, made wild and derogatory allegations about the Committee and individual members, making himself look more like a spoiled, self-absorbed brat than a former prime minister.

The parliamentary vote on the report resulted in a huge majority in favor of its acceptance (354 to 7), with House Leader Penny Mordaunt the only Cabinet minister attending. With dignity and clarity, she justified clearly why the report should be accepted. Many now hope that Johnson’s humiliation may signal an end to his style-over-substance brand of politics in Britain. After years of his buffoonery, charm and dishonesty, the public wants grown-ups as political leaders.

The Cabinet also sought to block certain judicial investigations by Baroness Heather Carol Hallett, a retired Court of Appeal judge. Hallett serves as the chair of the Cabinet’s own official Partygate inquiry into Johnson’s possibly unlawful social distancing conduct and subsequent lying to Parliament. In addition, the government has sought to impose a Cabinet override on the House of Lords (the upper chamber of Parliament) to prevent objections and protective modifications to its illegal Migration Bill. Subjugation of and contempt for the judiciary, as well as Parliament, has become a cause célèbre for this radical-right regime.

Since 2019, Tory government ministers and MPs have frequently attacked their own civil servants, variously accusing them of disloyalty, laziness and obstruction both of government policies and of the ministers’ determination to reform the Civil Service. For example, Jacob Rees-Mogg, the former Cabinet Office Minister and unashamed champion of the radical right, referred to Foreign Office officials as “pampered panjandrums” who “prefer to idle away their hours.” Justice Secretary and Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab also blamed his enforced resignation for bullying on an alleged conspiracy by civil servants.

Conservative anger has been directed at what ministers have called “The Blob,” whereby they assert that senior civil servants have closed ranks to obstruct the government’s agenda, even accusing them of supporting political opposition parties. What this government wants is to make civil servants its executive subordinates, to be its absolute obedient drones, rather than fulfill their traditional role as “honest brokers” and “devil’s advocates” trying to ensure that draft policies and legislation are lawful, feasible and as low-risk as possible, while steering ministers safely towards implementing their policies.

Unlike in some other countries, British civil servants are not political appointees. They are state employees whose work and posts normally transcend each change of political administration and thereby help to ensure governmental continuity and stability. Their overriding allegiance is to the Crown (i.e., the constitutional head of state) and not to any particular political administration; they are to remain politically neutral in their work for ministers of the day. Authoritarian Tories refuse to acknowledge this inconvenient subtlety and seem determined to remove it permanently.

Case 3: Cancelling of Inconvenient Expert Opinion

The Conservative government’s Cabinet Office has been accused of operating a political blacklist introduced in 2022 against acknowledged subject experts whom the Cabinet Office believes do not share the government’s views.

The government is now vetting such specialists by, among other things, screening their posts over the past 3-5 years on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn for “criticism of government officials or policy.” Such selective politicization and removal of inconvenient expert information and advice may result in the failure of decision-makers failing to improve their work. As a Times leader comment noted, these rules “are scandalously vague and flimsy” and “were never debated in Parliament nor publicly announced.”

The former Cabinet Office Minister Jacob Rees-Mogg is credited with introducing the new rules, with the Times article headlined “Rees-Mogg’s Blacklist is Positively Soviet.” Others liken it to the US McCarthyist political blacklists of the late 1940s and 1950s: “Are you, or have you ever been, disrespectful to British Conservative Party policy or personnel?”

Case 4: National Impoverishment Caused by Tory Recklessness

Demands for pay raises in the UK public sector have risen on an unprecedented scale since 2022, with workers inflamed by domestic energy bills rising by 200% or more and double-digit annual percentage cost of living increases. Some basic foodstuff prices too have more than doubled since early 2022.

NHS doctors are fighting for a 30-35% increase just to neutralize the claimed fall in their salary value over the past decade. Nurses, ambulance drivers and ancillary staff, schoolteachers, and many other sectors have similarly high wage demands with similar justifications. The Royal College of Nursing, the UK’s largest nursing union, is on strike for the first time in its 100-year history. Large-scale strikes have escalated in the face of the government’s various offers typically capped at some 5-7%.

Government ministers are accused of demanding that public sector workers should, in effect, personally subsidize government coffers, and learn to budget and manage their meager personal finances better. One radical-right Tory MP (formerly of the Labour Party!) and Deputy Party Chairman, Lee Anderson, has even scoffed at the reality of significant numbers of public sector workers now reliant on food banks and charities and suggested that they could easily feed themselves on 30p (or 38¢) per day! Even some armed forces personnel are reportedly using food banks.

Another ERG luminary, Liz Truss, the shortest-lived British Prime Minister in history (44 days in 2022), disgraced and forced to resign by her catastrophic “growth by corporate tax cuts” policy that nearly collapsed the British pound, believes that poor people would somehow benefit quickly from the “trickle-down effect” of corporate tax cuts. Neither she nor her successor Rishi Sunak has ever publicly acknowledged that her ignorance of basic national economics and her ideologically driven certitudes recklessly damaged the immediate and long-term wealth and prosperity of the entire population. Emergency corrective measures alone are estimated to have cost taxpayers over £30 billion ($38 billion).

Reckless endangerment, resulting from ignorance, incompetence, self-interest above national interest, and breathtakingly naïve ideological certitudes, has been the overriding hallmark of the past 13 years of Conservative rule.

A Collapse of Moral Standards in Public Life

There has been widespread evasion by Tory MPs and ministers of ethical standards in public life, established as a formal code by the Wicks Committee in 2001. The current government has been beset by a culture of sleaze similar to that which engulfed the Tory government in the 1990s, when the term “Tories-and-sleaze” became a national catchphrase. The following examples illustrate the breadth of the scandals since 2019 alone: 

Owen Patterson, former Secretary of State for Northern
Ireland: improper paid lobbying of government on behalf of a
food company; forced to resign).

— Nadhim Zahawi, former Conservative Party Chairman: evasion of
millions of pounds in tax liabilities; forced to resign
chairmanship and from government.

Baroness Mone, Conservative Peer: alleged receipt into
offshore accounts of £29 million ($37 million) in bribes for
facilitating a contract for major COVID-related supplies with
commercial supplier PPE Medpro; forced to suspend herself
from House of Lords; under investigation by National Crime
Agency.

Boris Johnson, former Prime Minister: multiple scandals e.g., (1) an
£800,000 ($1 million) loan guarantee for himself while Prime
Minister, facilitated by Richard Sharp, shortly before Johnson
recommended him for the BBC Chairman post (Sharp failed to
declare to the BBC a conflict of interest and resigned his BBC
chairmanship); (2) controversy over the scale of costs for internal
redecoration of the 10 Downing Street prime ministerial
residence and the source of funds to pay for it; (3) the Partygate
scandal involving multiple staff parties hosted or attended by
Johnson at Downing Street contrary to strict Covid protection
rules, and then whether he lied to or misled Parliament about
this.

Scott Benton: accused of paid lobbying of ministers on behalf of
the gambling industry and leaking confidential information.

Other Tory MPs have been accused of sexual harassment, sexual assault or rape, including some convictions and jail sentences: Charlie Elphicke, Julian Knight, Andrew Griffiths, Christopher Pincher and David Warburton, and Imran Khan.

A catalog of bullying cases has included Tory ministers (e.g., Gavin Williamson, Dominic Raab) mistreating civil servants, as confirmed by independent inquiries and forced resignations. Such “right of abuse” prerogatives are positively feudal. This bullying trait even extended to particular ministerial advisers, most notably Dominic Cummings, who was appointed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson as his Chief of Staff. The rise of Cummings is profiled by Parker. Waring’s profile describes Cummings as someone who has undoubted intellectual skills but also presents as “a hyper-authoritarian, driven, fixated, intellectual narcissist … a great believer in himself, his ideas, and his self-certified superior intelligence and … very disparaging of those he considers intellectual weaklings or who might attenuate or interfere with his mission.” It should be noted that Cummings was neither an elected MP nor a civil service employee, but rather a contracted consultant. Nevertheless, Cummings adopted a forceful, and by all accounts overbearing and contemptuous, stance towards Cabinet Office staffers, civil servants in ministries and, indeed, MPs and even Cabinet ministers. 

Cummings clearly held many in terrorem and apparently was not averse to physical violence, such as the reported attack in 1999 on a former senior official of the Confederation of British Industry. As the leading adviser to Prime Minister Johnson, he created a major scandal by appearing to flagrantly ignore Covid protection rules that applied to every citizen and to which he himself contributed as Cabinet adviser. The scandal went from bad to worse as Cummings not only refused to apologize but brazenly argued in effect that he had been a paragon of virtue and had done nothing wrong. The court of British public opinion rejected such obvious sophistry. The damage to public trust and confidence was evident via a huge slump for the Conservatives in the polls. Eventually, after further misconduct, Johnson decided that Cummings had to go.

Boris “BoJo” Johnson, who took over as Prime Minister in 2019, was very much a political opportunist rather than a radical-right zealot. Reliant on buffoonery, photo-op flim-flam and the chutzpah that charmed many people, policy and strategy were never Johnson’s strong points. So, he left to Cummings such matters as “Get Brexit Done,” radical subjugation of the civil service and removal of independent judicial scrutiny of government. To many, it appeared as if Cummings was PM and Johnson was his lapdog.

Cummings did not go quietly in November 2020. True to form, he quickly launched into an ongoing vituperative onslaught against Johnson via online blogs and social media. Cummings’ powerful position is gone, but he remains an isolated and embittered radical-right fanatic.

Radical-Right Fellow Travellers

Some on the radical right exist within the Conservative Party (e.g., the ERG), while others operate externally in a variety of more hard-line nationalist parties and far-right entities, e.g., Reform UK, Reclaim, Britain First, Patriotic Alternative, and Far Right For Britain. Some radical-right supporters and agitators transcend the distinction between the Conservative Party and far-right nationalist organizations. The National Conservatism (NC) organization, for example, enjoys vocal support from Conservative Party Cabinet Members and MPs, particularly ERG members, as well as supporters of Reform UK and other parties. NC is in revolt against what it regards as a weak Conservative government, its neo-liberal economic and global markets policies, its “soft” immigration policies, and other “liberal” social policies. Three current or former Cabinet Ministers (Braverman, Gove and Rees-Mogg) spoke at the NC’s two-day conference in May 2023.

The NC identifies closely with the US-based Edmund Burke Foundation, which strongly backs the Republican Party and big business. This foundation exudes authoritarian nationalism, right-wing moralizing certitudes and white Christian supremacy. Its high-profile radical- and far-right nationalist supporters include Giorgia Meloni, the Italian premier, Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian premier, and Tucker Carlson, the former Fox News presenter—all of whom have attained notoriety for their harsh and uncompromising “illiberal democracy” comments. 

A number of senior Tories (e.g., MPs Lee Anderson, Priti Patel, Jacob Rees-Mogg, and Marco Longhi) have been variously linked to such far-right organizations as the anti-Islam group Turning Point UK. Other Tory MPs also alleged to have far-right sympathies include Bob Blackman, Nadine Dorries, and Dehenna Davison

The fanatical Lee Anderson, MP, has an abrasive and insulting style, e.g., his conduct towards the Metropolitan Police Commissioner in a parliamentary select committee hearing, and his dismissive let-them-eat-cake rhetoric towards impoverished public sector workers. Home Secretary Suella Braverman with her florid rhetoric has led the anti-immigrant, anti-asylum, anti-woke “culture war.” There is some irony in the fact that her jibes about “woke political correctness” are themselves a truth-is-what-we-say-it-is expression of political correctness. By constantly blaming all Britain’s problems on a so-called woke culture (i.e., seemingly anyone who dares disagree with her radical ideas and policies), she is in effect blaming the 56.4% of the electorate who did not vote Tory at the last General Election. Sneering and jeering at voters is a bold tactic indeed!

Populist anxieties about thousands of asylum seekers entering the UK by boat have led to such spine-chilling rhetoric as “let them drown” or “send them to Rwanda”—shades of the infamous Madagascar plan, perhaps? Few would disagree that there is indeed a control problem and that organized human trafficking criminals continue to challenge and thwart UK authorities’ efforts to stop them. However, the “solution” proposed by Suella Braverman and her predecessor Home Secretary, Priti Patel, to the problem of cross-Channel small-boat asylum seekers is grotesque: treating them as if they were a priori criminals, locking them up without trial or access to lawyers or the courts, and then swiftly deporting them to Rwanda in Central Africa with no right of appeal and a permanent UK expulsion order against them. These two Home Secretaries have proclaimed loudly that such treatment is inherently humane and compassionate, and that it is compliant with international law and the UN Convention on asylum, despite the UNHCR bluntly challenging that assertion.

Their grinning faces and glinting eyes when advocating the “Rwanda solution” have betrayed a lack of empathy or remorse and an unmistakable glee, almost as if they actually enjoy inflicting as much harm and distress as possible on unfortunate souls. Understandably, puzzled observers wonder if these particular ministers may be suffering from some form of pathological personality disorder.

Mass Political Brainwashing via Internet and Social Media

Some social media outlets have been criticized as being detrimental to democracy.  According to Ronald Deibert, “The world of social media is more conducive to extreme, emotionally charged, and divisive types of content than it is to calm, principled considerations of competing or complex narratives.” Mari K. Eder points to failures of the Fourth Estate that have allowed outrage to be disguised as news, contributed to citizen apathy in confronting falsehoods and engendered further distrust in democratic institutions.

However, as Ethan Zuckerman notes, social media presents the opportunity to inform more people, amplify voices and allow for an array of diverse voices to speak. Social media has allowed vast new sectors of society, especially young people, to be engaged politically.

Politicians of all persuasions are using social media, whether via written statements or, more commonly, direct-to-camera, talking-heads or controlled interviews. These are infrequently shared by other outlets; while they address a choir of faithful supporters and an echo chamber of fellow travelers, such content and messages avoid refutation by others. Among UK parties, the Conservative Party has become relatively expert in this kind of use of social media to garner electoral support.

All such attempts at mass indoctrination and manipulation, in essence, are merely following the acknowledged father of such principles, the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. His strategy was to propagate false reality and false assertions by engaging the mass German public unwittingly in the process via radio, cinema, newspapers, public meetings, rallies and cultural organizations. He was enthusiastic about the deliberate use of lies for political objectives. The end-justifies-the-means character of the past few years of Tory government is eerily similar. Goebbels would probably have been ecstatic about the way these latter-day disciples put the latest technology to use. Regrettably, opposition parties, notably Labour, are also rapidly moving towards using similar methods.

The Damage is Ongoing

The latest Corruption Perceptions International Index report shows that the UK fell to its lowest-ever position in 2022. The report observes that this sharp fall reflects a recent decline in standards in government and insufficient controls on the abuse of public office.

With its sleaze and corruption and its reckless endangerment of the economy and healthcare, the extant radical Conservative government has imposed an increasingly harsh, intolerant and authoritarian regime on the population and on democratic institutions such as the independent judiciary. Unchecked, such conduct is bound to accelerate. Liberal democracy, already becoming illiberal, will drift into authoritarian diktat. Government propaganda and public brainwashing, seeking to normalize its dreadful abuses, grow apace.

The strident dogma and stealthy maneuverings of Conservative leaders, and the overall radical-right caucus demanding permanent radical-right governance, have already laid the groundwork for what would effectively be a coup establishing an elective dictatorship. The plot appears to be underway, whether the Conservative government and party remain intact and under radical-right domination or the party is rent asunder by infighting and joins the motley bunch of radical- and far-right fringe parties that are already vying for supremacy.

[Anton Schauble edited this piece.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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