Analysis: Who are the activists trying to push the Tory party to the hard Right?

Ben Wray

The right of the Tory party is angry and itching for some political definition

THE Conservative party is more visibly divided than at any time in decades, with relations between the party’s rightwing, organised around groups like the European Reform Group (ERG), and its more centrist and dominant tendency around May, all but completely broken down.

At the heart of these tensions is a concern over the direction of both British society and the long term viability of the Right’s politics and ability to hold sway over large parts of the population.

The chronic problems of British capitalism – a crisis of investment and productivity, regional under-development and a lopsidedness towards finance and services – have endured decades of Tory rule and only grown more severe.

The consequence is a profound split over trade and the EU, and a growing concern that rightwing politics is not appealing to young voters in particular. It is this that is animating new hard right initiatives around the Tory party, not traditionally attracted to an essentially parliamentary and rather stuffy outfit like the ERG.

For the smaller rightwing faction of the Tory party, the answer is to ‘turn it up to 11’ – a more abrasive political style, a neurotic anti-leftism, and an even more determined turn towards free markets and a deregulated economy. Here are just some of the activists and initatives attempting to revive a popular radical conservatism using US inspired messaging, politics and aesthetics.

Turning Point UK

US Conservatives have made repeated attempts to bring their approach to the UK. Most have foundered on fundamental ideological differences between US capitalism and its British ally.

These persist for Turning Point UK, launched from a successful US movement founded in 2012 by activist Charlie Kirk and financed by Republican donor Foster Friess. The capture of the US Republican party and evangelical movement for Donald Trump in 2016 transformed Kirks outfit into his shock troops among groups of young, usually middle class or wealthy republicans.

Their version of rightwing politics derives from Cold War and religious traditions that strike a hyperventilated tone. The left, in this view, is a dangerous conspiracy to undermine ‘freedom’ and ‘civilisation’ and the early pronouncements of the UK Turning Point group reflect this apocalyptic outlook.

Its express purpose is to combat the left on university campuses, the US culture warriors image is the source of all social corruption in the west. We can therefore expect them to organise campus events, hoping to incite leftwing students and garner support in the media.

It is telling that an initiative of this kind attracts support from the hard right fringe, including from organisers of the US conspiracy theory website Infowars, and the right of the Tory party, including Jacob Reese-Mogg and former International Development Secretary Priti Patel. 

Turning Point represents a peculiar strand of thinking on the hard right about how to relate to younger voters, as well as other perceived ‘hard to reach’ demographics like the University educated and city dwellers in the UK’s more cosmopolitan centres.

It follows on from the disastrous ‘Activate’ outfit, which contained more centrist Tory youth but imploded within weeks of being founded. It’s approach was to mimic leftwing efforts like Momentum in the Labour party – adopt their brashness and youthful enthusiasm. But it was ultimately humiliated by these attempts when they failed to draw sufficient support.

Shaun Bailey

Likewise, the candidacy of Shaun Bailey for London mayor in 2020 seems determined to ignore the lessons of the disastrous campaign by Zac Goldsmith, who was widely condemned for appearing to incite intercommunal tensions between Hindu and Muslim Londoners.

Like him, Bailey has been seen to bait minority communities in London, including Muslims and Hindus, accommodations to whom would lead society into a “crime-riddled cesspool”. He has also made attacks on teenage girls and single motherhood, warning of the decline of social cohesion they can create.

He is expected to campaign on an anti-crime stance, pushing a message beloved of the US right since the days of the New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s (now a key Trump ally) Zero Tolerance policy.

But the project to crack the London nut with a very clumsy and crude hammer has failed once before – and there is no obvious reason it would succeed in 2020.

Ross Thompson

Thompson represents a largely unexplored aspect of modern Scottish Conservatism. At a UK level, Ruth Davidson’s party is often held up as a liberal saviour from the Tories Brexit drift. She represents, for many, the antidote to the divided, chaotic and remote party leadership at a UK level.

In one of so many portraits of the Scottish Tory leader excelling in conjecture about her politics and ignoring her record, Davidson is lauded for “…her wit, lack of pomposity and socially ultra-liberal voice…”. This would save the Tory party were she to be more prominent in “…redefining its national image.”

The reality behind this hyperbole is a carefully crafted media image combined with an appeal to British nationalism and reactionary unionism. This attempt, which seeks to broaden the Scottish Tory base to include middle class and higher earners who support low-tax and anti-social disruption policies (hence the aggressive anti-independence messaging) and the reactionary Right proper, aims to harbour more trenchant opposition to parts of Scottish society that want change, represented most vividly in the 2014 independence movement.

Trying to hold this party bloc together is the reason that Davidson has proved reluctant to expel councillors and MSPs for sectarian, misogynistic and racist (especially anti-traveller) stances. 

Thomson (who has not been accused of racism unlike some of his colleagues) is just a particularly loud example of attempts at appeals to hardliners. Like Bailey, his politics are more about presentation than content. His primary effort seems to be to advance a confrontational style towards the Scottish independence movement, whilst distancing himself from his Scottish party leadership by being a key Tory advocate of euroscepticism, taking his chances to be publicly associated with figures like Boris Johnson who have challenged the party leadership.

But despite that fact that these antics arise from the fundamental relationship between rightwing politics and a country it is struggling to dig a deeper groove into, these antics are unlikely to achieve much active support from the dominant wing of the party around Davidson.

We can expect, in Scotland and the rest of the UK, a continued animation of these efforts to break the deadlock of rightwing politics. But from a survey of those attempts at this point, they don’t seem to present a solution to the Tory’s problems.

Picture courtesy of r. nial bradshaw