Cerebrotonic Cato may
Extoll the Ancient Disciplines,
But the muscle-bound Marines
Mutiny for food and pay.
Caesar’s double bed is warm
As an unimportant clerk
Writes I DO NOT LIKE MY WORK
On a pink official form.
W. H. Auden, “The Fall of Rome”
Though the current trouble affecting the Conservative party in no way resembles the malaise affecting its Labour equivalent, there is certainly a sense – one which is reinforced by media coverage and the proclamations of opposition politicians – that the party is in trouble, even crisis, ahead of the upcoming referendum on the European Union.
In ways which may initially appear surprising, I believe the apparent misfortunes affecting the British Conservative party – traced to a small but persistent crop of old-style social conservatives – could well be fundamentally attributable to the same factors affecting the current turmoil within the Republican party in the United States, which (as everyone with an Internet connection or a television set can tell) has been enduring more than a safe dose of in-fighting of late.
In short, the British Right is being wracked by what may appear a periodic bout of concern about such things as migration and the influence of the European Union, but the subject matter is fundamentally more serious.
Like the American GOP, the Tory party, which has seen the resignation of Iain Duncan Smith, the former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, is seen to be under strain. Some suggest it is tearing itself apart in advance of a major vote; but I would disagree about the seriousness of this diagnosis.
The mechanism of this disputation, however, can be diagnosed – even though it is not as catastrophic as has been suggested. And it bears a striking resemblance to much of the American situation. But instead of arguing and squabbling to determine the next nominee for the office of president, the question soon to be before the people of Britain is perhaps, paradoxically, even more important: whether to remain part of the European Union or to leave it.
Though some Conservatives have preserved a species of distrust for ‘foreigners’ (something which can be seen in the dairies of Alan Clark, for example), the effects of several recent events – in particular the Mediterranean migrant influx and the Eurozone debt crisis (a little-understood but greatly feared phenomenon) – have stoked these fears almost to fever pitch.
Clark wrote with disdain about Iraq, for example, which he called ‘more than any other … the country of the mob’. This characterisation, especially since the Iraqi people were at that time in particular (Clark wrote that diary entry in 1990) suffering extraordinary repression, is a false one. But contemporary British rightists with similar perspectives are more than happy to do all they can to appeal to mob sentiments within, and to speak in the most general and traducing of terms about those without. It ought to be noted that many of the refugees in question are from Iraq and its neighbours. Such perceptions matter.
The migration and refugee questions in particular are an ideal focal point for febrile press speculation and political rhetoric designed to feed on this raw material. And all this is hardly new; its like ought to be hardly surprising, too. But the modernisers within the Tory fold – David Cameron and his allies, to all intents and purposes – have been to some extents victims of their own success. Such is the way they have transformed the party’s image – for example in legalising gay marriage, an act with would have been unthinkable even five years before – that many, both within the media and the general public, have almost forgotten some of the older Tories even exist. (If one wanted to be uncharitable, they could be called throwbacks and relics.) But they do exist; and Europe has long been a favoured terrain for their increasingly rare sallies forth.
The current turmoil surrounding borders and matters international has given them an unprecedented opportunity to make their case in a manner they find comfortable while simultaneously appealing to many Britons, a large number of whom would have been profoundly suspicious of these characters in other circumstances.
An uncommon amount of race-and-nation sentiment is doing the rounds (often in dog-whistle terms involving ‘sovereignty’ and ‘securing our borders’) – much like in the United States, with the rise of Donald Trump and his less successful imitators. Though this did not appear to work in the 2015 general election (the BNP and Ukip were both roundly beaten), now the migrant crisis and the EU referendum are in the picture, the combined stories have created a kind of media maelstrom.
Trump does this better – and more brazenly – even than people like Nigel Farage and his party, which has rather disappeared off the map, not least because of in-fighting of its own. (Now there’s a real ‘civil war’.)
Trump’s positions are invariably populist, and his delivery – which never amounts to a speech, or even, often, a completed sentence – is both surprisingly easy to follow and remarkably engaging. It has been said before, but his brash showmanship – straight from central casting as TV’s tough-talking taskmaster – only exacerbates the extent to which he can be seen as a political outsider willing to tell the truth and take the country in a dramatic and entirely new direction.
A recent example might demonstrate how this relates to aspects of the populist Right so very well. Trump reads song lyrics about snakes and relates them to refugees (a sample: ‘”Oh shut up, silly woman,” said the reptile with a grin, / “You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in”’). It’s shocking, perhaps; but he is to an extent only doing what a surprising number within the European political mainstream would like to do – and think about with regularity. Witness the way Farage suggested offering asylum only to Christian refugees fleeing Syria, for example; and look, too, at the way many within the British Right applauded some of the more garish statements of Viktor Orbán of Hungary, who has expressed similar sentiments.
The malaise which is sweeping America’s right-of-centre party, and which could become a little more than the subject of press speculation in Britain, can be attributed to very similar sentiments, set in motion by contemporary events which shake to their foundations institutions and ideas which had once seemed secure.