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In October 2002, 14 years before she became prime minister, Theresa May famously announced that she didn’t want the Conservative Party in Britain to be known as the “Nasty Party.” The Tories were then out of power, but they’ve been in charge now for 13 years, and there appears to be a growing contingent on their right wing determined to pull the party back into the realms of nastiness.
It seems a curious project, because no one’s been particularly complaining that the Conservatives have been “too nice” lately. But this new bid to take on the mantle of an angry, unfriendly neighbor (“Get off my lawn!”) appears to be an imported directive from those masters of meanness and intolerance, US Republicans.
Recently, at the Emmanuel Centre in Westminster, there was a three-day event called the National Conservatism Conference (NatCon) UK, but it could have been labeled the National Grumpy Symposium. Organized and financed by the American Edmund Burke Foundation, the symposium aimed to promote “the idea of the nation,” and even embraced the term “nationalism.”
One speaker was the government’s Home Secretary Suella Braverman, apparently angling to position herself as a future party leader. She’s considered by some to be so mean she’s often referred to as “Cruella Braverman.” She wants to make it near impossible for refugees to settle in the UK and has confessed to having a “dream” in which a planeload of asylum seekers is sent to Rwanda, to never be heard of again.
There was some eccentricity demonstrated in the gathering. NatCon Chairman Christopher DeMuth had apparently been conversing with the dead, having announced that he had communed with the late Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013) and was “happy to report that she is totally on board” with the conference.
Other speakers blamed “globalists” for international ills (employing a common antisemitic trope) or claimed that racial justice groups were “jealous” of the attention paid to the Holocaust.
Miriam Cates, MP, announced that the nation’s low birthrate was “the one overarching threat to British conservatism, and to the whole of western society.” She also decried the expansion of childcare, no-fault divorce, and even university attendance.
Even the right-leaning Financial Times declared that such a movement “offers only a dead end for British Tories.”
Lord Heseltine, who was Margaret Thatcher’s deputy prime minister in the 1980s, bemoaned that “the party is tearing itself apart.”
It was widely noted that the forum had the whiff of a party in opposition (i.e., out of power), not the folks who have actually occupied 10 Downing Street since 2010.
But a group of Tories are determined to get a jump on their opposition status and jockey for position before they lose the next general election, as they are widely expected to do sometime before January 2024, the latest the government can hold a national vote.
One speaker was the government’s Home Secretary Suella Braverman, apparently angling to position herself as a future party leader. She’s considered by some so mean she’s often referred to as “Cruella Braverman.” She wants to make it near impossible for refugees to settle in the UK and has confessed to having a “dream” in which a planeload of asylum seekers is sent to Rwanda, to never be heard of again.
This is the nasty version of Martin Luther King’s speech, all the more remarkable in that Braverman is herself the daughter of Indian immigrants who arrived from Mauritius and Kenya. She wants to reduce even legal immigration, in a nation that, like much of Europe, has a declining birthrate.
Since Brexit, there’s been a marked shortage of workers in the haulage, butchering, and farming industries, but she’s against loosening visa requirements to fill these jobs. She wants native Brits to take jobs picking fruit, processing meat, and driving lorries, a prospect widely regarded as unrealistic even in the long term.
(Braverman is currently embroiled in a scandal after she asked civil servants to help her avoid taking a public speed awareness course after being fined for speeding. This may be a breach of the ministerial code, which could force the prime minister to ask for her resignation. As she’s been subtly angling to position herself as the next head of the party, implicitly implying that he’s a weak PM, many people think he wouldn’t be sorry to see her go.)
Dissatisfaction with the Tories has been so pronounced that recent local elections saw them lose over 1,000 council seats — beyond their worst estimates — despite the prime minister’s new insistence of photo ID cards shown in order to vote (another American import). This was supposed to curb young voting, as admitted by the Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, who spoke at the confab and whose views are so archaic he’s sometimes referred to as “the Honourable Member for the 18th century.”
Rees-Mogg, famous for going on about his nanny raising his family (he has six children, the youngest named Sixtus Dominic Boniface Christopher Rees-Mogg), said the quiet part out loud when he admitted that the introduction of ID cards was meant to be “gerrymandering” (he used the American term) to depress young turnout, but it ended up preventing the traditionally Tory-voting older citizens from casting ballots. He added there was “no evidence that personation [i.e., voter fraud] was a serious problem” — the stated excuse for the ID cards in the first place.
But just as Republicans in the US have championed the Hungarian strongman Viktor Orbán, trying to import his extreme-right agenda, so are some British Conservatives trying to import Trumpism to the UK.
It should be noted that as Commons leader in Boris Johnson’s cabinet, it was Rees-Mogg himself who shepherded the voter ID legislation through the house to combat this nonproblem.
This US political bacteria is an unsettling development in a country that is generally governed from the center right or left. The nation is not as polarized as the United States is currently, but the lessons of the Tory failure (income disparity, a housing shortage, astronomical mortgage rates, polluted waterways, and of course Brexit) have fallen on deaf ears. The rise of Trumpism in the US (based on a single election’s electoral college anomaly) has infected a country with a very different political composition.
But just as Republicans in the US have championed the Hungarian strongman Viktor Orbán, trying to import his extreme-right agenda, so are some British Conservatives trying to import Trumpism to the UK. It’s unclear how strong a movement this will turn out to be. Coming from inside his own party, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is now taking on fire from both left and right.
It should be remembered that this is the same situation that gave us Brexit, when David Cameron tried to settle his obstreperous right flank with the referendum he thought he would handily win, thus silencing his “Eurosceptic” critics (as if).
It’s now widely agreed that Brexit has been a huge disaster (even its principal architect Nigel Farage has declared it “has failed”), but a lot of Brexiteers are now claiming it just hasn’t been done properly. This is despite it being administered pretty much exactly as they wanted, with Johnson forcing through the hardest Brexit possible, against the wishes of even many of the people who voted for it. (The referendum’s wording, for instance, said nothing about leaving the European single market.)
This is like Germany, after losing the First World War (which they launched), claiming they only lost because they’d been “stabbed in the back.”
The Tories are not failing for not being sufficiently right wing, but because, after 13 long years, their policies are widely judged to have failed the country.
It’s difficult to see how becoming the “Nasty Party” is going to help.
J.B. Miller is an American writer living in England, and is the author of My Life in Action Painting and The Satanic Nurses and Other Literary Parodies.