Beating Them or Joining Them? The Conservatives and the Far Right in Britain by Aimee Brown
Tomorrow, Rishi Sunak will become the prime minister of Britain. He will, in fact, be the third prime minister in just seven weeks, a fact indicative of a level of dysfunction that makes being positive about British politics difficult. However, if pressed, one might observe that at least Britain no longer has a far-right populist party to worry about. After all, it was only a couple of years ago that the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) surprised everyone with its electoral success. But now, it has sunk back into electoral irrelevance. Surely this is cause for relief given the plethora of Britain’s continental neighbours in which far-right populist parties have experienced unprecedented electoral victories, most recently The Brothers of Italy and The Sweden Democrats. In contrast, Britain’s democratic institutions and mainstream parties seem to have successfully weathered the storm of populism.
And yet, perhaps the reason that UKIP doesn’t exist anymore is because it doesn’t have to. Following UKIP’s breakthrough in 2013, then prime minster David Cameron worked to beat the party by co-opting elements of its message, especially around immigration. Most significantly, the Conservative Party felt so threatened that Cameron called a referendum on Europe, which he infamously lost. This was UKIP’s great victory, after which it promptly collapsed as the Conservatives reinvented themselves as the party of Brexit. In essence, they rendered UKIP irrelevant by ceding to its demand. Former leader of UKIP, Nigel Farage, has stated that “My achievement has been to take an issue that was considered to be completely wrong, perhaps even immoral, and help to turn it into a mainstream view in British politics.” UKIP’s sole representative in the House of Commons, reflecting on his party’s catastrophic 2017 election results, stated that he was “far from despondent. In fact, I am elated. Why? Because we have won.”
UKIP was not the first far-right rivel that the Conservative Party outflanked by co-opting its ideas. In 1967, the fascist National Front (NF) party was founded in response to opposition to immigration. A year later, Conservative member of Parliament Enoch Powell gave a speech in which he denounced immigration from the Commonwealth because it would have the result that “the black man will have the whip hand over the white man.” He further argued that banning racial discrimination in housing, employment, commerce, and public services would unfairly disadvantage “the indigenous population”, and that it would be like “throwing a match on to gunpowder.” He ended dramatically by saying that “As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood’”. Upon making the speech, Powell was immediately fired and his top-tier political career was effectively ended. However, recruitment to the National Front soared. According to a former party official, “Before Powell spoke, we were getting only cranks and perverts. After his speeches we started to attract, in a secret sort of way, the right-wing members of Tory organisations.” The National Front grew to claim over 12,000 members and enjoyed unprecedented success in the Greater London Council elections of 1977.
But in 1978, leader of the Conservative Party Margaret Thatcher gave a television interview in which she stated that “people are really rather afraid that this country might be swamped by people with a different culture.” Indeed, “the British character has done so much for democracy, for law and done so much throughout the world that if there is any fear that it might be swamped people are going to react and be rather hostile to those coming in.” Of course, the frightened British people in question are presumed to be white, the immigrants are presumed not to be white (no mention of a terror of New Zealanders, for example), the verb ‘swamped’ is used twice for emphasis, and the end result of violence is implied. This interview did not signal a change in Thatcher’s policy so much as it did a change in the rhetoric used to talk about it. In effect, Thatcher had introduced the National Front’s racist discourse into mainstream politics and brought the exiled Powell’s ideas back into the fold of the Conservative Party. By doing so, she managed to steal the far-right’s thunder. After the interview, the Conservative Party enjoyed a dramatic surge in support and, a year later, won the general election. The National Front, on the other hand, failed to win a single seat and collapsed into irrelevance. Dead but not gone, it joins UKIP as a fellow anti-immigrant and Eurosceptic ghost that haunts a Conservative Party whose current dysfunction is not unrelated to its previous success in beating its far-right opponents by joining them.