Rise of the right-wing’s bid to infiltrate cornerstones of British society

From the BBC to the NHS, the right has been gnawing away at well-liked British institutions, waging 'politicised' campaigns designed to influence direction. And the National Trust, with millions of members, is firmly in their sights.

Right-Wing Watch

On June 23, 2016, the hard-right accomplished its most important victory in UK electoral history. The malevolent dogma of Nigel Farage’s UKIP, the right-wing of the Conservative Party and their press allies, that ‘others’ steal ‘our’ jobs, overstretch public services and push down wages, saw off Remainers, and sent the man who had called the wretched vote packing.

Far-right parties across Europe rejoiced, hailing Brexit as a victory for their own hostilities towards the EU and immigration. Meanwhile in Britain, the right was emboldened, and an unstoppable effort to radically change major aspects of UK society commenced.

From the NHS to the BBC, they’ve been slowly gnawing away at well-loved British institutions. With PPE contracts handed to well-connected allies and political appointees,  the Tory government continues to privatise the NHS by stealth. Meanwhile, the right-wing media ramps up attacks on the health service, with NHS-belittling headlines regularly making their way onto the front pages.

The BBC is targeted with similar venom. Warnings have been made that hard-line anti-BBC Conservatives could ‘destroy’ the corporation for political motives. In May, the then home secretary Priti Patel gave a clear indication that ministers are considering sweeping changes to how the BBC is run, such as imposing an outside editorial board.

Then there’s the hard-right’s attempts to fuel climate change denial and distrust of environmental institutions. The same politicians that advocated Brexit are pushing against net zero. Fears have been raised that the predilection of right-wing populists to reverse climate policies – such as Donald Trump who pulled out of the Paris agreement and gave support for coal – could spark a similar movement in the UK.

But what was the most audacious bid from the right so far, which fortunately failed, was, of course, the Truss government’s brazen plan to radically cut taxes on the wealthy and – phase two – slash public expenditure. It was a classic case of arrogance and overreach.

The radical right behind the disastrous ‘Trussopolitics’ may have had to back off for now, but their desire to attack and infiltrate large swathes of civil society continues.

And in recent years, the National Trust, one of the UK’s most treasured institutions, has been firmly in their sights.

Waging war on the National Trust

With 5.95 million members – trade unions in the UK have around 6.6 million members for context – the National Trust (NT) is a hugely revered heritage institution.

As the NT’s director general Hilary McGrady states explicitly in a tweet, the heritage charity has no ‘political agenda.’

A view that is not shared by Restore Trust.

For two years, the insurgent group called Restore Trust (RT) has been waging a ‘politicised’ campaign against perceived ‘wokeness’ within the NT. Having formed through so-called dissatisfaction with the direction of the charity, the group has publicly criticised the National Trust over rewilding and social inclusion policies. It claims to be non-political and says among its aims is the restoration of an ‘apolitical ethos’ at the National Trust.

Today, November 5, the National Trust’s Annual General Meeting (AGM) is taking place, where the charity is expected to face fierce opposition from the insurgents vying for election to NT’s governing council.

In promoting a number of candidates for council election, including two ‘anti-woke’ historians, an activist opposed to critical race theory, and a Tory donor, RT is hoping to unseat NT management and, by doing so, influence the charity’s policies.

While NT membership nears 6 million, voting counts in its elections are traditionally low, making infiltration from the insurgent group to disrupt the council and focus, feasible.

Tufton Street connections

Desperate to defend its purported ‘apolitical’ tenet, RT took offense at a recent tweet by an NT executive which linked the group to Tufton Street. We have ‘nothing to do with Tufton St’ they retorted, insisting the claims were ‘completely false,’ ‘blatant lies’ and ‘skulduggery.’

The Georgian Westminster townhouse is home to a number of free-market libertarian think-tanks, where Euroscepticism and climate change denialism has rubbed shoulders, and which had an influential role in shaping Truss’s ludicrous economic programme. As Sam Bright wrote for Byline Times:

“Tufton Street took 12 years to create prime minister Truss and six weeks to destroy her government.”

The new PM is also linked to the Tufton Street mob, having authored a paper for the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS) – a Tufton Street resident – advocating for the creation of low-tax, low-regulation ‘freeports’, a policy endorsed by free-market Brexiteers and Liz Truss.

Just last week, activists from Just Stop Oil sprayed the London address – dubbed the ‘other black door shaping British politics’ – with orange paint.

It didn’t take much digging to unearth that the opaquely funded ‘free market’ tentacles of Tufton Street are likely to be grasping at Restore Trust, as, despite the group’s refutation, the insurgents are indeed linked to the residents in the backstreets of Westminster.

Neil Record, who features on RT’s ‘meet the team’ website page, is the chairman of the Institute of Economic Affairs think-tank,  which is headquartered near Tufton Street and has spent decades undermining climate science. He is also a major Tory Party donor and has previously donated to climate denial lobby group Global Warming Policy Foundation, which is part of the Tufton Street group. 

In August, Zewditu Gebreyohanes, who has worked for the right-leaning Policy Exchange, became a director of Restore Trust. Gebreyohanes was also appointed by Boris Johnson as one of three new trustees of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Gebreyohanes has accused Kew Gardens of pursing a ‘modish agenda’ through ‘decolonising’ its botanical collections. The Guardian describes RT’s director as a “right-wing commentator and activist who has a record of accusing arts and heritage organisations of “wokeness.”

And it doesn’t stop there. Neil Bennett, former city editor of the Sunday Telegraph, is also showcased on the group’s ‘Meet the Team’ page. Bennett is a director of RT and is the CEO of the PR firm Maitland.  Following last year’s NT AGM, in which RT won one of the three resolutions it put forward, Bennett was quoted in The Spectator saying: “In reality, whatever the voting outcome, we’ve won this round. We are a pressure group and we’ve certainly put pressure on the Trust to stop being so Maoist in their behaviour.”

Incidentally, in same article, its author Harry Mount, a contributor to many right-wing publications, admits to being a member of Restore Trust.

John Hayes and the Common Sense Group

The group is supported by a number of Tory MPs, including Sir John Hayes, chair of the Common Sense Group, one of several backbench pressure groups formed following the success of the European Research Group’s (ERG) influence over shaping Brexit policy. Unsurprisingly John Hayes, a stanch Eurosceptic, whose knighthood by Theresa May in 2018 triggered a row over allegations of cronyism, is a member of ERG.

One of the first actions of the Common Sense Group was to write an open letter to The Telegraph, berating the National Trust for its efforts to present multiple perspectives in history.

The letter read: “History must neither be sanitised nor rewritten to suit “snowflake” preoccupations. A clique of powerful, privileged liberals must not be allowed to rewrite our history in their image.”

The group accused the NT of being in the grip of “elite bourgeois liberals” because of the charity’s report that acknowledged links between its properties and slavery. The same group also called for a Charity Commission investigation into the Barnardo’s children’s charity after it published an article explaining white privilege.

Runnymede Trust

Hayes was one of twenty Conservative MPs from the Common Sense Group who complained to the Charity Commission about the Runnymede Trust. Claiming the trust was pursuing a political agenda, the MPs wrote to the Charity Commission demanding an investigation into the race equality think-tank. During a debate in the House of Commons, the MP for South Holland and the Deepings said the charity’s position “frankly, reflects the outrage of those who have had their long-standing bourgeois liberal prejudices challenged.”

He then asked the minister for “assurance” that she will speak to colleagues in government, “to stop the worthless work — often publicly funded — of organisations that are promulgating weird, woke ideas and that, in doing so, are seeding doubt and fear and, more than that, disharmony and disunity.”

The Runnymede Trust had been a vocal critic of the government’s controversial Sewell Report on racial disparity. Critics of the report said it had failed to acknowledge the “shocking disparities and shocking outcomes in health, education and housing” affecting minority communities in the UK. The MPs’ attack on the Runnymede Trust was described as full-scale campaign to “silence criticism and discredit any dissenting voices.”

Somewhat unsurprisingly, this week the veteran Tory MP became implicated in the Suella Braverman controversy, with some colleagues believing he had influence in the home secretary’s rise from backbencher to nailing a top cabinet position.

Astroturfing and opaque funding

Restore Trust, like many of the Tufton Street think-tanks, remains shady about its funding, and claims to be ‘grassroots’ – a classic astroturfing tactic.

This week, the Good Law Project (GLP), which holds the government and public bodies to account to protect the interests of the public, raised its own fears about the right-wing pressure group attempting to influence the National Trust amid potential misuse of the public’s data. The GLP believes that RT may be running an ‘astroturfed’ campaign. Astroturfed groups claim to be grassroots but their funding and influence are opaque, often intentionally so, meaning it can be difficult to know who is behind them, or how they are run.

“Campaigns like Restore Trust are having an increasing influence on our institutions and public debate and often pop up in anti-‘woke’ and anti-progressive spaces,” says the GLP.

RT’s privacy policy says they collect ‘behavioural data’ about how people who visit their website in order to ‘understand their audience.’ GLP is concerned about RT’s use of public data and has instructed an expert data rights agency AWO to examine how the group’s website works and whether it is in line with data protection law.  

Ravi Naik, Legal Director, AWO, said: “Asking questions about ‘data controllers’ and ‘cookies’ might seem dry and technical. But it’s about the nuts and bolts of how these campaigns influence our democracy. That makes our data rights a potentially powerful tool for challenging these campaigns and those behind them.”

Right-wing media support

One thing Restore Trust does well, is get its agenda into Tory newspapers. Among the most embracive of RT’s campaign against the NT is The Telegraph.

Rejoin the National Trust to save it from wokery,’ was a headline in August’ in a piece written by the group’s director Zewditu Gebreyohanes.

The Telegraph published a full interview with the RT director. ‘The National Trust has an agenda – skewing history so it’s anti-British’ shared Gebreyohanes’ views on wokery, conservation and dumbing down. The article alludes to how the RT director has ‘ruffled a few woke feathers’ with the Guardian calling her a ‘right-wing commentator.’

And RT certainly doesn’t hold back in promoting its Tory press endorsements. Its content-rich Facebook page pushes ‘National Trust skewing history’ headlines in front of followers. The most recent being coverage in The Times of the group’s open letter to National Trust chairman René Olivieri, petitioning him to review the decision about Clandon House. The article titled: ‘National Trust’s refusal to restore Clandon Park after fire sparks ire‘, speaks of how the pressure group has expressed its “shock and disappointment” over the National Trust’s decision not to restore an 18th-century stately home gutted by fire.

Just last month, The Telegraph had to issue a jaw-dropping correction for publishing a false claim about the NT. The article, printed on October 15, claimed the charity had sacked 1,700 specialist curators at the beginning of Covid, when in actual fact only eight curators were made redundant.

While the right-wing media unashamedly fires out a loud and brazen attack on the institutions they deem ‘woke’, the progressive media seems to be holding back in their critique of this dangerous narrative. The likes of the Guardian and Byline Times publish the occasional report, but, the ‘liberal’ media, more broadly, doesn’t really seem to have organised much opposition to RT’s agenda, despite the insurgent group being in its second active year.

As the left seemingly dozes, the right is storming ahead with their cynical woke-baiting rhetoric, while dressing it up as genuine attempts to ‘depoliticise’ institutions that are inherently unpolitical. 

Left Foot Forward reached out to RT for commentary. Zewditu Gebreyohanes told us she ‘categorically’ rejects the accusation that the group is ‘conducting an anti-woke campaign against the National Trust.’

“Restore Trust is a grassroots member-led campaign seeking to return the National Trust to its charitable objects and founding ethos. In particular, we are concerned by the lack of proper democracy within the Trust, the sale of Trust land to private developers, the closure of Trust properties, the under-appreciation of volunteers, and the lack of transparency and accountability, particularly surrounding the spending of money (with one case study of this being Clandon House in Surrey). These are not issues that can be characterised as ‘woke’ or ‘anti-woke’, and labels such as these deflect from the important issues at stake, which should concern people of any viewpoint or political stripe.

“Our Council candidates, all of whom have very different backgrounds and expertise, share our core belief that in a huge charity on the scale of the National Trust—one of the biggest landowners and one of the biggest membership organisations in the country—with clear statutory duties, it is vital that there is openness, transparency, fairness and accountability. If elected to the Council, our candidates would ensure that the National Trust is run according to its charitable objects and founding ethos,” said Gebreyohanes. 

Right-Wing Media Watch – Tory press defends the disgraced home secretary 

The ‘darling of the right’ Suella Braverman has not just lived up to her reputation this week, she may have exceeded it. The home secretary, who was sacked by Liz Truss for breaching government security protocol by sending sensitive documents from her personal email account, only to be reinstated by Rishi Sunak a week later, invoked an outpour of criticism for describing the migrant crisis as an ‘invasion’ on the UK’s southern coast. The home secretary used what has been described as ‘inflammatory language’ during an exchange with the shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper in the House of Commons.

The comments were branded an ‘absolute disgrace.’ While at PMQs on Wednesday, Keir Starmer accused Rishi Sunak of doing a “grubby deal” with Braverman to “avoid an election.”

The embattled home secretary is under mounting pressure to get a grip on the crisis as the government faces potential legal action over the Manston asylum centre in Kent, where conditions have been branded ‘dire.’

The controversy currently engulfing Suella Braverman has been a leading story in the media all week. Much of the right-wing press has been defending the beleaguered home secretary. Furthermore, they have been using the scandal  – which don’t forget involves children, some of whom are unaccompanied and seeking asylum in Britain alone, revealing the trauma of the facility – to whip up furore towards the left.

Suella Braverman speaks for ordinary people – and that’s why Leftist elites detest her’, was the headline in The Telegraph on November 2.

The article, penned by Daily Telegraph columnist Allison Pearson, is hugely anti-migration, defending Braverman in virtually every sentence, while turning the self-made controversy surrounding the home secretary, into an attack of the left.

According to the author, Braverman’s ‘invasion of our south coast’ comments were a “calm yet furiously honest account of the mess we’re in.”

“I agreed with every word. But the truth doesn’t please those who have an interest in maintaining the lie, including members squirming on the government’s own benches. Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper knows that most Labour voters share Suella’s views, so she focused her ire on the alleged mistreatment of migrants and Braverman’s misdemeanours.”

Quite unbelievable and while we are on the subject of truth, Pearson of course makes no mention of the fact that the boat crossing figures are inflated by the drop in lorry crossings, or that the UK has fewer asylum seekers than Germany, Spain or France, or that on a per head of population basis, we scarcely make the top 20 of desirable countries for refugees.  As invasions go, it is hardly in the 1066 bracket.

Meanwhile, the front page of the Daily Express on November 3, exuberantly informed that Suella Braverman is eying up three more countries to send migrants.

On November 1, The Telegraph published an article on ‘Five reasons why Rishi Sunak will not sack Suella Braverman.’ 

The article, authored by Christopher Hope, associate political editor for the Daily Telegraph, makes a case for Braverman’s survival until the next general election. First on the list is because the ‘Right needs a cabinet champion.’

“Braverman is right-wing to her irreducible core,” and the “party’s grassroots loved her – and she is clearly in tune with them,” Hope cites as a reason for her ‘survival.’

“Her critics might think it odd that she dreams of a plane full of failed asylum seekers taking off for Rwanda (as she told me on my podcast at the conference last month) but the members in the room loved it.

“This makes her politically valuable to Sunak. Right-wing Tories want to see one of their own at the top of the party – and Braverman is that person,” the author continued.

The article does, sadly bare some truth. Her restoration to the same cabinet position may have undermined Rishi Sunak’s alleged commitment to a cabinet of ‘competence and integrity’, but her place in it is a means of keeping the uncompromising right-wing culture warriors on the Tory benches on side. Braverman is the perfect politician to front authoritarianism agendas like the new anti-union laws, which could cull the right to strike.   

Meanwhile, the right-wing magazine The Spectator made similar attempts to defend the home secretary and her ‘invasion’ comments. The article titled: ‘Suella Braverman’s critics ignore an uncomfortable truth’, argues that the statement, was, ‘essentially correct.’

However much the right-wing press defend the home secretary and twist the uproar about the ‘invasion’ comments as being goaded by the left, there can be no justification for a member of government using such provocative words. As a Guardian reader notes – in a letter that helped me regain some sanity – amid the context of the appalling attack on a migrant centre in Dover last weekend, “these comments are particularly irresponsible.”

Woke-bashing of the week – Daily Mail launches attack on ‘woke BBC’ over migrant crisis

Another depressing example of the right-wing’s attempts to provoke hostility and influence opinion towards well-liked UK institutions, is an article in the Mail this week about the BBC’s response to the migrant crisis.

Listen to the woke BBC and you’d think voters want our borders flung open’, was the headline of a piece by Professor Matthew Goodwin, author of National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy.

Goodwin alludes to an interview on Radio 4’s Today programme with a migrant who had been housed at the Marston asylum facility in Kent. Seemingly miffed by the reporter’s description of the centre as being akin to a ‘prison camp,’ Goodwin claimed the report had no sense of perspective.

One would think that the essence of honourable, investigation journalism is to expose corruption, vice and incompetence and use first-hand eye-witness interviews and accounts to do so.

Not for the Mail it seems. The article also blasted the BBC for describing the migrant crisis as a ‘culture war’ in a politics show.

Pretty hypocritical don’t you think on the Mail’s behalf, when the article’s headline incorporates the word ‘woke’, in a what is blatantly an attempt to incite its own culture war, against the BBC.

At the end of the day, you can always rely on the Daily Mail to connect anti-wokery and BBC-bashing to what should be a story about the human suffering involved in what, together with climate change, is the biggest challenge facing the modern world – the displacement of millions of human beings from their homes, families and places of work.

Honestly, I give up!

Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is author of Right-Wing Watch.

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