From voter suppression to abortion rights, we take a look at some of the craziest and dangerous ideas from the American right that are gaining worrying traction in Britain.
In 1986, the English post-punk band ‘The The’ released Heartland. In it, singer-songwriter Matt Johnson criticised Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government for polarising Britain to the point of violence by increasing class divisions. The song also expressed frustration at Britain’s subservience to the US.
“This is the 51st state of the USA” goes the chorus.
Commenting on the meaning of the song, some years later, Matt Johnson said: “I suppose in a way that song was ahead of its time because the Americanisation of Britain seems to have accelerated rapidly since then.”
With close links between the Tories and Conservative US think-tanks like the Heritage Foundation, which Margaret Thatcher was closely involved with, right-wing political currents from the US have long made their way across the Atlantic. But having turned our back on Europe, and emboldened by the views of Donald Trump, the Americanisation of British politics has been propelled with greater thrust in recent years.
Perhaps the most worrying strand of this assimilation into American politics and culture is the almost apocalyptic wrath towards ‘woke’ leftists and the peddling of culture wars.
From voter suppression to abortion rights, we take a look at some of the craziest and dangerous ideas from the American right that are gaining worrying traction in Britain.
The strategy used to influence the outcome of an election by discouraging certain people or groups from voting is becoming an issue for democracies around the world.
Dating back to colonial times, voter suppression has had a long history in the United States. In 2021, the American Civil Liberties Union said that over 48 states had recently tried to introduce more than 400 anti-voter bills, including voter ID laws.
In the recent midterm elections in the US, people were left queuing at polling stations in the state of Georgia for hours, often without access to water or seating, following the introduction of a number of controversial provisions that restricts access to voting.
Similar efforts to supress voting rights are happening in the UK through the passing of the Elections Act this April. For the first time, voters at the 2023 elections will have to show ID at voting booths or be turned away. Amid concerns that young people will forfeit voting rights, the government has been accused of ‘legalised voter suppression’ and ‘gerrymandering’ for pushing ahead with the legislation.
Talking to Byline Times, Labour MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle, who worked on the legislation at committee stage, said that young people would be discriminated against by the policy.
“Will it mirror US voter suppression? The answer is yes. I had a colleague from the New York City Council here last week – we chatted, and he couldn’t believe the levels of ID that were unacceptable. He said, even in the US, college cards are accepted. It’s far worse than any US state here – he couldn’t believe it,” said the MP.
Climate change denial
Climate science denial is described as a ‘hotbed’ in the US. International polling in 2021 showed a significant number of Americans do not believe human-driven climate change is occurring. A total of 13 percent of Americans polled in a 23-country survey conducted by the YouGov-Cambridge Globalism Project agreed with the statement that the climate is changing “but human activity is not responsible at all”. A further 5 percent said the climate was not changing.
Concerted campaigns of misinformation mostly financed by companies with fossil fuel interests are driving the climate denial movement. This collaborative effort to discredit consensus over manmade global warming is happening in the UK, driven by the strong ideological commitment of small-state conservatives and libertarian think-tanks.
Investigative reports have found that US right-wing groups with links to big oil are funding Tory-linked think-tanks that campaign against net zero. The UK’s main club for climate change deniers, the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF) – which has close links to Tory MP Steve Baker – has a donor with $30m shares in 22 companies working across coal, oil and gas. The lobbyists, which also use the brand ‘Net Zero Watch’, has also received half a million dollars through a fund linked to the controversial oil billionaire Koch brothers. Labour said the revelations showed US right-wing groups with links to big oil were “desperate to stop action against the climate crisis” and influence UK debate.
With a new coal mine in Cumbria being approved by Michael Gove this week, it seems such influence is taking hold, unless there is a way to stop it.
Following the appointment of Liz Truss as prime minister in September, ‘trickle-down’ economics dominated the political and news agendas in Britain for several weeks, with the introduction of the largest package of tax cuts since 1972. In disproportionately benefiting the wealthy, ‘Trussonomics’ largely got the thumbs down, though the trickle-down advocates have not gone away. The origins of Truss and Kwarteng’s trickle-down plan were widely viewed as coming from the economic ideology touted by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan and has been big in right-wing circles in the US for decades. It did however put Truss at odds with Joe Biden, with the White House tweeting the president is “sick and tired of trickle-down economics.’
In June this year, the absolute right to terminate a pregnancy was overturned in the US. The conservative-majority court opened the door to state-level abortion bans. When it was backed in 1973 by Supreme Court judges, the Roe v Wade ruling was hailed as a huge step forward for women’s rights. When the overturning of the ruling in June hit the news, protests broke out, with pro-choice supporters saying it will force people to continue with unsafe and unwanted pregnancies.
While the then prime minister Boris Johnson described the move as a “big step backwards” and suggested the similar legislation is not on the horizon in Britain, an anti-abortion movement has been growing in the UK.
So-called ‘pro-life’ demonstrations have been gathering momentum outside clinics in Britain, leading to doctors to request buffer zones to enable pregnant people to safely enter the buildings.
Universities and students have become the latest battleground for the anti-abortion movement in both the US and the UK. As Byline Times reports, religious freedom groups in both countries which support ‘pro-life’ students and societies are quoted in government reports on free speech.
Experts believe the ruling to end the absolute right to abortion in the US will have an impact in Britain. Among them is Katherine O’Brien from the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, who said: “Anti-abortion groups in the UK work closely with their counterparts in the US, receiving funding and training.
“We are concerned that a perceived ‘victory’ for anti-choice groups in America will lead to an escalation in clinic protests here.”
US Christian right-wing groups linked to Donald Trump have also been pouring vast sums of money into conservative anti-rights agendas in Europe, including promoting ‘pro-life’ campaigns. An investigation by openDemocracy in 2020, found that 28 Christian groups had been involved in at least 50 court cases before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), including a number of occasions where they have acted against “sexual and reproductive rights.” The investigation found between 2007 and 2014, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association had spent more than $23 million in Europe. The group is led by Franklin Graham, the famous US evangelical preacher’s son, and outspoken supporter of Trump, who has referred to Satan as the architect of same-sex marriage and Islam as “evil and very wicked.”
Attacking free speech book banning and interfering in school curricula
Amid a moral hysteria about the protection of children, book censorship is rapidly accelerating in the US. From July 2021 to June 2022, PEN America’s Index of School Book Bans lists 2,532 instances of individual books being banned. 1,648 individual book titles were banned by school districts in 32 states in the last school year, many of which mentioned issues relating to sexuality or race. According to the report, there has been a “proliferation of organised efforts to advocate for book removals”, from right-wing politicians in states such as Texas, Georgia and Wisconsin.
Discussion around race and the country’s racist past is a target of the book bans, with 40 percent of the banned titles featuring prominent characters of colour. A third of all the banned books from April to June featured people with LGBTQ+ identities, often ambiguously and bogusly justified as being ‘obscene.’
Concerns relating to the banning of certain books have been flagged as far back as the 1980s. Banned Books Week was launched in 1982 in the US, in response to a sudden surge in the number of challenges to books in schools, libraries, and bookshops across America.
Banned Books Week UK mirrors the United States initiative and aims to ‘highlight the importance of ensuring the freedom to read and to challenge voices and ideas being silenced.” In 2021, the theme of the annual event was ‘Books Unite Us. Censorship Divides Us.’ A list compiled by freedom of expression campaign group Index on Censorship and Islington Council’s Library and Heritage Services, who are part of the Banned Books Week UK coalition, comprises of 26 titles, including ones that address racism and racial justice, which have all been banned or challenged for a number of reasons, such as sexuality, sex, drugs or bad language.
Interfering in school curricula
From book bans to dictating what teachers can and can’t discuss in the classroom, politics continues to gnaw away at education settings in the US, particularly in Republican states. Caught in the crossfire of this political interference, some states are witnessing an exodus of educators. In Texas, for example, at the start of the school year, 70 percent of teachers said they were “seriously” considering abandoning the profession for good.
Critical race theory (CRT) is an academic term that has become a new bogeyman for right-wingers in the US unwilling to acknowledge the country’s racist history and how it impacts the present. It has been the target of an anti-leftist witch-hunt ordered by Donald Trump. In September 2020, the then President ordered federal agencies and contractors to stop funding any training programmes that drew on “race-based ideologies” that suggests racism persists in today’s America. “This is a sickness that cannot be allowed to continue,” Trump tweeted, adding: “Please report any sightings so we can quickly extinguish!”
Texas is one of a handful of states that have approved legislation that prescribes how teachers discuss current events and America’s history of racism in classrooms, and prohibits students from receiving credit for participating in civil activities.
Bearing resemblance to the rising culture war trend of attacking free speech in the US, UK Conservatives are progressively trying to stamp out any discussion of structural inequality.
According to Hansard, the parliamentary record, until October 2020, the term ‘critical race theory’ had never once been uttered in the House of Commons chamber. But by the end of a six-hour debate to mark Black History Month in October 2020, the term had gained so much prominence in the Commons that the government declared itself “unequivocally against” the concept. “We do not want teachers to teach their white pupils about white privilege and inherited racial guilt,” warned the then equalities minister, Kemi Badenoch.
“Any school which teaches these elements of critical race theory, or which promotes partisan political views such as defunding the police without offering a balanced treatment of opposing views, is breaking the law,” she continued.
When the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protest spread to the UK in the summer of 2020, it ignited fraught conversation about racism. It also sparked a backlash that seeks to portray the movement as dangerously extreme.
The dangerous culture war rhetoric about the BLM movement, no doubt spawned from the US, remains prevalent today, with right-wing commentators and the media condemning ‘woke’ Gareth Southgate and the England team for taking the knee before matches at the World Cup. Some commentators have attempted to denounce the knee-taking gesture as weird.
Despite legislation being introduced by governing Tories like the Public Order Bill, the Police Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, and the Online Safety Bill, to name just three, that may threaten the right to free speech, right-wing commentators aren’t convinced the government is going far enough. One such thinker is ConservativeHome founder Tim Montgomerie who has strong connections across the right of the party. Montgomerie summarised such dissatisfaction in one tweet: “We aren’t controlling immigration. We aren’t extending home ownership. We aren’t reforming public services. We aren’t curtailing the Left’s powerhouse in universities, Whitehall or the arts. We aren’t conservative.”
Infiltrating conservatives at every level of society
Then there’s the continued effort by right-wingers to infiltrate organisations by getting elected on boards. Though efforts seem to be concentrated at groups that no-one pays much attention to.
School boards, for example, are being targeted, with some boards in the US witnessing radical moves by new majorities. Similar efforts are being aimed at libraries in the US, with conservative lobby groups not only trying to remove books from shelves but changing how library board members are appointed.
The right-wing groups pushing for such infiltration and censorship are often linked to wealthy right-wing donors, despite masquerading as humble grassroot efforts. Take Parents Defending Education (PDE) for example. The group describes itself as a “grassroots organisation” but has deep-ties to conservative money and influence.
The UK is witnessing a similar bid to infiltrate cornerstones of society. Worryingly, unlike school boards and small libraries, such infiltration is aimed at some of the biggest and most important organisations in the UK, where hard-line Tories are getting appointed to boards. Often, these people have no relevant qualifications, other than being a Tory hack. Zewditu Gebreyohanes, for example, who has worked for the right-wing Policy Exchange think-tank and has a record of accusing arts and heritage organisations of “wokeness” is the director of the right-wing insurgency group Restore Trust. Gebreyohanes was appointed as a Victoria and Albert Museum trustee by the former prime minister Boris Johnson. Restore Trust has been waging a politicised campaign to take over the National Trust for the last two years. Fortunately, so far, it has failed.
From the National Trust to the NHS, right-wing groups are running ‘politicised’ campaigns designed to influence direction, no doubt looking across the Pond for inspiration on cynical woke-baiting rhetoric, dressing it up as genuine attempts to ‘depoliticise’ inherently unpolitical institutions.
It seems Matt Johnson was ahead of his time, as, if Trump-imported ‘culture wars’ continue in political and media discussion, the UK risks divisions like those seen in the US.
Possibly even worse.
Right-Wing Media Watch – Desperately seeking ‘cancel Christmas’
It’s that time of the year again, when right-wingers frantically try and find someone obscure who wants to ‘cancel’ Christmas.
“Bah humbug” retorted GB News presenter Mark Dolan, as he introduced a report titled ‘Christmas Cancelled?’
The hysteria related to a story published on WalesOnline about a group that works with organisations on issues on diversity and inclusivity, and their comments about Christmas.
Dolan cites statistics quoted in the article that less than half the population of England and Wales described themselves as Christian in the 2021 census.
Taking a moralising and patronising tone, the GB News presenter talks how he loves diversity and how Britain is a “global beacon” for diversity, but “inclusion does not mean the substitution of our traditions and values for someone else’s. Britain is ultimately a Christian country.”
“To cancel Christmas in Britain would be like cancelling the wonderful festival of Diwali in India, or the Chinese New Year in China,” he said, adding:
“It’s typical of this tedious, self-loathing, Britain-hating woke brigade, to try and suck the joy out of what is for most people the very best time of year.”
The presenter, who has encouraged ‘lefties’ to fill up their lives with right-wing people as it will “be good for you,” proceeds to moan about ‘Christmas’ tea being replaced by ‘festive’ tea.
“You might think I’m overreacting,” says Nolan.
Well yes, we do actually but we’re not surprised.
The original report on WalesOnline is focused on the opinions of Watch This Sp_ce, an award-winning diversity and inclusion consultancy. The group makes some valid points about retailers hyping Christmas from November, and how not everyone celebrates this time of year.
‘Christmas cancelled?’, the title of Dolan’s report, would have you think the group were calling for Christmas to be stamped out entirely, but what they are really doing is pointing out ways that organisations can make the festive season, and the whole year, more inclusive to everyone.
But sigh, GB News’ take on the story is yet another example of the right-wing media taking the comments or actions of some unknown person or group and blowing it up into some kind of moral panic – in this instance supposedly signalling an end of Christmas and, therefore, Christianity.
‘Cancelling Christmas’ is always going to be an eye-catcher for this hysteria-fuelling media. No sooner had the advent month arrived, the Daily Mail were at it, labelling Gen Z as the ‘Grinch generation’ for trying to ‘ruin Christmas by CANCELLING Santa- claiming stories about the festive figure are ‘traumatising’ children… while slamming adults who ‘lie’ about his existence. The source of the Mail’s angst – a #SantaIsntReal hashtag on TikTok.
Moral panics entrench misinformation and foment reactionary backlashes. And the Conservative media know that throwing a tantrum about the so-called ‘war on Christmas’ is going to get the reaction it’s looking for.
It’s the ultimate scare story on ‘woke’, ‘left-wing illiberalism.’ No wonder it resurfaces every year.
Woke-bashing of the week – Telegraph targets academic ‘indoctrination’ for Britain’s ‘woke’ youth
One UK outlet that seems to be simulating American-style culture wars is The Telegraph. The same ‘school indoctrination’ right-wing Republicans seem to vehemently object to has made its way onto the pages of the Conservative newspaper.
“Britain is becoming more illiberal and unpatriotic as today’s increasingly woke young people become voters,” writes Eric Kaufman, a senior fellow at Policy Exchange and professor of politics at the University of London.
The piece titled ‘School indoctrination is tuning British youth woke – and Tories remain silent,’ claims that those under 26 are increasingly under the sway of cultural socialism, and not tackling it is producing a strongly left-wing generation.’
Cultural socialism is, according to the author, the ‘desire to engineer equal outcomes and protect minority identity groups from psychological harm’, which Kaufman continues, all too often takes priority for young people over historic British values, such as freedom of speech, objective truth, and attachment to the nation’s historical accomplishments. The article points to Kaufman’s own findings in Policy Exchange reports, that the under 26s, were more opposed to than supportive of the vice-chancellor of Sussex University’s defence of the academic freedom of gender-critical philosopher Kathleen Stock. Using similar antagonistic woke-disparaging language the likes of Fox News use, Kaufman claims Stock was ‘hounded by a mob of campus trans activists.’
The article links to an earlier piece in The Telegraph, which also claims schools are playing an ‘important part in reinforcing woke beliefs.’ A ‘clear majority’ of British school children are, according to Kaufman, being ‘indoctrinated with cultural socialist ideas.’
What seems clearer to me is that the British Conservative media and right-wing commentators are being ‘indoctrinated’ by right-wing culture war beliefs coming from America. Throw Brexit into the mix – which Kaufman does by appearing to show surprise that young Remainers wouldn’t want to go out with a Brexiteer (why would they?) – and the perfect culture storm has arrived on Britain’s shores, producing some of the most brain-rotting of political commentary possible.
Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is author of Right-Wing Watch
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