The hypocrisy of the Conservative libertarians and their media minions

Recent UK Tory governments’ relentless posturing as freedom champions while slowly chipping away at civil liberties through draconian legislation, bears worrying resemblance to the actions of the global right.

The charade is over. The ‘freedom loving’ charlatans within the Tory Party have shown their true colours. At least they have when it comes to the freedoms they don’t want us to have.

Libertarian rhetoric has been forcibly tossed around by Tories and their media cheerleaders in recent years. Who can forget the so-called ‘Freedom Day’ on July 19, 2021, that the government and media allies salivated over while ignoring multiple warnings from the scientific community about the dangers of opening up the country after Covid too early.

Claiming to strengthen free speech at universities, Johnson’s government even created a role called the ‘Free Speech and Academic Freedom Champion.” On the surface, it sounded great, having the opportunity to present contentious ideas that challenge traditional thinking should surely be the essence of universities. But dig a little deeper and elements of hypocrisy shine through. Some students had, for example, felt uncomfortable admitting to voting Brexit in class. The proposals suggested that universities should take measures when “staff and students face criticism for expressing lawful views.” Protecting against academic criticism kind of goes against the “Free Speech Champion” grain. Though it’s hardly surprising the government would want to silence criticism about Brexit – their flagship policy.  

Then there was Liz Truss, the bastion of freedom and self-determination, the bearer for Brexit, economic freedom, and national sovereignty.  And look what happened to her. Having trashed the UK economy in just 45 days, she’s off to the US, where, as the Telegraph keenly reports, her ‘tax-slashing beliefs ‘have more willing ears’ among free market, Reaganite conservatives.’ All of which rather underlines the point that the right are happiest when speaking freely to the like-minded with nobody to challenge them. 

Now there’s Rishi Sunak, who promises a government that focuses on an “absolute commitment” to use “our new Brexit freedoms.”

Despite the hype and bombast, we are witnessing the exact opposite – a systematic dismantling of our freedoms that disenfranchises citizens without a photo ID, criminalises protests, and takes away our right to strike.

Attacks on protest

In 2022, legislation was passed as part of the government’s bid to give police more power to stop disturbance. The controversial Public Order Bill is now in the final stages of debate in parliament and aims to broaden the legal definition of “serious disruption.”

Part of Sunak’s public order crackdown gives police in England and Wales new powers to shut down protests before disruption begins. The move would prevent tactics such as “slow marching.”

The announcement sparked outrage from civil liberties campaigners. Patsy Stevenson, who was arrested at the vigil on Clapham Common for Sarah Everard who was murdered by a Metropolitan police officer, described the bill as “outrageous.”

“I think this bill is going to cause so much damage. This bill is basically like the government saying: ‘We will do whatever we want, regardless of how the public feel about it,’ because once you ban protesting, that bans free speech completely,” said Stevenson.

The right to protest is surely fundamental to a functioning democracy and it’s not surprising that the protest laws have been widely condemned, described as a “depressingly Orwellian future” and the most repressive legislation of the modern era.

It feeds into the conservative philosophy: free speech until it’s leftist free speech. In other words, free speech is great, as long as it’s the speech we agree with and has no outcomes we oppose such as collective action by workers, or protecting our civil liberties, or getting people to think seriously about climate change.  

Oh, the hypocrisy!

Right to strike also under attack

In just three short years, the government has gone from clapping key workers to threatening them with the sack if they take strike action for asking for a completely fair and necessary pay rise.

The headlines in January have been dominated by Rishi Sunak’s plan to introduce new anti-union laws, which will mean that when workers democratically vote to strike, they could be forced to work and fired if they don’t.

The anti-strike bill has faced pervasive opposition. The TUC described it as “wrong, unworkable, and almost certainly illegal.”

The right-wing media would have us believe otherwise though. Rishi Sunak ‘absolutely’ should enforce anti-strike legislation – YOU VOTED’ was the headline in the Express, in reference to a poll on its readers’ opinions on the new law.

It beggars belief really, when you consider this was the same newspaper that drooled over our ‘NHS Heroes! Support our amazing carers during the coronavirus crisis…’ less than three years ago.

Voter suppression

The right to vote is recognised as a fundamental democratic human right. So why are Conservatives intent on pushing through discriminatory plans that force people to carry identification to cast a vote? The government claims the plans will make elections more secure by cracking down on in-person voter fraud. Would believing that the quiet slipping through of the legislation in November amid the approaching budget ruckus, was a deliberate means to keep young people, who historically don’t vote Tory, away from the ballot box, be too conspiratorial?  

The  sweeping voter ID changes that mean millions in the UK face disenfranchisement were described by Cat Smith, shadow democracy minister as being tantamount to US Republican-style “voter suppression.” But more on the Republicans shortly.

Human Rights Watch’s warnings

Such is the government’s assault on some of our most fundamental freedoms, that the Human Rights Watch (HRW) has warned the UK is at risk of being listed as a ‘human rights abuser.’ A recent report by the HRW highlights a number of areas of concern, including infringements on the right to protest, the decision to send asylum seekers to Rwanda and threatening people’s access to food and housing during the cost of living crisis.

 “From your right to protest to your ability to hold institutions to account, fundamental and hard-won rights are being systematically dismantled,” said Yasmine Ahmed, UK director at Human Rights Watch.

It has even been suggested that the government is frantically tearing up our freedoms because it knows it’s on borrowed time.

“In relationships, controlling and coercive behaviour is now a criminal offence. In British politics, is glorified,” writes columnist George Monbiot.

Republican playbook and the global right

Recent UK Tory governments’ relentless posturing as freedom champions while slowly chipping away at civil liberties through draconian legislation, bears worrying resemblance to the actions of the global right.

The storming of Capitol Hill on January 6, 2021, by supporters of Donald Trump, might have sent shockwaves around the world, but it set up a dangerous precedent for democracy-subverting and coup-fomenting. As Republicans beaver away at undermining the next US election, warnings have been made that the risk of a coup is greater now than it was under Trump.

Similar to Britain’s Tory-lacky lapdog media, the right-wing media in the US have been working with the Republicans. Hellbent on turning reality on its head, reports described the violent Capitol riots as a “mostly peaceful” protest and the rioters who beat Capitol police, as “political prisoners”, while suggesting the violence stemmed from an unidentified left-wing ‘antifa.’

American extremists are shipping this illiberalism beyond its own borders. We only have to look at recent events in Brazil.

In the wake of the Capitol Hill storming, David Nemer, a Brazilian professor and disinformation expert, gave an interview in which he predicted the same thing would happen in Brazil two years later. And boy was he right.  Carrying a striking similarity to events at the Capitol, two years later almost to the day, supporters of Brazil’s former far-right president Jair Bolsonaro stormed government buildings in an effort to overturn his loss in the October election.

Closer to home, similar reactionary backlashes have taken place. Germany was left reeling, when, on December 7, 2022, members of a suspected far-right terrorist group were arrested for allegedly planning a violent coup to install a German aristocrat as national leader.

Away from the violent coups, right-wing ideology is seeping into many cultural agencies. So-called ‘libertarian’ think-tanks, are working quietly behind the scenes promoting such ideologies. (So-called because libertarian can be a respectable philosophy but sadly has been commandeered by the right in recent years). Just look at the push to ban books in the US, part of the right’s hysterical moral panic about ‘critical race theory’. Researchers say that the drive has been largely driven by conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation. As the American Library Association (ALA) says, conservative organisations have been capitalising on the anti-education furore among some parents.

“When you have organisations like Heritage Foundation and Family Policy Alliance publishing materials that instruct parents on how to challenge books in the school library or the public library, right down to a challenge form enclosed in the booklet so they can just fill it out, you’re seeing a challenge to our democratic values of free speech, freedom of thought, freedom of belief,” ALA director Deborah Caldwell-Stone told The Guardian.

Proponents of the dangerous illiberalism of the US are given platforms in the UK’s mainstream media. Author Douglas Murray, for example, who moans that decadent Europe has committed ‘suicide’ by inviting too many immigrants, has a regular column in the Mail, where he spends his time droning on about ‘Left woke warriors.’ He also writes a column for the Spectator, enjoys TV time, and has associations with the Henry Jackson Society (HJS).The trans-Atlantic think-tank, which is based in the UK, claims, in its own words, to “fight for the principles and alliances which keep societies free.” Murray was associate director at the HJS from 2011 to 2018. 

Steve Bannon and Boris Johnson

When talking about the exportation of right-wing extremism around the world, one name cannot be ignored – Steve Bannon. The American political strategist and media executive served as chief White House strategist under Trump and was a mastermind in his successful bid for the presidency. Bannon was a key figure in spouting conspiracy theories about voter fraud following Trump’s election defeat. Spewing similar doubts about Brazil, Trump’s controversial former campaign manager claimed the Brazilian election was “stolen in broad daylight” following Lula’s win over Bolsonaro.

The far-right activist has links to Boris Johnson. A video obtained by the Observer shows how the controversial campaigner helped Johnson craft his first speech after his resignation as foreign secretary, in which he tore into Theresa May’s Brexit strategy. 

When asked about his relationship with Bannon at the time, Johnson said: “As for the so-called association with Steve Bannon, I’m afraid this is a lefty delusion whose spores continue to breed in the Twittersphere.”

In August 2020, Trump’s controversial former aide was accused of fraud and arrested. Johnson’s associations with Bannon were not widely reported on in the UK media. In fact, Left Foot Forward was one of the few publications to detail the link at the time, pointing out that the arrest should raise questions for Johnson.

But then that’s the crux of the whole problem. It’s not just the Tory government that loves talking about freedoms while actually taking them away from us, it’s their cheerleaders in the right-wing media too. It’s a given therefore, that they won’t spend too much time worrying about the impact a far-right insurrectionist like Steve Bannon is likely to have on the UK by potentially nuzzling up with
the PM.

Like I said, the right only love free speech if they agree with it, and the government’s illiberal legislation would be the last thing the Conservative ‘libertarians’ would object to.

Right-wing media watch – Boris-loving Tory press big up Johnson’s Ukraine trip, as a convenient distraction from the loans scandal

If there’s one thing about Boris Johnson, he doesn’t do things by halves. The same week the former PM decides to take a trip to Ukraine to meet with President Zelenskyy and videos of the meeting are posted online, he’s embroiled in yet another scandal, this time involving allegations that he secretly secured an up to £800,000 loan guarantee while prime minister. The scandal also calls into question Johnson’s relationship with BBC Chairman Richard Sharp, who is alleged to have helped secure Johnson the loan.

No prizes for guessing which of the two stories the Boris-loving Tory tabloids gushed over?

“Good on Boris for continuing his commitment to Ukraine,” headlined the Express in a comment piece this week.

‘Bojo’s back’, splashed the Sun, in a ‘surprise visit to Ukraine to meet President Zelensky and pledges UK backing for ‘as long as it takes.

The article speaks of the honorary medal Johnson received during a world Economic Forum meeting in Davos, and how he aims to pressure the West to continue their military support to Ukraine. It is only the penultimate paragraph; it finally refers to the alleged £800,000 loan and the questions the former PM is facing over his finances.

In an ‘exclusive’ by the Mail, the newspaper talks of an ‘extraordinarily powerful – and emotional -rallying cry,’ that ‘Kyiv can win the war this year if it gets the right equipment.’ The author refers to Johnson’s ‘withering attack on Berlin’s excuses and delays,’ while bragging about how ‘under Mr Johnson’ the UK was the ‘first country to supply military aid to Kyiv.’ This article makes no mention of the loan scandal. Nor does it mention the fact that Germany is the largest provider of aid to Ukraine after the US; or that many Germans have guilty memories of the Second World War that make them uneasy about seeing their tanks rolling across the Ukrainian steppes; or that they are geographically a lot closer to Russia than we are. Thinking about it, there is quite a lot the Mail doesn’t mention.

When the Express reported on the loan story, it was unsurprisingly supportive of the former PM.

Boris breaks silence on ‘absolute nonsense’ claim Richard Sharp ‘knows about his finances,’ read the headline.

Johnson no longer holds any official role in the government led by Rishi Sunak. The ex-prime minister’s hogging of the media spotlight with his Ukraine visit, is likely to irritate the Tory government. Even when embroiled in yet another sleaze story – let’s not forget it was the seeming constant stream of scandals that dogged his administration and saw his collapse of support in the polls – the Boris-adoring tabloids are still prattling on about him being the Tories’ ‘only chance’ of winning the next general election. They don’t mention that polls show that among those who voted Tory for the first time in 2019, the return of Boris makes them less likely to do so again. Maybe we should write about the things the right-wing press don’t write about!

Naturally, the reports on Johnson’s latest visit to Ukraine fail to mention all the money the Tories have had – and are still taking – from associates of Vladimir Putin. As openDemocracy reports, these donations include £50,000 from Lubov Chernukhin, who is married to Vladimir Putin’s former deputy finance minister. That donation was made on March 4, 2022, just eight days after Russian tanks entered Ukraine, and one day after the then prime minister Boris Johnson promised to step up sanctions to “starve Putin’s war machine.”

Indeed, the likes of the Express side-step such ‘minor’ detail in their glorification of Johnson’s latest and conveniently-timed meeting with Zelenskyy.

Woke bashing of the week – ‘Book Nazis’ to be deployed in Florida schools as Republican
governor turns up ‘war on woke’

Continuing the theme of the right-wing’s assault on freedoms in the US, this report in the Guardian took some digesting. It details a new bill in Florida, which prohibits material unless it is deemed appropriate by a librarian or ‘certified media specialist.’

It appears that every Florida school has to appoint, for want of a better term, a ‘Book Nazi’, to vet every book that is used for teaching. Teachers that use anything not approved will be guilty of a felony.

The idea is, presumably, to weed out anything right-wingers don’t like about race, sex, history, etc.

As the Guardian notes, scrutiny of teaching material in schools in Florida has intensified under the leadership of the right-wing Republican governor, Ron DeSantis.

The ‘protecting of parental rights’ DeSantis’ administration is actively working towards, includes the prohibition on childhood education on sexual orientation, gender and critical race theory.

The book-vetting bill is part of a much broader ‘anti-woke’ campaign pushed on the people of Florida by Ron DeSantis.  The culture war warrior has pledged to crack down on LGBTQ rights and take conservative stances on issues like immigration.

During the pandemic, he became the bane of public health officials by overturning mask mandates, and opening schools and businesses, declaring Florida as the ‘citadel of freedom,’ even as Covid cases increased. 

In 2021, he announced the Stop Woke (Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees) Act, in a bid to “give businesses, employees, children and families tools to fight back against woke indoctrination.”

The Florida governor has surfaced as a legitimate rival to Donald Trump in the Republican Party, which says it all really. 

Further evidence of the dangerous illiberalism peddled by so-called libertarians in American being pushed out on media platforms in Britain can be seen through support of Ron DeSantis by British commentators. And low and behold, our old buddy Douglas Murray is at the helm of such support. Using the Times as his platform, Murray writes on how the ‘effective Florida governor must prise the Republican Party from Trump’s hands if it is to stand a chance in 2024.”

“DeSantis has many of the same policies as Trump but he has proved far more effective at implementing them. Like Trump, he rails against the extremes of “woke” ideology. Unlike Trump, as I mentioned here two weeks ago, he has actually been effective at legislating against such extremes,” writes Murray.

Florida’s Republican legislative initiative on book-vetting is a hallmark of how the right is successfully rebranding bigotry as a resistance movement. Hawked by right-wing commentators like Douglas Murray, similar cultural grievances are being invested into the mainstream media in Britain, where ‘anti-woke’ sentiment is being weaponised.

The effects could well be chilling.

Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is author of Right-Wing Watch

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