With Nigel Farage, a self-declared Putin admirer, believed to be on the political rise and intending to ‘shape politics’ before the country goes to the polls this year, you wonder how the western right’s anti-Ukraine sentiment may impact on the UK.
Almost two years into the war, on December 29 Russia launched its ‘most massive aerial-attack’ on Ukraine. The country’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has urged for additional Western military support. But the political right is reluctant to provide such aid, with the likes of Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and US Republicans actively sabotaging efforts to assist Ukraine. Instead, there is stronger Republican backing for aid to Israel, among the hard-right of the party.
“Israel is facing [an] existential threat. Any funding for Ukraine should be redirected to Israel immediately,” Republican Senator Josh Hawley posted on social media in October.
In Britain, while Rishi Sunak has pursued a quieter approach to the war in Ukraine than Boris Johnson, who forged ahead with extensive support, the Tories and opposition parties are mostly united on assisting Zelensky. But with Nigel Farage, a self-declared Putin admirer, believed to be on the political rise and intending to ‘shape politics’ before the country goes to the polls this year, you wonder how the western right’s anti-Ukraine sentiment may impact on the UK, if Farage returned to frontline politics.
And if Donald Trump, who has repeatedly questioned aid to Ukraine and refused to commit to supporting Kyiv, was reelected, US aid to Ukraine could be cut. How would the UK react if the hard-right get their way and support for Ukraine is ended? Will right-wing Tories, well-known from borrowing from the Republican playbook, be influenced to think the same?
Also concerning, is the fact that the Tories are reportedly still receiving funds from Russia-linked donors. An investigation by the Good Law Project found that a year on since the start of the war in 2022, the Conservatives accepted at least £243,000 from Russia-associated donors. In 2023 alone, at least £61,000 flowed into Tory coffers.
Lubov Chernukhin, a Russian Conservative donor, continued to donate large sums of money to the Party. Chernukhin, a British and Russian citizen, is married to Vladimir Chernukhin, a former deputy finance minister under Vladimir Putin and former chairman of Russian state corporation VEB.RF, which remains sanctioned by the UK government. The fact that the Tory Party continues to receive donations from those deemed to have links to Putin while seeking to portray itself as being tough on Russia, shows the hypocrisy that has defined the Tories for 13 years, extends to foreign policy.
In Western democracies there is a bevy of right-wing politicians who admire the Russian leader, who have long praised his rejection of ‘elitist’ liberal values, and the pursuit of Russian national interests.
In December, Hungary, which maintains close ties with Russia, blocked €50bn (£43bn) in EU aid for Ukraine. Following talks in Brussels, in which EU leaders said Ukraine would not be left without support and agreed to open EU membership talks, the far-right Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán argued that Ukraine should not get large funds from the EU as it is not part of the Bloc.
Hungary has long opposed EU membership for Ukraine. Orbán said he had fought for eight hours to stop his EU partners but could not convince them, adding that parliament in Budapest could not stop Ukraine’s path to EU membership from happening.
Over the years, Orbán has cultivated a close personal relationship with Vladimir Putin and is the Russian president’s closest ally among EU leaders. He makes no secret of his continuing admiration for Putin. In October, he courted Russia and met Putin in Beijing, saying he was ‘proud’ to do so. A photograph of the pair shaking hands attracted criticism across the EU.
The US ambassador to Hungary also criticised Orbán for disregarding the country’s alliance with NATO. Ambassador David Pressman described Orban as a leader who ‘embraces’ the Russian president and that Hungary“relies upon its NATO allies but feels comfortable disregarding the interests of those same allies and our alliance, including during a time of war in Europe.”
In the US, similar anti-Ukraine sentiment is being driven by Republican hardliners in Congress. The hard-right House Republicans refused to vote for President Joe Biden’s $110bn emergency aid bill to Ukraine without securing a parallel agreement to implement tougher border security measures and stricter immigration policies. These Republican lawmakers embrace Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ approach to foreign policy. Like Orbán, over the years Trump has done little to hide his soft spot for Russia and its authoritarian leader. So concerning were Trump’s ties to Russia during the 2016 presidential campaign, that the FBI believed there was good reason to investigate a potential political collusion. But in Trump’s warped view of matters, such allegations were proof of a conspiracy against him by Democratic lawmakers and other “deep state” enemies within the US government.
On the war in Ukraine, hardline Republicans in Congress argue that the US should not be sending so much money to Ukraine when funds would be better used addressing home security. Other Republicans back continuing support for Ukraine, and the issue has created a growing rift within the party.
Marine Le Pen
Marine Le Pen is another nationalistic, Eurosceptic, and anti-immigrant far-right leader who is an admirer of Putin. Speaking to the BBC in 2016, she told presenter Andrew Marr that it is the EU not Putin that poses a real threat to Europe. She hailed the Russian president’s approach to global affairs as an example of ‘reasoned protectionism,’ saying heis understandably “looking after the interests of his own country and defending its identity.”
In the same interview, the far-right leader characterised the EU as an “oppressive model” of “unfettered globalisation that has been imposed upon us”, expressing the hope that one day it would be replaced by a “Europe of free nations.”
In a further rejection of globalism, Le Pen said NATO had lost its raison d’être. “NATO continues to exist even though the danger for which it was created no longer exists,” said Le Pen, laughing off the suggestion that Moscow poses a threat to Europe.
For electoral reasons, Le Pen has toned down her anti-EU and pro-Putin rhetoric of late (the French people have noticed that Brexit was pretty disastrous for the UK). Nevertheless, she has declared herself openly hostile to increasing French military support to Ukraine. Following President Emmanuel Macron’s pledge to step up France’s military support for Ukraine in July 2023, the leader of the Rassemblement Nationals MPs, described the decision as ‘irresponsible.’ The comment was a marked change from Le Pen’s previously more discreet tone on the issue of France’s commitment to Ukraine, in a bid not to fuel charges of ‘Putinophilia.’
‘We want our country back’
In Britain, our most prominent right-wing political figure – at least former politician who is threatening an imminent comeback – shares the same anti-EU, anti-NATO, pro-sovereignty rhetoric as far-right leaders in Western leaders.
Nigel Farage has always put sovereignty at the heart of his political philosophy, which crucially won over public sentiment in Britain and led to the pro-Brexit vote. On the referendum result, the former UKIP leader said, rather than being decided by economic concerns, as many had surmised: “It was decided by a basic argument of sovereignty. Should we make our own laws in our own country, and crucially, should we control our own borders?”
Echoing many views of the Russian leader, it is not surprising really that Farage holds Vladimir Putin in esteem. In 2014, he famously told GQ magazine that the world leader he admired the most ‘as an operator, but not as a human being,’ was Putin.
The GB News host made a number of appearances on RT, Russia’s state-funded international news network, which was banned by the EU following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Speaking on RT, Farage would express his contempt towards the EU, once telling the platform that EU leaders are ‘not undemocratic, they are anti-democratic.’ The channel even offered Farage his own television show.
On the war in Ukraine, the Eurosceptic populist claimed Russia’s 2022 invasion was a result of EU and NATO provoking Putin. He said that the attack was a consequence of NATO and the EU trying to “poke the Russian bear with a stick,” and blamed the expansion of the Western military alliance and European Union for the current situation. But on UK aid to Ukraine, Farage jumped on the chance to hail Britain spending more than EU countries, a result of Brexit. “In many ways Brexit Britain now freed from the European Union has taken the lead,” he said.
Russian meddling in the Brexit Referendum?
Ironically, Russian money may have played a leading role in securing Brexit.
Russia’s interference in the referendum is a widely debated subject. Multiple sources argue that evidence demonstrates that the Russian government attempted to influence public opinion in Britain in favour of leaving the European Union. Investigations carried out by the UK Electoral Commission, the UK Parliament’s Culture Select Committee and Intelligence and Security Committee, in ‘The Russia Report,’ concluded that Russian interference in British politics is commonplace. Crucially, it accused the UK government of making a deliberate effort not to find out how Russian influence may have affected the June 2016 vote.
“The committee has not been provided with any post-referendum assessment – in stark contrast to the US response to reports of interference in the 2016 presidential election,” stated the report.
Pro-Brexit money coming from Russia?
£8.4m – the biggest political donation in UK history – was given to the Brexit campaign. It came from insurance tycoon Arron Banks, who also allegedly funded Nigel Farage in the year after Brexit. Having met Russian officials multiple times before the Brexit vote, Banks’ close associations with the Russian government are not disputed, but the British businessman has consistently denied receiving money from Russia. However, a leaked document of a ‘gold deal’ offer to Banks from Russia ahead of the EU referendum suggests otherwise. The document showed how Banks was offered the chance of making potentially enormous profits in a deal featuring a Russian gold company.
The offer was made through Alexander Yakovenko, Russia’s ambassador in London. Some MPs have said it raises new questions about Moscow’s role in Brexit, and whether the Kremlin sought to enrich leading Brexit campaigners in the run-up to the 2016 referendum via a series of covert business deals.
However, proving allegations about Brexit money coming from Banks via Russia is difficult, as the multimillionaire Brexit backer’s lawyers will aggressively defend their client’s reputation in the face of investigative journalism. Banks made a libel claim against journalist Carole Cadwalladr centred on comments she made in a Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) talk broadcast online in April 2019, when she accused Banks of lying about “his covert relationship with the Russian government.” Banks originally lost his case against Cadwalladr but went onto partially win an appeal. In May 2023, the journalist was ordered to pay legal costs of around £1.2m to Banks and £35,000 in damages. Cadwalladr said it was a “dark day for press freedom”. Banks called it “vindication.”
Concerningly, as speculation mounts that Nigel Farage could return to frontline politics, the tycoon recently vowed to raise £10m if Farage comes back to lead Reform UK. He told the Sunday Times that he had spoken to ‘five or six’ Tory donors who could be persuaded to back Reform. The move could spell yet more trouble for Rishi Sunak and his struggling Tory party.
While the UK has been at the forefront of providing military support and sanctuary to Ukraine, some are questioning whether, if allies in the US go cold on continuing significant aid, the UK could follow suit. Addtionally, the hypocrisy over the Tories’ quest to portray themselves as being tough on Russia while continuing to receive large sums of money from those with links to Putin, should not be forgotten. Then there’s the threat of Farage, whose UKIP party allied with far-right parties in Europe and who shares the same nationalistic, Eurosceptic values as those plotting against Ukraine and who admire Russia’s authoritarian leader and his rejection of ‘elitist’ liberal values, and pursuit of national interests, re-entering politics. It would surely mark the start of even greater polarisation in Britain, and take the country further to the right.
Definitely one to watch.
Right-wing media watch – Tory press use junior doctors’ strike to promote hostile NHS headlines
The media has long played a decisive role in determining the outcome of industrial disputes. Through negative coverage, solidarity towards workers and why they are on the picket line is deliberately undermined. This week, the media right has been up to such tricks, publishing predictably hostile headlines about the junior doctors’ strikes and the wider NHS.
‘Six-Day Junior Doctors’ Strike ‘Act of Cruelty,’ splashed the Daily Express, in reference to Tory MP Paul Bristow’s comments that junior doctors “can’t keep holding the country to ransom.’
The Daily Mail meanwhile took aim at ‘NHS fat cats on £300,000 a year,’ running ‘floundering trusts’ as patients ‘suffer at the hands of the longest strike in health service history.’
While the Spectator provocatively asked: ‘Will striking doctors bring down the NHS?’
Such sensationalist, hostile headlines ignore of course the angst felt among junior doctors, who are despondently taking to picket lines up and down the country because they feel they have no option. Low rates of pay and ‘dangerous’ staffing levels are all but forcing doctors onto the picket line, when caring for patients in hospitals is where they would prefer to be.
As Lauren Wallace, a doctor at Newcastle’s Royal Victoria Infirmary, said: “Nobody wants to be here. I really enjoy my job and I feel sad having to strike, but I just feel like nothing is going to change if I don’t.”
But the right-wing media’s coverage of the strikes ignore such sentiment, focusing on making the doctors and the British Medical Association (BMA), which says junior doctors in England have had a 26 percent real-terms pay cut since 2008, look like the enemy.
‘Junior doctors are the outlier strikers after nurses, ambulance workers and consultants all accepted pay deals. They are the downing tools just as a rising triple threat of flu, Covid and norovirus is set to swamp the NHS,’ read the Sun’s deliberately hostile report on the six-day walkout.
As for the Mail’s assault on the ‘fat cat NHS bosses.’ Well, it’s not the first time the newspaper has published ‘revelations’ about so-called excessive pay and perk packages for trust chief executives. In 2015, the Mail unleashed a conveniently timed assault on the ‘greed of the NHS fat cats.’
The story was described as ‘offensive,’ with commentators pointing the ‘ingenious’ way in which “remuneration, including pensions, was maximised and tax liabilities apparently diminished,” as journalist Michael White had worded it in the Health Service Journal (HSJ).
It could also be deemed as greatly hypocritical, coming from a newspaper whose aristocratic owner is a billionaire, whose former editor Paul Dacre received a payout of almost £2m, and whose top executives at parent company DMGT shared £33m in pay, bonuses, and share awards in 2021, while its staff braced for job cuts.
But then this is the right-wing media, and hypocrisy is what they are good at. And, with a ‘crisis’ that was created through underfunding, privatisation, and cronyism, rather than striking doctors, the Tories’ lapdog press will always leap to their defence to distract from the real causes.
Woke bashing of the week – Judge blocks Iowa from enforcing ban on school library books that depict ‘sex acts’
It’s not been a good start to the year for book-banning, free speech-supressing right-wingers in Iowa. A federal judge in what is one of the most conservative states in the US, has placed a temporary block on a law backed by Republicans which would have banned books that depict ‘sex acts’ from public school libraries and barred teachers from discussing gender identity and sexual orientation.
Rather than approaching such books in a reasonable way, the judge described the law as imposing “a puritanical ‘pall of orthodoxy’ over school libraries.” Additionally, Judge Locher blocked a section of the law which imposed limits on instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity before seventh grade.
The legislation was signed in May 2023 by Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds, who had touted it as “protecting children from pornography and sexually explicit content.”
Hundreds of books had already been removed from school libraries in the state in anticipation of the law coming into effect on January 1.
Reynolds said she was “extremely disappointed” in the ruling, and there should be no question that “books containing sexually explicit content — as clearly defined in Iowa law — do not belong in a school library for children.”
Publisher Penguin Random House was among the authors and activists who challenged the measure of free-speech grounds.
The fiery dispute over books that conservatives deem objectional in Iowa is part of the broader, national debate over how sexual identity and sexuality should be approached in schools. Since 2021, book banning, specifically in school libraries, has become something of an organised movement in the US, backed by a powerful network of conservative donors, politicians, and advocacy groups. Anti-censorship groups have warned that books targeted by conservative group have been found to have been overwhelmingly written by or about people of colour and LGBTQ+ people.
It makes you wonder what these outraged conservative campaigners deem as ‘sexually explicit content.’ In November, one woman told a Texas school district public hearing that a Scholastic children’s book that contained what she described as a ‘single kiss,’ changed the trajectory of her life by starting her addiction to porn. The book in question is Drama, a graphic novel written by US cartoonist Raina Telgemeier. As well as a ‘chaste stage kiss,’ as Houston Press described it, the book involves a boy coming out as gay and commentary on toxic masculinity. No wonder, right-wing Republicans want it banned.
It seems they will stop at nothing in their coordinated assault on free speech, including admitting to porn addiction. Oh dear! Fortunately, full-scale book-banning (or attempted book-banning) has yet to arrive in Britain. But with our right-wing politicians borrowing culture wars straight from the Republican playbook, you can’t help but fear it is only a matter of time before the trend crosses the Atlantic. And we have been here before of course with Margaret Thacher’s infamous clause 28, making illegal the so called ‘promotion’ of homosexuality. What is it about the hard right and sex?
Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is author of Right-Wing Watch