Conservatives, Extremism, and the Ghost of Enoch Powell

Subjecting protestors to greater demonisation through the redefining of ‘extremism’ is just another chapter in the Tories’ painful history of hypocrisy.

Right-Wing Watch

If you paid much attention to Rishi Sunak’s speech outside No. 10 on March 1, you would think our country had been overrun by anarchists and fanatics. Extremist groups are ‘trying to tear us apart,’ said the PM, decrying a ‘shocking increase in extremist disruption and criminality’ in Britain since October 7. Michael Gove has been at it too. Some pro-Palestinian events have ‘been organised by extremist organisations,’ claimed the Communities Secretary. These are the same protests incidentally that have been acknowledged by the Metropolitan Police as disciplined, orderly, and professionally-managed.

The anarchy-obsessed Conservative government now has Gove announcing a new definition of extremism. As part of Sunak’s drive to crack down on Islamist extremists and far-right groups, the revised definition identifies extremism as an ideology that “undermines the rights or freedoms of others.” It differs from the old definition in that there has been a shift in focus from action to ideology. The previous definition, which was introduced in 2011, said extremism was the “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and belief.”

Critics say the new definition is so broad that it risks exacerbating community tensions. Zara Mohammed, head of the Muslim Council of Britain, said the definition would lead to the “unfair targeting of Muslim communities.” Others believe it is being used to seek a short-term tactical advantage in the run-up to the general election. A number of senior Tories, including former Home Secretaries Priti Patel, Sajid Javid and Amber Rudd, warned against using extremism to score political points. They believe that the government would be better off dialling down on extremism rhetoric, which they warn is giving Reform UK a boost.

 “It completely plays into Reform’s hands. Why aren’t we talking about the Budget?” said one former cabinet minister.

The Archbishops of Canterbury and York joined the criticism, warning the government’s response ‘risks vilifying the wrong people’ and threatened freedom of speech and worship.

The same week that Gove announced his controversial new anti-extremism measures, a revelation hit the press that suggested the Tories’ biggest donor is an extremist himself, who upholds the most abhorrent views. Claims were made that Frank Hester, the healthcare technology business magnate who has donated £10m to the Tories in the past year, had said Diane Abbott made people “want to hate all black women” and “should be shot.”

The alleged comments mark a depressing new low for British politics. And the story gets worse. When asked whether the Tories should hand back the £10m donation, energy minister Graham Stuart told reporters that it would be wrong for a businessman to be ‘cancelled’ for his comments, and that the party should ‘welcome’ such donations.

Work and Pensions secretary Mel Stride meanwhile told Sky News that everyone needed to “move on” from the comments, and that he didn’t think what Hester was saying was a “gender based or race based comment.” 

How on earth anyone could argue that describing the UK’s first black female MP as making people “wanting to hate all black women,” is neither gender nor race based is beyond any reasonable sense or logic.

Conservative Lord Marling meanwhile said that Hestor isn’t racist because “he does a lot of business in Jamaica… and places like that.”

After catastrophically messing up on the Anderson row, Sunak has catastrophically messed up on the Hester row. After initially resisting, a spokesperson for the PM eventually admitted the alleged comments by the Tory donor were ‘racist and wrong.’ Yet Sunak has rejected calls to return the £10m donated to the party by the businessman. “No… I am pleased [Hester] is supporting a party that represents one of the most diverse governments in this country’s history,” he told the Commons at Prime Minister’s Questions.

It’s likely that Sunak doesn’t want to return the money because it has already been spent. And, if he did, it’s likely Hester would defect to Reform UK, like Anderson did this week. Messier than a soup sandwich!

But while especially nasty and shocking, Hestor’s comment and the Tories’ disastrously inadequate response, come as little surprise. The Conservatives, who are now embroiled in yet another civil war over their highly contentious redefinition of extremism, have, along with their media and donor cronies, a long history of flirting with and sometimes embracing racist extremism.

In 1964, what is regarded as Britain’s most racist election campaign ever fought in Britain, took place in the West Midlands constituency of Smethwick when the Conservative Peter Griffiths was elected MP on the slogan, “If you want a n****r for a neighbour, vote Labour.” Talking to the Times during his election campaign, Griffiths refused to disown the slogan. “I would not condemn any man who said that. I regard it as a manifestation of popular feeling,” he said.

The racially motivated campaign proved successful, and Smethwick bucked the national swing from the Tories to Labour, and Griffiths won the seat.

And let’s not forget that one of modern British history’s most divisive addresses was made by the Conservative MP Enoch Powell. Powell gained notoriety for his viciously anti-immigration speech in 1968, commonly known as the “Rivers of Blood” speech.  It divided the nation with its racist, incendiary rhetoric, and led to the MP being kicked out of the shadow cabinet, effectively ending his political ambitions. Yet 56 years later, Enoch Powell’s name still resonates with many right-wing Tories.

After saying that asylum seekers who did not want to be housed on the Bibby Stockholm barge should “f*** off back to France” in August last year, Lee Anderson, then deputy chair of the Conservative party, was branded a ‘pound shop Enoch Powell’ by Chris McEleny of the Alba Party.

As with the Frank Hestor controversy this week, Anderson’s comments were defended by fellow Tories. Justice secretary Alex Chalk told broadcasters that the MP was expressing “righteous indignation of the British people” with his incendiary comments.

And let’s also not forget that the prime minister refused to address anti-Muslim concerns following Anderson’s more recent comments that ‘Islamists’ had ‘got control of London’ and its mayor, Sadiq Khan. While Anderson might have had the whip removed by the party following the comments, Sunak still claimed that there were no Islamophobia issues in the Conservative party. 

This is the same party which, in 2019, was criticised for refusing to adopt a recommended definition of Islamophobia produced by an all-party parliamentary group on British Muslims. The definition was produced after six months of consultations. It classified discrimination against Muslims as a form of racism and was described as a necessity to tackle the rise of far-right racism. In refusing to adopt the definition, the Muslim Council of Britain had warned that the Conservative Party was at risk of “placing themselves on the wrong side of the argument.”

Lee Anderson is not the only senior, now ex-Tory to have been likened to Enoch Powell. Suella Braverman was also described as the ‘new Enoch Powell,’ after she described refugees landing in Kent as an “invasion” in November 2022.

“Braverman is a modern-day Enoch Powell,” wrote Sean O’Grady, associate editor of the Independent.  “This might be strange and ironic, seeing as Powell was campaigning against the (entirely legal) settlement in the UK of Asians expelled from Kenya and Uganda in the 1960s and 1970s, such as her own family,” he continued.

While the liberal media may provide some critical analysis on the racist tropes used by right-wing ministers, the Tory media often cheerleads the comments. 

“Lee Anderson is victim of immoral Tories giving in to Sadiq Khan’s ‘Islamophobe’ smear,’ was an incredulous headline in the Express. “Lee Anderson did not say anything Islamophobic but has suffered because of the Conservative Party’s moral rottenness,” the author argued.

The consequences of the reckless use of inflammatory Enoch Powell-esque rhetoric by ministers and their supporting factions of the media, can be sinister and dangerous.  Such perils were brought to light this week. Kingston Crown Court heard how a man who claimed ‘Hitler was right’ visited an immigration lawyer’s office with a knife and handcuffs planning to kill him. The court was told how in an interview with police, the accused had said he had first saw the lawyer’s name in the Daily Mail, and that he brought “foreign invaders” into the country.

As so often with Right-Wing Watch, the discussion takes us to conservative think-tanks, which, as we know, have direct connections to the Conservative Party. The deliberately provocative tactic of labelling principally peaceful campaign groups as ‘extremists’ can be traced to such groups.

Policy Exchange, the government think-tank that claims to be a neutral educational charity but has for years been building a case for curtailing the judiciary, and was relied on heavily by Boris Johnson’s government, referred to Extinction Rebellion (XR) as an ‘extremist group.’ The influence of such think-tanks on national policy was starkly revealed, when, some months later, XR was duly designated an extremist group by counter-terrorist police.

In fact, the legislative crackdown on protest in Britain by the then home secretary Priti Patel, which could lead to groups like XR being branded ‘extremists,’ was found to have roots with Policy Exchange. An investigation by openDemocracy found that a 2019 report by Policy Exchange called for protest laws to be “urgently reformed in order to strengthen the ability of police to place restrictions on planned protest and deal more effectively with mass law-breaking tactics.” The report even explicitly said the government should pass legislation to target XR.

William Allchorn, associate director at the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR), argues that instead of perusing new definitions of the word ‘extremism,’ an ‘inclusionary turn’ is needed when dealing with any hue of ‘extremist’ protest. In his book, Anti-Islamic Protest in the UK Policy Responses to the Far Right, Allchorn subscribes to the notion that better cross-community contact, grassroots educational initiatives against prejudice and a re-engagement between politicians and disaffected constituencies are all important preventative methods when dealing with political extremism.

Subjecting protestors to greater demonisation through the redefining of ‘extremism’ is just another chapter in the Tories’ painful history of hypocrisy. Posturing as freedom champions while slowly chipping away at civil liberties through draconian legislation, ‘extremism,’ the very thing they are going after, has been historically fuelled in Conservative political and media circles.  If Michael Gove and Rishi Sunak really wanted to weed out the real threats to Britain, perhaps they should convince their own party to look in the mirror?

And perhaps in this week of all weeks we should leave the last word to Diane Abbott. Writing in the Guardian, she points to the way in which in an election year, the Tories have blown their reputation for sound economic management and low taxation, meaning they will play the race card and ruthlessly. And Diane Abbott should know having watched the Tories close up for longer than most of us.

Right-Wing Media Watch – Boris-worshipping Express pines for ‘Big Dog’s’ return

What could possibly save Rishi Sunak from what looks like uncertain political obliteration in the general election? Boris Johnson, of course! And, specifically, Boris Johnson trumpeting Brexit freedoms. At least, that is what the Boris-worshiping Daily Express is championing for.

In a series of articles this week, the newspaper showed no shame in its tireless devotion to the disgraced former PM, claiming he is set for a ‘big general election’ comeback in a ‘bid to rescue the Tories.’

“The larger-than-life former premier will reportedly campaign for the Conservatives in the Red Wall,” claimed the newspaper.

In a front page ‘exclusive’ on March 13, the Express salivated over the former PM’s return to the campaign trail to protect the ‘hard won and great’ Brexit freedoms he secured with his election victory.  

According to allies cited in the report, Johnson is a Tory “through and through” (sub-text -Sunak isn’t?) and is happy to put his skills to “good use.”

The following day, the same newspaper launched a ‘Should Boris Johnson help Tories campaign at next general election’ poll. Trying to coax readers into voting ‘yes’ with about as much subtlety as a flying brick, the article claims that the former PM’s “I’ll be back” comment when he quit Parliament last year, following what they call a “witch hunt” probe into Partygate, was a direct message to Daily Express readers.

The Times was at it too. ‘Boris Johnson to make a general election comeback for the Tories,’ the national splashed on March 12.
Wishful claims of a Big Dog comeback haven’t exactly been verified yet. In fact, Johnson’s biggest ally Nadine Dorries has categorically unverified them. On a post on X, she wrote:

“This story has been panic placed by No 10 – probably by Issac Levido [the Australian political strategist credited with coining election-winning slogans for Boris Johnson] in a desperate attempt to halt any further defections to Reform.

“There’s no thawing of relations, no plans to campaign. Sunak not spoken to Johnson for over a year.”

But you have to give the aforementioned media some credit. The Tories are likely to need some kind of miracle if they are to avoid electoral wipeout whenever the next general election might be. But having presided over some of the biggest scandals to have engulfed modern British politics, including breaking the rules his own government set, the return of Big Dog is surely not the answer. 

Smear of the Week – Tories’ smear campaign against Angela Rayner spectacularly backfires as cops veto charges

The Conservatives and their client media’s smear campaign against the Labour deputy leader has spectacularly backfired. Despite their best efforts to embroil Rayner in controversy involving a council house she once owned and sold, a line has been drawn under a scandal that didn’t even really exist, by the police.

The story originally surfaced in the Daily Mail after the newspaper had seen extracts of an unauthorised biography on Rayner by Lord Ashcroft. The former Conservative Party deputy chairman (responsible for the fake ‘Piggate’ story in an unauthorised biography about David Cameron) Ashcroft accused Rayner of hypocrisy, claiming that she had used Margaret Thatcher’s flagship discounted home ownership policy to buy her own home but now wants to reform the policy.

In a further twist to the tale, James Daly, Tory MP for Bury North, a neighbouring constituency of Rayner’s, asked Greater Manchester Police to investigate whether Rayner had given false information on official documents and had broken electoral rules in relation to where she was registered as living after her marriage in 2010.

Despite the Labour MP repeatedly denying any wrongdoing, the right-wing press gushed all over the story.

‘Angela Rayner could face a police probe into ‘false claims over addresses’ before she sold her council home,’ splashed the Daily Mail in February.

This week, the police announced that they have found no evidence that any offence had been committed and that the Labour deputy will not face a political investigation over the claims.

You think that the story would have been laid to rest at that point but no, James Daly will not let it lie.

Following the police’s decision not to pursue the investigation after finding no evidence of wrongdoing, Daly blamed Rayner’s ‘refusal’ to answer ‘basic questions’ about where she used to live, and claimed the case had not been given the attention it deserves.

‘I’m very concerned that in a year in which we will have both a general election and local elections this matter is not being given the attention it surely warrants.

‘She is steadfastly refusing to answer the extremely basic questions. It’s a far cry from the standards she demands of others,” the MP told the Mail, which naturally seized the chance to keep the smear alive.

In what could be considered as a big dose of karma, Daly has been accused of wasting police time. “Tory MPs shouldn’t be wasting police time, they should be concentrating on governing,” a Labour source told the Mail.

Honestly, you’d think they would have learned by the ridiculous ‘Beergate’ story, which the Mail ran for weeks, despite Keir Starmer being cleared over the allegations he had broken lockdown rules.

Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is author of Right-Wing Watch

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