Friday, February 23, 2024

Conservative Extremism

In a recent article in The Guardian -  lamenting the Conservative Party’s drift towards populist extremism, and the ascendancy of Braverman, Patel, and Jenrick – Simon Jenkins wrote: “The Tories were once a party of clubbable middle-class professionals, bonded together by loyalty and competence rather than ideology”. While broadly agreeing with Jenkins, I find this a rather sanitised view of Conservative Party history. I am old enough to remember the Monday Club, a once-influential faction in the party, who supported apartheid South Africa, white rule in what is now Zimbabwe, repatriation of immigrants, and so on. Their role call of members included Duncan Sandys, Julian Amery, Norman Tebbit, Alan Clark, and – scraping the barrel - Neil Hamilton. Then there was Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech in 1967, and, a few years earlier, the election of Peter Griffith in the Smethwick by-election in 1964, campaigning under the slogan: “If you want a nigger as a neighbour vote Liberal or Labour”. The Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, declared Griffith a “parliamentary leper”, but just over a decade later he was re-elected as a Conservative MP as part of the Thatcher intake in 1979 (although perhaps one ought not to be surprised by that). Thatcher, friend of Pinochet, described Nelson Mandela as a “terrorist” and entertained the Afghan mujahadeen commander Abdul Haj at Downing Street in 1984 describing him as a “freedom fighter” (in 1984 he was responsible for a bomb at Kabul airport which killed 27 people, mostly children). If we go further back we can read the diaries of Chips Cannon who, between describing his frequent visits to brothels and assiduous sucking-up to royalty, gushes with praise for Adolf Hitler. It would be wrong to say all Conservative MPs shared these views, but they were certainly widely held. If we go still further back we find the Conservative Party threatening armed rebellion to defeat an Act of Parliament (the third Irish Home Rule Bill). Speaking outside Blenheim Palace the party leader, Bonar Law, said “there was no length of resistance” to which he would not go to defeat the Bill. Leading Conservatives colluded in smuggling arms from Germany into Larne (near Belfast) and in the establishment of a paramilitary organisation (the Ulster Volunteer Force). 

Of course, there were Conservatives who were less unbalanced. The Monday Club’s bete noire was Harold Macmillan, and the occasion for the establishment of the Club was Macmillan’s Winds of Change speech in South Africa. Enoch Powell and Richard Griffith cannot be taken as typical of Conservative MPs. Ken Livingstone was local councillor at the time of the “rivers of blood speech” and so also was John Major; and Livingstone’s recollection is that Major was staunch in his opposition to Powell. The pro-Nazi faction is the Conservative Party was – as Cannon’s diaries shows – virulent in their opposition to Churchill, Eden, and others (although Churchill had earlier enthused about Mussolini). In passing that Churchill was a racist is beyond doubt, the only question being whether he was especially racist for someone of his age and social background, and here the evidence suggests – for example in his attitude to India and his phlegmatic attitude to the Bengal famine (in all fairness shared by Attlee) – that indeed he was. 

But there has always been this extremist element in the Conservative Party.  


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