When you live in one of the richest and most lavishly armed countries in the world, and a small number of desperate refugees wash up on your shores, how do you respond? With empathy and hospitality? Or with derision for their reasons for coming to you, and hysterical claims that they pose a threat to your economy and security?
The British right’s shrill panic about an ‘invasion’ of migrants has surged to the foreground of news coverage and political debate this past week. In response, Maya Goodfellow, Daniel Trilling, Ash Sarkar and many others have done efficient work in tackling the myths, lies and nonsenses that stoke the paranoia. To complement their efforts, we might also step back and examine the paranoia itself, in all its absurdity, and ask ourselves what it tells us about the forces we are dealing with.
Paranoid hysteria has become a near-constant feature of modern conservatism. This week it is about a handful of refugees in barely seaworthy dinghies. Last week it was about the non-existent oppression conservative academics are suffering at the hands of ‘wokeness’, that ubiquitous bogeyman of the moment. A free speech crisis in universities, dreamed up in a right-wing think-tank report so shoddy that it literally failed the laugh test, was treated with utmost seriousness by the leading Tory broadsheets. Before this, and relatedly, the hysteria was over ‘cancel culture’, where securely-employed and well-paid commentators took to their prestigious platforms to whine about how they had been silenced, somehow, by someone or other.
Before this it was Brexit, where Brussels bureaucrats had conspired to turn Britain into a ‘colony’, and where a brave independence struggle was then waged by a plucky few pinstriped gammons, nearly thwarted at the last by an elite of ‘saboteurs’ and ‘enemies of the people’. At a time when Britain was helping to create the world’s worst humanitarian disaster in Yemen and when the UK economy was mired in a decade of stagnation and austerity, the political discourse was dominated by this fairytale to the exclusion of almost any other topic.
Alongside this, of course, ran the twenty-first century red scare around Corbynism, where calls for genuine social democracy, led by a pacifist, were cast as a return to the gulag, led by a supporter of terrorism. The latter element here dovetailed with the moral panics of the ‘War on Terror’, where the genuine threat posed by marginal extremist groups was recast by the right into an epochal ‘clash of civilisations’ where every Muslim was deemed suspect. Corbyn’s solidarity with those at the sharp end of Western militarism made him not a humanitarian, but a traitor.
There is clearly a pattern here, and it is worth asking what it might signify. Instinctively, one feels that the panics cannot be genuine. That stoking hysteria must be a deliberate right-wing tactic, used to distract attention or reframe discussion. But while cynicism cannot be discounted, it cannot fully explain how conservatism becomes so thoroughly consumed by its tantrums, and with such frequency. Either way, what we have here is cowardice, be it of those who deliberately stoke the fears, or of those who are seized by them.
We can sharpen the picture by looking at the conservative reaction to real dangers. The two biggest threats to human life – as identified by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists Science and Security Board in its annual assessment – are global heating and a prospect of a deliberate or accidental nuclear exchange. Consistently, conservatives have played down, dismissed or obstructed the action required to tackle these issues. Likewise, during the Covid-19 pandemic, conservatism has been defined by its blasé attitude, as right-wing governments from the US to the UK and Brazil subordinate public health to the demand for uninterrupted profit-making, with predictable consequences for human life.
The pattern continues when we return our attention to the moral panics of the moment. The real crisis with respect to refugees currently coming to Britain is the dangers to them and their wellbeing, not to the British. The real crisis in British universities today is the threat of mass unemployment for precarious academic and non-academic staff, not to a few right-wing professors who struggle to accept critique. Conservatism’s lack of interest in these issues is not a lack of perspective so much as a specific perspective, and a deeply self-centred one.
Put simply, conservatives are almost aggressively relaxed about crises affecting other people, no matter how grave, especially where taking action to tackle the crisis would inconvenience them or lose them a degree of wealth or status. For conservatism, these crises may as well not exist. By contrast, the slightest challenge to a conservative’s privileges or status, or the slightest invocation of a denigrated Other, and the sangfroid will disappear, replaced by a mixture of rage and panic. The cowardice and hysteria of modern conservatism is a specific kind, bound up with power and privilege.
To complete this picture, it is worth looking at the place of New Labour in all this. As the bastion of status quo centrism in British politics, New Labour is a key component of conservatism with a small c. The fear dynamic manifests itself here as well, in its own way.
Deep in the bones of New Labour is the fear of alienating right-wing newspapers and swing-voters, an anxiety which was very much to the fore even when the party enjoyed a decade of three figure parliamentary majorities and two figure poll leads. New Labour’s draconian policies on asylum and immigration, and consistent validation of right-wing narratives on these issues, were a major factor in sustaining the xenophobic discourse that we have seen over the past few days. The calculation is one familiar to right-wing conservatives: power is the goal, and the disempowered are expendable.
It is a calculation that New Labour continues to make. While migrants brave a treacherous channel crossing only to be greeted with a barrage of racism, the opposition front bench has cowered from the duty of defending them. Likewise, while Dawn Butler continues to speak out on racism, even in the face of death threats, her front bench colleagues refuse to recognise institutional racism in the police for fear of alienating those right-wingers whose approval they seek. Just as the politics of power breeds various forms of fear and cowardice, so progressive politics demands the courage to take on power and reject its narratives even where there are costs involved. It is in these moments that the real nature of our politics is revealed.
David Wearing is an academic specialist in UK foreign policy and a columnist for Novara Media.