It was in with the old, out with the new. Within days of sacking Suella Braverman from the cabinet following her inflammatory statements on the pro-Palestine marches, Rishi Sunak had brought back David Cameron to frontline politics.
This dramatic reshuffle marked another stage in our attempted centrist Restoration, with the elitist and anti-democratic connotations of that term growing ever more obvious. Cameron will take his position from the House of Lords, being appointed there rather than risking even the tokenistic farce of being parachuted into a safe seat. Meanwhile, Sir Keir Starmer used the Commons ceasefire vote to continue his war on the Labour left, knowing that the smouldering ruins of Britain’s fourth estate would cheer him on. The status quo ante had been restored: the far left and far right had been driven back to the margins and the grown-ups were in charge once more.
The widespread disapproval of Braverman among the centre-right commentariat stemmed not from support for the Palestine marchers’ demands for peace, nor their right to free speech – a cause much dearer to centrist commentators when it applies to weird obsessive transphobes having students talk back to them. Rather, it was because of the way she made prominent politicians, along with sections of the media, stoke the far right in order to intimidate the extra-parliament left and pull the two main parties ever further rightwards (and, I would posit, because the far right ended up attacking the police more than the marchers).
Pundits rejoiced at the symbolic importance of Cameron’s return coinciding with Suella’s departure: “Out with the appalling Suella,” tweeted LBC host Iain Dale, “in with someone with experience, political heft and respect.” Never mind that studies have attributed more than 300,000 excess deaths to the austerity Cameron introduced; the hundreds of migrants who have died crossing the channel and the thousands currently languishing in immigration detention centres as a result of the hostile environment he instituted; nor the disastrous consequences of the military intervention in Libya he approved in 2011 – consequences ranging from the Manchester bombing to the rise of Isis. After a decade in which the evil communazi Jeremy Corbyn rudely headed a movement that aimed to reverse the worst of austerity, a pillar of the establishment was back: a rich white man whose atrocities had at least been delivered with debating society civility. Or so the likes of Dale may think: for the celebration of Cameron’s return to cabinet ignores how far our politics and media have moved rightwards even since he took office in 2010, and the processes through which this has happened.
A moveable feast.
The political centre ground is not fixed, but mutable – a realisation that two of Britain’s political parties came to after New Labour apparently captured it in 1997. The Conservatives drifted rightwards after Blair’s landslide, lost the next two elections, before Cameron hit on the strategy of using Blair’s rhetorical style whilst advocating savage cuts to public services, punitive measures for benefit claimants and tighter controls on immigration. This worked – just – in 2010, but another group also spent the 2000s trying to change its image for electoral gain with the aim of pulling British society even further rightwards: the British National party (BNP).
After the riots in Oldham, Bradford and Burnley in the spring of 2001, and 9/11 later that year, BNP leader Nick Griffin was repeatedly invited onto BBC Radio to advocate for Belfast-style “peace walls” between white and south-Asian communities. With far-right ideas entering the mainstream, the BNP moved away from the National Front’s street politics and took a more electoral approach, winning a number of council seats in the process. In response, Labour pitched tougher laws against asylum seekers, including a proposal to send them to a processing centre outside the EU; some MPs adopted rightwing talking points about migrants who could not speak English. Downing Street worked with The Sun on “asylum week”, a series of articles that began with “Halt the asylum tide now” and ended with the home secretary David Blunkett promising “draconian” measures against “illegal immigration”.
In this environment, the BNP made considerable headway, their “reasonable concerns” about immigration constantly validated by government and mainstream media. This came to a head in 2009, when the BNP won control of Burnley council and Griffin proposed to take on Labour’s Margaret Hodge in Barking at the 2010 general election. He had recently appeared on BBC Question Time to eight million viewers, where he struggled to convince the other panellists, including Baroness Warsi and playwright Bonnie Greer that his party had purged its violently racist members, and the studio audience mocked and jeered him (another guest, Labour’s former home secretary Jack Straw, refused to answer a question about whether his government’s migration policy might have contributed to the rise of the BNP.)
Liberals convinced themselves this embarrassment precipitated the collapse of the BNP, but this was far from the case. In fact, the party claimed to have recruited 3,000 members after the broadcast. For his part, historian Daniel Trilling attributes the BNP’s failure to break through in 2010 more to costly court cases and internal divisions than the political establishment’s conviction that sunlight is the best disinfectant.
Things fall apart.
Fascism does what is expedient. In the 1920s, it stole the language and tactics of the communist movements that emerged after WW1, presenting itself as a working-class movement, replacing structural explanations for the failures of capitalism with racist, conspiratorial ones. In so doing, it managed to supplant the left as the main opposition to ailing monarchies and precarious liberal democracies. Since the end of the Cold War, with liberal democracy the only game in town, the far right has adopted the liberal focus on winning elections and on loudly demanding representation in mainstream media, especially arenas of ‘debate’. Whether it wins is immaterial – the point is to reach an audience. And by and large, liberals have fallen for it, thinking they will be the ones to finally destroy the far right with facts and logic.
After the BNP collapsed and Cameron took office, the electoral and street wings of the far right separated into the UK Independence party (Ukip) and the English Defence League (EDL) respectively. This split allowed Ukip to distance itself from violence and position its rhetoric as respectable, while the EDL continued to terrorise Black and brown people up and down the country. We know what happened next: Nigel Farage made dozens of appearances on Question Time and elsewhere; Ukip’s rise pressured Cameron into a referendum on EU membership; Vote Leave won and Cameron resigned; and Boris Johnson won the 2019 election on the most rightwing platform in British history, running an idiotic campaign under the slogan “get Brexit done” amidst a blizzard of misinformation and attacks on the Labour left.
In Johnson, the absorption of the far right’s rhetoric, policies and voters into the Conservative party was all but complete. Yet with Braverman’s departure, that alliance is disintegrating. What that means for the next far right formation is hard to predict. The most plausible one is the right of the Conservative party – gathering around a figure like Braverman or Lee Anderson – courting the far right even more explicitly than Johnson did. They’ll play the underdog under new New Labour, despite Starmer locking in Brexit and Johnson’s draconian anti-protest and anti-trade union laws. As centrist commentators are like dogs, capable of understanding tone but not content, they will not have a problem with this, because the words will be spoken by a white man in a smart suit with a tidy haircut. Meanwhile, the Tory opposition and rightwing media will work in tandem to get what they want without being in government, knowing from several years of watching Starmer and his team abandon one pledge after another that they will be pushing at an open door. The centrists who see Starmer’s Labour as a new dawn for Blairism, or Cameron as restoring sanity to frontline politics will get a repeat of history – just not the one they imagine.
Juliet Jacques is a writer, filmmaker, broadcaster and academic.