The ease with which Daniel Kawczynski, the Conservative MP for Shrewsbury, was isolated and asked by officials of his party to apologise for something that does not need or deserve an apology is testimony to the power of the intolerant and illiberal ‘shut-down culture’ haunting public life in Western Europe. It confirms a really worrying trend: the imposition of a quarantine around individuals and organisations who advocate conservative, religious or patriotic ideals.
The promoters of political quarantining always rely on falsehoods and slanders to discredit their opponents. One prominent victim of this kind of campaigning was the late leading conservative intellectual, Roger Scruton, who was branded as a far-right racist and anti-Semite last year. Last week it was Kawczynski’s turn. He became the target of a media-concocted story claiming he had participated in a conference in Rome that was organised by the far right. Not only did he break the quarantine imposed on certain conservative groups, but in associating with such groups he apparently also endorsed their allegedly racist, anti-Semitic and homophobic views.
In truth, the groups that attended the conference do not hold ‘far right’ views at all. Rather, they are conservative, traditionalist and pro-sovereignty in outlook. But the project of quarantining conservative, sovereignist ideas has been remarkably successful so far. Although he was eventually exonerated, Scruton was fired by the Tory government from his post as chairman of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission. That he was abandoned and betrayed by his own party must have caused Scruton great anguish and pain. Now, like Scruton, Kawczynski has been abandoned by his own party. He was essentially given an ultimatum, ‘apologise or else’. According to my sources, he was also told by his party’s officials not to comment on this ultimatum.
The refusal of the Conservative Party to defend one of its own MPs speaks to the defensive posture it has adopted in today’s culture war. Even though it has just won a major electoral victory, the party appears unwilling to challenge in a serious way the imposition of a cordon sanitaire around traditional, conservative ideals.
Hopefully, Kawczynski will eventually be exonerated of the false accusations levelled at him. But in a sense, the real damage has already been done. The way he has been treated, and the reluctance of his parliamentary colleagues to have his back, will discourage many individuals from challenging today’s political quarantine. At least in the short term, opportunities for serious, open political debate will be further compromised.
What are the facts?
Almost overnight, Kawczynski, a respected MP, was transformed by his media and political detractors into the incarnation of xenophobic evil. Very few mainstream commentators and politicians were prepared to stand up to the powerful campaign of vilification directed against him. Very few even asked the question, ‘What did he actually do?’. Instead, the very fact that some media outlets branded him ‘far right’ was enough to condemn him.
Kawczynski’s alleged crime was that he attended a meeting of fascistic European politicians who apparently are in the business of promoting anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. In the words of former Tory Party chairman Lord Pickles, who serves as the government’s ‘special envoy on post-Holocaust issues’, Kawczynski brought ‘comfort’ to ‘racists and extremism’. Pickles claimed Kawczynski had ‘let fellow Conservatives down’.
It is worth noting that Kawczynski himself is not accused of saying anything remotely racist, xenophobic or anti-Semitic. In the eyes of his persecutors, his crime was that he attended a conference with questionable people. In other words, he is guilty by association.
But who is he guilty of associating with, precisely? Some of his persecutors have alleged that he mixed with well-known anti-Semites and therefore he helped to legitimise anti-Semitism and racism. Marie van der Zyl, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, carelessly waded into the discussion, asserting that the Tories ran the ‘serious risk of the public assuming that they share [Kawczynski’s] views’, unless, that is, they made an example of him. The Guardian and the Independent echoed this sentiment, implying that Kawczynski’s guilt was beyond debate.
Anyone who only had access to the British media could be forgiven for thinking the conference in Rome was organised to promote hatred against Jewish people. The reality is very, very different. In fact, the National Conservative Conference was organised by mainstream conservative groups, not by the far right. The purpose of the conference was to reflect on the intellectual and political challenges facing conservatism today.
As it happens, one of the sponsors of the conference was the Jewish Israeli think-tank the Herzl Institute. If anyone is wondering where the organisers of the conference really stand on the question of anti-Semitism, the sight of a large Star of David in the main hall – part of the Herzl Institute logo – should have made it pretty clear. It should confirm that the conclusions drawn by Marie van der Zyl and others were simply wrong. It is ridiculous to claim that a conference in which all participants spoke in front of a Star of David next to Hebrew text was promoting anti-Semitism.
One of the main speakers at the conference was Israeli academic Yoram Hazony. As Hazony ambled up to speak on the stage, his yarmulke visible to all, you could also see his wife with her ubiquitous knit cap covering her hair. The positive audience response to Hazony, who is a leading expert on the subject of Jewish nationalism, again suggests that the media depiction of the conference as anti-Semitic was driven by pure political malevolence.
It is a shame that Marie van der Zyl and her colleagues at the Board of Deputies have such a shallow grasp of what anti-Semitism actually means. Even worse, at a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise in many parts of Western Europe, crying wolf about it trivialises the seriousness of the threat faced by Jewish people today. If anyone should apologise as part of this sordid, concocted controversy, it should be Eric Pickles and Marie van der Zyl.
The invention of the new ‘far right’
The claim that the conference was organised by the far right is no less tendentious than the idea that it was anti-Semitic. Judging by the remarks made about the people who attended the conference, it is clear that the current usage of terms like ‘far right’ and ‘fascistic’ has nothing in common with how these terms were used in the past. There was a time when the term ‘far right’ referred to essentially anti-democratic organisations that frequently relied on force and extra-parliamentary activity rather than on electoral politics. Today, the phrase ‘far right’ is promiscuously applied to anyone who has strong conservative, religious or patriotic convictions and who is an opponent of identity politics.
The prime minister of Hungary, Viktor Órban, a man of Christian, democratic and conservative convictions, is now routinely described as far right by his Western critics. If the term far right had been used as casually in the past as it is today, then people like Winston Churchill, Konrad Adenauer, Charles de Gaulle and Alcide De Gasperi would almost certainly have been denounced as far right. In fact, virtually every leading conservative politician of the Fifties, Sixties, Seventies and Eighties would have courted this accusation.
Many of the so-called far-right sponsors of the Rome conference are actually individuals and groups who traditionally would have been seen as the mainstream wing of the conservative movement. Take the example of the Bow Group. It is the UK’s oldest conservative think-tank. Such a far-right figure as former prime minister John Major is a former president. Numerous former ministers have been members. Other sponsors of the conference were the Center for European Renewal (Netherlands), the Danube Institute (Hungary), the Edmund Burke Foundation (the US), the International Reagan Thatcher Society (the US), and Nazione Futura (Italy).
One can legitimately oppose the views promoted by these organisations. But simply to condemn them as ‘far right’ and ‘racist’ is just a way of saying that they do not have any legitimate role to play in public life; that they should be subjected to the political quarantine.
The cordon sanitaire around populism
The attack on Kawczynski is closely linked to the 21st-century project of delegitimising any views that call into question the illiberal and anti-populist consensus that is dominant among the Western political class. In effect, the use of the term far right is designed to signal that certain people are beyond the pale. Their views should not only be ignored – they should be No Platformed and blacklisted. This new intolerance against views that challenge the illiberal, cosmopolitan and anti-populist consensus is deeply hostile to debate, free speech and open political engagement. Instead, it demands the total isolation of anyone who opposes the new political orthodoxies.
The cordon sanitaire is not only aimed at keeping populist parties away from mainstream public life – it is also designed to delegitimise governments in Eastern and Central Europe, especially in Hungary and Poland, that take the idea of national sovereignty seriously.
What the Kawczynski affair demonstrates is that pure lies and invented accounts about a conference of pro-sovereignty conservatives will be endorsed by the powers-that-be. The speed with which the Conservative Party was prepared to sacrifice one of its own indicates that it is not prepared to stick its neck out and take on the culture warriors who are out to claim the scalp of anyone who stands in their way.
However, the cordon sanitaire cannot endure forever. It offers only a technical solution to the political challenge faced by the cultural and political establishment. Not so long ago, supporters of Brexit were denounced as far right, and far too few mainstream parliamentarians were prepared to counter this slander. And yet today, the UK is on the road to Brexit. Soon, many of the populist parties of Western Europe will learn to expand their influence to the point that the mainstream parties will have to engage with them. And as millions of voters have made clear in election after election, the pro-sovereignty governments of Central Europe are not going away anytime soon.
Published on Spiked