I find this suggestion by James Smith deeply plausible, echoing a point made by Will Davies last year that ‘free speech’ is becoming the unifying principle of a right-wing in the process of recomposition:

a successor conservative movement to Trumpism with appeal to many nominal centrists would be one that retains Donald Trump’s break with political correctness, his antifeminism, his Islamophobia. But which obscures those views by stepping up the culture war rhetoric about free speech and identity politics on college campuses (about which Trump cares little), while striking a slicker “evidence-based” technocratic tone.


An interesting analysis from Pity the Billionaire, by Thomas Frank, loc 1746-1759:

And so, over the years, the movement came to affect a revolutionary posture toward the state that it might have borrowed from Karl Marx or Jean-Paul Sartre. It imitated the protest culture of the sixties, right down to a feigned reverence for anticommunist guerrilla fighters who were its version of Ho and Che. Conservative leaders studied the tactics of communists, applying them to their own struggles. And the movement learned to understand itself not as a defender of “the status quo,” in the famous formulation of the conservative organizer Paul Weyrich, but as a group of “radicals, working to overturn the present power structure of the country.”  When the economic collapse of 2008 and 2009 came along, conservatism immediately positioned itself as a protest movement for hard times. Aspects of the conservative tradition that were haughty or aristocratic were attributed to liberals. Symbols that seemed noble or democratic or populist, even if they were the traditional property of the other side, were snapped up and claimed by the Right for itself.

This was integral to the weird character of the movement that came into being. From loc 1775-1793:

What’s more, it was cast as a people’s movement with no leaders. A movement that was so profoundly democratic, so virtuously rank-and-file, so punk rock, that it was actively against leaders. A movement that was downright obsessed with being “sold out” by traditional politicians, with betrayal, with guarding its independence and its precious authenticity. 6

This appropriation of leftist rhetoric goes as far as to take on a critical theoretical character. In its own simplistic way, it promises to cut through the veil of illusion and reveal the systemic (leftist) forces bringing about empirically identifiable pathologies. 

I love the phrase ‘rhetorical rapture-race’ used by Thomas Frank to describe the mobilising dynamics of the far-right resurgence in the U.S. From his Pity the Billionaire loc 960:

Conspiracy theorists have always been with us. But Glenn Beck brought them into the mainstream. And so began one of the most distinctive features of the right-wing renaissance: a rhetorical rapture-race in which pundits, bloggers, and candidates for high office competed to paint the most alarming end-times picture.

Is this something uniquely applicable to deliberately mobilising fragile movements i.e. inciting crowds of individuals to act in a co-ordinated way without seeking to build relational bonds between them?

On loc 992 he cites a Republican blogger describing the results of the aforementioned mobilisation. Is the rhetorical rapture-race necessary in order to cut through the fog of depoliticisation?

Many Americans who had never been politically active, never walked a precinct, never interrupted their golf games, family gatherings, or vacations to discuss politics, government, or the Constitution, were suddenly gripped with the sense that their government, nation, and way of life were being stolen from them. 4

Something to remember as the Tory-led condemnation of Labour’s alleged anti-Semitism reaches fever pitch:

Shadow education minister Lucy Powell ran day-to-day operations for Labour’s 2015 general election campaign. That year’s dog-whistle consisted of telling the electorate, again and again, that Labour had never apologised for destroying the economy, and that Ed Miliband stabbed his brother in the back and would almost certainly do the same to Britain.

Powell says she felt much of the coded language in the Tory campaign was about Miliband being Jewish, not least the focus on him mishandling a bacon bap. Other messages about his ethnicity verged on the subliminal: repeated references to his roots in north London, a more Jewish area of the city, for instance.

While Powell thinks Crosby might well have been behind this strategy, she says she doesn’t believe for a minute that he is antisemitic or Islamophobic. It’s simply expedience: “It’s pure cynicism – he doesn’t care what the means are by which he can move swing voters. But once he finds it, he’ll just go after it, even if it’s wrong or personal or immoral, or in some cases all three.”

Powell believes the demonisation of Miliband was largely ineffectual. It was only when Crosby and the Tories found their dead cat that anything began to stick. After Miliband’s popular promise to crack down on tax dodgers and non-doms, Conservative defence secretary Michael Fallon “revealed” that the Labour leader would strike a power-sharing deal with the SNP, and was willing to sacrifice Trident to do so. Trident was the dead cat: the story came out of nowhere, says Powell, was wholly unfounded – and it worked. “They were on the back foot about tax evasion and sent Michael Fallon out there with a baseless story,” Powell says. “But with highly emotive language and a couple of splashes in their friendly press, the strategy worked, knocking the other story off the agenda.”


I listened to a fascinatingly crap podcast while in the gym earlier – Robin Aitken, introduced solely as a ‘Tory supporter’ but last seen complaining about institutional discrimination against conservatives during his career at the BBC, has produced an episode of Analysis on Radio 4 exploring whether anti-conservative sentiment is the last acceptable prejudice. It’s a rather confused argument, simultaneously explaining away blanket criticism of a political party as prejudice while also arguing that the Tories have changed and so the ‘nasty party’ tag is inaccurate (thus implying that it might have been an accurate assessment in the past). It’s also rather oddly produced, with the most prominent commentators including Norman Tebbitt, who talks about the need to ‘hurt the population’ in a documentary arguing that Tories aren’t nasty, as well as Roger Scrutton, who has been dismissed from journalistic roles for writing about ‘tobacco issues’ while failing to declare the generous salary he was being paid by tobacco companies, in a documentary arguing that Tories aren’t greedy and self-serving. It was all a bit inadequate really, leaving me surprised that it had been made, even allowing for the over-eager interpretation of ‘balance’ likely to be in play when someone like Aitken produces something for the BBC in the present political climate.

However I’m intrigued by the attempt to subsume political disagreement under the logic of identity politics. Not only because it is so axiomatically relativistic a move being made by those who so habitually attack relativism. It also suggests something interesting about broader developments in political culture. As one cringe-worthy Tory analyst said during the podcast: “modern politics is as much an exercise in self-expression as it is in self-interest”. Leaving aside the philosophically and empirically dubious status of such a claim, it nonetheless points to questions about why this form of argument has begun to emerge in the last decade or so. What interests me is how this notion could creep into common circulation, as opposed to its rhetorical deployment by journalists producing bad radio documentaries. I mean things like this, which I found at random through google:

Screen Shot 2014-07-04 at 16.37.02

The notion of ‘anti tory prejudice’ becomes an organising concept through which other political claims are made. Take for instance this thread I found on the Student Room, in which a poster asks for a ‘survival guide for ultra conservative students’:

Are there any other social/ cultural conservatives here who feel that they are being or have been marginalised in an increasingly liberal modern society?

Why do you think this has happened? and how do you cope with it?

Are there any careers which you feel are more suitable for ultra conservatives? Most modern workplaces seem to be dominated by extreme trendy liberals so which careers are still suitable for a social conservative (outside of the Church)?

I think we can see this psychoanalytically, in terms of the kinds of arguments made by Iain Craib and others, in which many of us are becoming progressively less able to live with discomfort, disagreement and disappointment – in this sense, finding one’s views at odds with those of the people around us comes to feel as if we are attacked by our environment or that we may at any point become so. We shore ourselves up by affirming that they have a problem with us – we confront their prejudice, revealing them to be bad and ourselves to be an innocent victim. Or maybe we just self-select? I guess I’m proposing a particular psychosocial mechanism driving homophily (a statement I write as someone who to the best of my knowledge has never had a right-wing friend).

I think it would be a mistake to treat this entirely at the level of the psychosocial though – if this is a trend, which is far from clear, it’s a complex issue that points to a range of potential factors driving it. I think Colin Crouch’s work on post-democracy could be useful here, offering a framework through which we can begin to ask questions about the political psychology of post-democracy. This is how Crouch describes the underlying idea:

The term was indeed a direct analogy with ‘post-industrial’. A post-industrial society is not a non-industrial one. It continues to make and to use the products of industry, but the energy and innovative drive of the system have gone elsewhere. The same applies in a more complex way to post-modern, which is not the same as anti-modern or of course pre-modern. It implies a culture that uses the achievements of modernism but departs from them in its search for new possibilities. A post-democratic society therefore is one that continues to have and to use all the institutions of democracy, but in which they increasingly become a formal shell. The energy and innovative drive pass away from the democratic arena and into small circles of a politico-economic elite. I did not say that we were now living in a post-democratic society, but that we were moving towards such a condition.


I’m interested in how the social psychology of political (dis)engagement changes when “the energy and innovative drive pass away from the democratic arena” – what does the political come to feel like under conditions of post-democracy? Chantal Mouffe has argued that those who might otherwise be seen as adversaries (to be opposed) instead come to be seen as enemies (to be destroyed). Her argument concerns the construction of ‘political antagonism’ – could the reduction of disagreement to prejudice be a form that antagonism takes at the level of everyday life?

I find it more than a little disturbing that these two explicit threats to press freedom have been issued by the government in the space of 24 hours. Note that Cameron’s statement about the Snowden leaks comes at the same time as prominent NSA loyalists are breaking ranks in America to call for a ‘total review’. Much like ‘compassionate conservatism’ and ‘vote blue, go green’, it seems that any pretence of a commitment to breaking with the creeping authoritarianism of the New Labour era has now been abandoned:

The BBC could face a cut in the TV licence fee or have to share it with other broadcasters unless it rebuilds public trust, a Tory minister has said.

Conservative party chairman Grant Shapps told the Sunday Telegraph the broadcaster must be “more transparent” and change its “culture of secrecy”.

The current £145.50 annual fee would be “too much” without reform, he said.

A BBC spokesman said transparency and freedom from political pressure were key to the BBC’s future.

Mr Shapps’ comments come after negative publicity over pay-outs to top executives and the handling of the Jimmy Savile scandal.

Numerous allegations against Savile, who presented programmes including Jim’ll Fix It during a long career at the BBC, emerged after his death in 2011 and police have since described him as a “prolific, predatory sex offender”.

Mr Shapps also mentioned the case of former BBC broadcaster Stuart Hall, who is currently serving a prison sentence for a series of sexual assaults on young girls.


In a statement to MPs on Monday about last week’s European summit in Brussels, where he warned of the dangers of a “lah-di-dah, airy-fairy view” about the dangers of leaks, the prime minister said his preference was to talk to newspapers rather than resort to the courts. But he said it would be difficult to avoid acting if newspapers declined to heed government advice.

The prime minister issued the warning after the Tory MP Julian Smith quoted a report in Monday’s edition of the Sun that said Britain’s intelligence agencies believe details from the NSA files leaked by the US whistleblower Edward Snowden have hampered their work.

The Sun quoted a “top surveillance source” as saying that terrorists have “gone quiet” after the publication of details about NSA and GCHQ operations.

Cameron told MPs: “We have a free press, it’s very important the press feels it is not pre-censored from what it writes and all the rest of it.

“The approach we have taken is to try to talk to the press and explain how damaging some of these things can be and that is why the Guardian did actually destroy some of the information and disks that they have. But they’ve now gone on and printed further material which is damaging.

“I don’t want to have to use injunctions or D notices or the other tougher measures. I think it’s much better to appeal to newspapers’ sense of social responsibility. But if they don’t demonstrate some social responsibility it would be very difficult for government to stand back and not to act.”


Nick Cohen wrote a fantastic post on this last night which gets to the crux of the issue:

I don’t see how any reasonable person can argue that a British newspaper should not break a story about a foreign power spying on another foreign power, when there is no threat whatsoever that the revelation will help terrorists groups or organised crime. That criticism persists shows that the Guardian’s enemies are suffering from an advanced case of what Orwell called “transferred nationalism” : though nominally British they have transferred their loyalty to the United States, and react to any threat to American interests as if it were a threat their own.

In any case, the Guardian – for whose parent company I work, I should add – is not only bringing us foreign news. On Saturday, its correspondent James Ball answereda question that has baffled everyone who has hung around the criminal justice system: why do the police and security services refuse to present intercept evidence in court? The answer is that they feared that the public might realise the scale of state surveillance – and protest. Hence, the intelligence services lobbied furiously to hide the fact that, in their words, telecoms firms, had gone “well beyond” what they were legally required to do to help intercept communications. For good measure, GCHQ admitted in private to fearing a legal challenge under the Human Rights Act if its surveillance methods became better known.

The concerns about the failure to produce bugged evidence do not always fall within the standard arguments between liberal doves and national security hawks. Juries acquit guilty men because prosecutors cannot reveal the full case against them. In a free society spies should accept – must accept – that we need an open debate on intercept evidence involving the judiciary, the legal profession, parliament and – for we are meant to be a democracy, after all – the public. We need it even more, when, by its own admission, GCHQ may be breaking the law.

But open debates aren’t the fashion in Britain. We don’t do that kind of thing here.
Tonight, David Cameron warned the Guardian that if it did not “demonstrate some social responsibility it would be very difficult for government to stand back and not to act.”

No one should have been surprised. The ground for his threat to the free press had been well manured by none other than the free press itself.

A friend of mine with time on his hands read all the comment in blogs and columns the Daily Telegraph had run on the Guardian and the security service leaks. His weary eyes surveyed 20 pieces in total. All damned the Guardian, he found. Not one defended the right of newspapers to hold the state to account, even after agents of the state went into the Guardian’s office and supervised the destruction of a computer with copies of Edward Snowden’s documents on. The idea that you defend the freedom to publish – regardless of whether you agree with what is published or not – never occurred to its writers.

The only exception in the wider Telegraph stable was Janet Daley of the Sunday Telegraph, an American expat, significantly. She described her astonishment at the unwillingness of the British to stand-up for basic liberties. “An editor of the US National Review wrote last week of those ‘who steadfastly refuse to express anxiety unless they can actually hear jackboots,’,” she said. “Note: once you hear the jackboots, it’s too late.”

The editor of the Mail, meanwhile, came as close as he dared to demanding that the police arrest the editor of the Guardian. Earlier this month, Stephen Glover, his in-house columnist, reported that Oliver Robbins, Britain’s deputy national security adviser, had said that the Guardian has ‘already done real damage’ to Britain by its revelations, and that information still held by the newspaper could lead to a ‘widespread loss of life’. Suitably primed, Glover thundered:

The Guardian is being accused of putting at risk not only the lives of agents but also potentially the lives of ordinary British people, whom MI5 will now find it more difficult to protect. Divide the accusations in two, and then halve them again, and they are still mind-boggling.

This is the language of a treason trial; words that justify any action by the state to silence the journalist. The reason the Mail deploys them goes far beyond disagreements over one story. Foreigners will not understand the circular firing squad the British media have formed unless they understand that the British Right has its own version of the Marxist myth of false-consciousness.


I find myself increasingly convinced that Owen Jones is right that British politics could get very nasty in the run up to the next election (and perhaps beyond).