October 29, 2001
Crack Down on Foreign Policy Dissent
Last week I wrote that in the last two decades the British electorate has had a remarkably clear choice on foreign policy. This week I am going to ask whether there are moves afoot to stop any further choice. Although it seems that the debate is now set in stone, Labour is emphatically for European integration and the Conservatives are emphatically against it the debate may soon shift to our relationship with America. This debate may be taken out of the party political debate, or at least that seems to be the intention of the new Conservative leadership under Iain Duncan Smith in recent moves to silence the right of the Conservative Party.
Ironically, Europe may become a less important issue in the next few years. It has often been said that the European Union is like a bicycle, it can either go forward or fall down. Despite considerable steps forward in the legal arena, Britain's integration into Europe cannot be said to be going forward until it fully joins in Economic and Monetary Union. This requires a referendum to be called, and, most vitally, won.
If Britain's relationship remains in stasis, then all the sound and fury will be for naught the game will be over. This is by no means a done deal there is still a strong danger that Labour could take us further into Europe. However, in ten years time Britain's membership of the European Union could be more in fiction than fact. So where will the new fault line of British foreign policy debate lie? The answer will be our relationship with America.
The Conservative Party has been an Atlanticist party for so long, that people assume that it must always have been so. Even if one looks back no further than the American entry into the Second World War, many in the Conservative Party have harboured doubts about America. This was most potent among the "diehards," who were British imperialists rather than Bruce Willis fans. The diehards were Conservatives who believed that Britain's place was as an imperial power. They coalesced in the 1930s around Winston Churchill's opposition to home rule in India although their roots can be traced back to earlier Tory Imperialism.
In the 1930s Britain was coming to grips with a strategic crisis; while being responsible for the security of a quarter of the world her relative economic decline was starting to tell. Most of the British ruling classes, including the leadership of the Conservative Party, saw the need to allow a degree of self-government to the Empire. The diehards saw this, correctly, as leading on to home rule and from there to independence. This was anathema, and throughout the 1930s they opposed in parliament and the press any measure to grant self-government to India.
Then came the war, and the war changed everything. With their erstwhile leader Churchill in office, they could not protest at the mortgaging of the military bases to Roosevelt or the rapid loss of the capital that had sustained the Empire. In one respect, the critique of the American isolationists on entry into the Second World War was dead wrong, the war did not save the British Empire but mortally wounded it. The diehards sensed this and for fifteen years from the end of the war, the resistance was sporadic, led by small groups such as the League of Empire Loyalists.
Then there was Suez, an experience Americans often underestimate. When the Suez Canal was nationalised without compensating the British and French investors, the governments of Britain, France and Israel decided to launch a punitive expedition. Before the war, this would not have been much remarked upon, this was gunboat diplomacy. Eisenhower thought otherwise, seeing Third World support as a bigger prize in the Cold War than Anglo-French pride. There followed a run on the British pound and London folded, taking with them the French and the Israelis. The majority of the Conservative Party took this as a lesson that Britain was nothing without America, but a small minority stuck to the view of Enoch Powell and concluded that America was simply not to be trusted.
Suez also meant that Britain saw the decolonisation process that had been going on fitfully since the 1920s should be stepped up a gear. This was the undertone of a speech made in Africa in 1960 by the then British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. The Winds of Change speech was an abdication speech made on behalf of the British Empire. From that point on there was to be no illusion of permanence about the British Empire, everything had to go.
This speech was almost designed to upset the maximum amount of imperialists within the Conservative Party, and they soon formed themselves into the Monday Club. This organisation became a totem of the right organising around many domestic issues, notably immigration and Europe. With the Cold War, it was perhaps inevitable that the scepticism towards America would take a back seat. While France was captivated by Gaullism, the only prominent Tory who would criticise America from the right was Enoch Powell.
Over the years, the membership of the Monday Club declined after splits in the 1970s and the ameliorative effect of Margaret Thatcher. However, it stood for a traditional conservatism that could not be wholly defined by the party leadership. In the last month, it has been told that it must effectively place itself under the control of the professional party or wind itself up. This independence frightens the Conservative Party more than any views on race or immigration. An independent-minded group within the Conservative Party would gravitate naturally towards the traditional Conservative position of an independent foreign policy, and Iain Duncan Smith's foreign policy is by no means independent.
Another organisation that could create problems for the Atlanticist policy of Iain Duncan Smith is the magazine Right Now!. Here I've got to declare an interest, I have written two short columns for the magazine on foreign policy, although I am not from their "new right" milieu. Right Now is linked to the Monday Club, in that many of the people who founded it were involved in the "Young Monday Club", which was in effect the student arm in the late 1980s. However, it is quite a different creature.
The Young Monday Club deserves some attention, although it was an integral part of the grown up Monday Club many of its members started to question the diehard instincts and unquestioning party loyalty of their parent organisation. The Young Monday Club, at least in student politics, was shaped by its relationship with the Libertarian faction of the Federation of Conservative Students. The Libertarian faction was brash, ideological and self-confident. The "authoritarians" as they were known were often rather jealous of their sporadic allies. This, together with a natural undergraduate yearning for a clear ideological framework, drew some of them towards the European "new right", whose calls for cultural preservation made for a natural if unconscious suspicion of American domination. Most lapsed back into Tory careerism and the loyalist instincts of the "grown up" Monday Club, indeed leaving the Monday Club altogether. Some went all the way into far-right parties like the BNP, and others looked at trying to reshape the political culture but without falling for the failed policies or tactics of fascism.
One of the first forays was supremely political. The Revolutionary Conservative Caucus was a group that although it had its roots in the Monday Club, was radically different from it. Modeling itself on the Trotskyite groups that had taken over large chunks of the Labour Party in the 1980s they consciously tried to infiltrate Conservative associations and take them over. They also adopted the language and the dubious associations of their Marxist counterparts, in this case a close association with the Front National in France. Conservative Central Office saw this as very bad news indeed and promptly banned the ringleaders.
After this fiasco some of the group went on to form the more civilised, and far more broad-minded, magazine called Right Now!. This magazine is in tone and content rather like the London Spectator, although less restrained by the proprietor's whims. Right Now! is a magazine that is growing in circulation and readership. Its central argument is that the right, while rather good on the economic front, is ignoring the cultural framework. This does not immediately fit into any foreign policy framework, however it does lead to a debate on the fitting Conservative response to foreign affairs. This is precisely what Iain Duncan Smith does not want.
Iain Duncan Smith is no unthinking Atlanticist; he is fully paid-for. His expenses-paid trips to America are legendary in Parliament. His contacts on the warmongering wing of the Republican Party are so good that when he was the Opposition Defence spokesman he actually managed to meet Dick Cheney before the Government Defence minister did. He has also given evidence to Congress on the European Defence Initiative and given lectures to the Heritage Foundation in Washington DC. The only other MP who comes close to this level of transatlantic contact is Julian Lewis. Mr. Lewis is in charge of the purge of "right wingers" within the party.
It is not that Iain Duncan Smith is in any meaningful way moderate. He has made speeches on the pressures produced by the high number of immigrants in his constituency and has asked questions on voluntary repatriation. Although more liberal on social issues than commonly credited, he is no libertarian. In short, he is no man to preach on not upsetting polite society. Julian Lewis is similarly on the hard right of the Conservative party, and not the Libertarian right either. The campaign against Right Now! and the Monday Club is likely to create trouble for Duncan Smith in that it will draw attention to his previous statements, identical in tone to those of the Monday Club. It is a very odd fight to start, and it seems to be striking at his allies on the non-Libertarian right of the party.
Many people see Duncan Smith's moves as a vain PR exercise to impress the liberal media by showing that he shares some of their values. There may be some truth to this, but there is another, far more worrying motive. He intends to pre-empt discussion of foreign policy on the right, at a time when his only criticism is that they aren't committing enough to the war effort. I wouldn't really mind, but its hardly got started.
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