Johnson IS Britain’s Trump

The Conservative Party is now racing to disassociate itself from the US Republican Party and Donald Trump. In the Times on January 8th James Forsyth did his best to argue that Boris Johnson was a very different politician from Trump. But he did not deny that the political, personal and financial links between the American Right and the British Conservatives have been growing closer for many years, and that right-wing foundations and think tanks in the USA have worked hard to infiltrate British Conservatism.

This first struck me many years ago, when at Heathrow at the beginning of a short parliamentary recess and waiting for a plane to Washington (full disclosure: I was going to a conference sponsored by the German Marshall Fund and the Transatlantic Policy Forum). There were over a dozen Conservative MPs boarding alongside me, none of them foreign policy specialists, going to a Heritage Foundation conference and to meet Republican Congressmen and advisers.

MPs’ declarations of financial interests show how widespread and frequent these paid visits to the USA have been. Few visits to EU states are listed; since David Cameron withdrew the Conservatives from the European People’s Party, contacts with mainstream conservatives on the continent have shrivelled, although right-wing Conservatives have cultivated Viktor Orban in Hungary and the Law and Justice Party in Poland. (Paid-for visits to Gulf states are also frequently listed; that’s another area where personal and financial links overlap with political ties for Conservatives.)

Data on financial flows to right-wing think tanks is scrappy. Most don’t publish their sources of income. I once heard a Conservative fund-raiser explaining that they recommended to non-citizen and offshore donors that they give to think tanks rather than directly to the party, because names would not need to be published. The Taxpayers’ Alliance was founded explicitly on the model of its Washington equivalent; some US financial support, at least, has been admitted. The well-funded Henry Jackson Society, which promotes a neo-conservative world view for ‘Global Britain’, has an American fund-raising arm; it has also paid for visits by leading MPs to the USA. Policy Exchange does not publish its funders, either; right-wing US foundations may well be among its many donors.

Right-wing Americans have successfully spread an anti-state libertarianism across many of the new generation of Conservative MPs. They have also promoted the idea of an Anglo-Saxon world, turning away from Europe. It’s striking that members of the European Research Group demand that the EU treats Britain as ‘a sovereign equal’, but do not demand anything similar of the USA. Their implicit assumption is that Britain remains America’s loyal and special partner, and that we should accept the demands that Washington makes to maintain that relationship.

Johnson, Gove and others are all now trying to forget the photos of them fawning on Trump, both during the 2016 election campaign and since. They will pretend they did not notice the underlying white racism that Trump fuelled, nor his contempt for the conventions of constitutional democracy. They may even back off from their populist claims to represent ‘the will of the people’ against the dreadful ‘liberal establishment’ and its institutions.

We, on our part, should do everything we can to remind them of their closeness to Trump and the populist American right. We should remind the local Conservatives we interact with, in Council meetings and elsewhere, of the dangerous company their leaders have been keeping: dangerous to British democracy as well as to American, labelling constructive opposition as unacceptably liberal, socialist or even communist, teetering on the edge of encouraging violence to counter reasoned debate. Johnson and Gove’s government is not a Conservative government in the British tradition. It is right-wing enterprise that draws on the paranoid tradition of American populism, funded by dark money from offshore sources and US billionaires. It’s unBritish, unpatriotic, alien to the English political traditions which they claim to defend. And decent people, we should urge, should leave a party that has sunk this low.

* Lord Wallace of Saltaire is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords.

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8 Comments

  • Then it is up to us among others to remind people. Johnson will lie cheat bribe con his way out of every crisis if we let him.

  • John Marriott 11th Jan '21 - 2:09pm

    We have been led by some dodgy people before and so has the USA. I have never rated Johnson but I’m not surprised how easy it is to pull the wool over many people’s eyes. Getting rid of populists will not solve the problem, because, until governments around the world tackle the way those individuals and organisations with money and power continue to manipulate the system to their own benefit, more populists will emerge, backed by supranational forces, operating, like Roman Emperors, on the principle of ‘Bread and Circusses’.

    We need a reboot. Governments need to get a grip on the way money is shuffled round the world into tax havens and individual pockets. We need a Bretton Woods Mark Two. In the meantime we have to find a way of exposing this bunch of incompetent politicians, with a few honourable exceptions, masquerading as a government. The trouble is that it’s about as easy as wrestling with treacle!

  • Jenny Barnes 11th Jan '21 - 3:00pm

    It seems to me that the reason the UK government is trying to dissociate itself from trumpism after the Capitol riots is the ideology that politics is something only the elite should be allowed to do. The very idea of the people actually having a say is anathema.

  • John McHugo 11th Jan '21 - 5:39pm

    Let’s not forget Johnson’s illegal attempt to prorogue Parliament. It rarely seems to be mentioned these days, but we must make sure it comes back to haunt him. It was a moment of pure Trumpism.

  • The point about a UK version of Trumpism is an extemely important one, but looking ahead it might not be Boris who fulfils that leadership role, but someone else. It could be stirred by Farage again, even if he does not get elected. The subtle way in which these people build their power base, using the genuine greivances of people in the neglected communities together with some people of great wealth and extreme rightwing views, needs to be challenged. One reason we lost the Brexit debate was because pro-Europeans did not wake up to what was going on until it was too late.

  • Short-term pragmatism, cleverness and self interest seem to be the driving values of this Conservative government. The number of U-turns is astounding. There does not seem to be any loyalty to an idea. Coupled with an almost virtue in manipulating the truth it must be time for a change. However with climate change replacing Covid there is still plenty of opportunity for these. What we need are politicians who at least explain their reasoning and have some humility. Bring back the fire side chats of previous PMs.

  • George Thomas 13th Jan '21 - 10:05am

    I see Boris and his government more like Britain’s Orban. Far more dangerous as their destructive actions are less high profile on a world stage and there are fewer checks and balances to reduce their influence.

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