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Revealed: Files expose ‘culture war’ ties between anti-abortion groups and Brexit

WikiLeaks: The Intolerance Network files

Leading Conservatives, including a Tory Party donor and Vote Leave’s Matthew Elliott, named in some of the 17,000 documents released by WikiLeaks last week

Tatev.jpg Claire Provost author pic
Tatev Hovhannisyan Claire Provost
12 August 2021, 7.41am
Hedge fund billionaire and Brexit backer Michael Hintze has given millions to the Tory party
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Acton Institute. Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

The depth of the ties between leading Conservative Brexiteers and the global Christian Right, anti-abortion and anti-LGBT movement are laid bare in a series of documents released by WikiLeaks last week. They are among 17,000 internal files originating from controversial ultra-conservative campaigning organisations in Spain.

The files include copies of speeches in which activists talk openly about how to launch worldwide “culture wars” and import controversial American tactics into the UK. They also include programmes and speakers’ lists from several meetings that were held in the UK between 2011 and 2013, behind closed doors and without public scrutiny.

A leading Tory donor, Vote Leave’s CEO Matthew Elliott and an MP who advised David Davis when Brexit Secretary are among a number of prominent British conservatives who are listed as speakers or attendees at these meetings – organised by UK, US and other international right-wing activists and strategists.

The extent of the connections between figures in the Brexit movement and the international Right has long been a subject of debate, but files included in the WikiLeaks release suggest that these ties are deeper and more long-standing than previously reported – more than a decade old, at least.

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“We are eager to interact with and learn from the most effective [people…] who have fought the ‘culture war’ in their own countries (that’s you),” said Ignacio Arsuaga, founder of the Madrid-based ultra-conservative group CitizenGo, at a 2011 event in London entitled ‘The Future of the Family in Coalition Britain’, according to notes of the speech he gave.

This was a regional event of the World Congress of Families (WCF) – an influential ultra-conservative network founded after meetings between US and Russian campaigners in the 1990s. The WCF opposes reproductive and sexual rights including rights to abortion, contraception, same-sex marriage and sex education.

In 2011, five years before the Brexit vote, scheduled speakers at the WCF London event included anti-abortion and anti-LGBT rights campaigners – as well as the Conservative MP Stewart Jackson, later special adviser to Brexit Secretary David Davis, and Graeme Leach, later a member of Economists for Brexit (since renamed Economists for Free Trade).

“This cache of documents would appear to illustrate the point” of how “around the world today, nationalism is not national,” said Katherine Stewart, the New York-based author of the 2020 book ‘The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism’.

“Reactionary and authoritarian movements are springing up everywhere [... and they can] share resources, ideas, strategies and even individual actors,” Stewart said. “This is the tremendous irony of Brexit. It wasn’t just about Britain. The reaction to globalism is no less global than globalism itself.”

‘What these documents reveal is the degree of covert cross-fertilisation and collaboration between Right and far-Right organisations globally’

Frederick Clarkson, a researcher at the Political Research Associates, a social justice think tank based in Massachusetts, said that these “strategic documents” demonstrate that the agenda of the Christian Right is broader than “matters of sexuality and gender” and that it is also about “the erosion, if not the elimination of liberal democracy”.

Tom Brake, director of the UK NGO Unlock Democracy, commented: “What these documents reveal is the degree of covert cross-fertilisation and collaboration between disparate Right and far-Right organisations globally.”

Exporting US tactics

It is unclear what exactly was discussed at the 2011 London event. In the WikiLeaks release, there appear to be copies of only two speeches from the meeting – including one from Arsuaga of CitizenGo in which he thanked another speaker for his insights into “today’s attacks on marriage and the family”.

That speaker was a lawyer from the US Christian Right legal group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which later supplied numerous staffers to President Trump’s administration. In 2017, ADF’s global wing opened a London office, from which it has ​​opposed ‘buffer zones’ around abortion clinics, among other things.

The second speech from the 2011 event is by UK anti-abortion activist Robert Colquhoun, in which he spoke about “being inspired” by US counterparts. Since then, Colquhoun has been credited by the American 40 Days for Life anti-abortion campaign for exporting the campaign to the UK and organising protests outside abortion clinics. (These actions in turn prompted the calls for ‘buffer zones’ that groups like ADF oppose.)

Also in the WikiLeaks release are files from a 2012 five-day training event organised in England by the US group the Leadership Institute (which says graduates of its trainings include Trump’s vice president Mike Pence).

Listed speakers on that event’s programme include Benjamin Harris (now known as Ben Harris-Quinney), chairman of the right-wing think tank the Bow Group – a cadre of Conservative MPs and supporters that backed Arron Banks’s hardline Leave.EU group in the Brexit referendum. Also on the programme is Matthew Elliott, who became CEO of Vote Leave – which won out over Leave.EU to become the official campaign group in the 2016 referendum.

In 2013, the UK yet again played host to international right-wingers. The “London Strategic Retreat” was “meant to be a less formal meeting of individuals from North America and Europe to network and discuss two main issues”: strategies for successful anti-abortion activism and whether to set up “a Christian-inspired European think tank” – according to another document in the WikiLeaks release.

This event programme says “the meeting is strictly confidential” and will take place at the Belgravia office of CQS – an asset management firm founded by Australian billionaire Michael Hintze, who has given at least £4.5m to the Conservative party and £200,000 to Vote Leave.

The “List of Participants (CONFIDENTIAL)” includes names of anti-abortion and anti-LGBT rights campaigners that also attended the WCF meeting in 2011, such as Arsuaga and Oliver Hylton (a close financial adviser of Hintze).

Unprecedented detail

The documents WikiLeaks released date from 2001 to 2017 and include spreadsheets of donors and members, strategy and planning files, letters, financial charts and legal and training documents. They include both files from within Arsuaga’s groups, as well as those from their networks and partners, such as the WCF.

Some people will have seen these files before. “The dataset appears to be the same that was online briefly in 2017 after a hack that was claimed by the ‘ACAB Gang’, but after legal action was removed from being published,” WikiLeaks said, adding that releasing them is “part of our goal to protect censored documents”.

WikiLeaks was founded by Julian Assange, who since 2019 has been held in a maximum-security prison in London – in what the International Federation of Journalists has condemned as a “politically motivated and prolonged detention”. The US continues to fight to have him extradited to face charges in its courts.

Reports of the links between US conservatives and leading figures in the Brexit movement started to emerge in the wake of Britain’s vote in 2016 to leave the European Union. In 2018, openDemocracy revealed emails between former Trump adviser Steve Bannon and Brexit bankroller Arron Banks ahead of the Brexit vote.

Bannon later said that he started to come to the UK regularly from early 2013, meeting Nigel Farage and others close to UKIP. “I came over and spoke to the Young Britons,” Bannon said in an interview with openDemocracy’s UK investigations editor Peter Geoghegan. “I started speaking to all those groups.”

openDemocracy contacted the people and organisations named in this story for comment.

The Bow Group said: “We don't discriminate at all based on identity politics, as having a sexual preference is not a political position, but lobbying the government under the guise of representing groups of people, as lobby organisations like Stonewall and BLM do, is a political position and must be open to criticism in a free democratic society.”

“We also strongly support the special relationship between the United States and United Kingdom, and often work with American conservatives to promote the values of conservatism globally.”

None of the others responded apart from Brian Brown, President of the World Congress of Families, who declined to comment.

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