openDemocracyUK: News

Boris Johnson is far from the only senior Tory to echo far-Right conspiracies

The prime minister’s slur against Keir Starmer is dominating headlines – but his ministers have often made similarly baseless claims

Adam Bychawski
9 February 2022, 12.55pm
Boris Johnson has been met with outrage after repeating a far-Right slur against Keir Starmer
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PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Boris Johnson’s slur against Keir Starmer has dominated headlines for a week.

Ministers have been questioned on a near-daily basis about the prime minister’s claim that Starmer, in his years as director of public prosecutions, was personally responsible for failing to prosecute paedophile Jimmy Savile.

Johnson’s policy chief, Munira Mirza, even quit on Friday, blaming Johnson’s refusal to withdraw the claim, which has been circulating in fascist circles online for years. The same day, chancellor Rishi Sunak admitted he “wouldn’t have said” what Johnson did.

But far less outrage has been directed at the government’s prior record of amplifying the far-Right. Here are four examples.

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Cultural Marxism

The phrase ‘Cultural Marxism’ centres on a conspiracy theory that Christian and Conservative values within Western society have been undermined by the theories of a niche group of Marxist, and largely Jewish, inter-war German scholars. The phrase has been circulated among far-Right groups in the US since the 1990s and was later cited in the manifesto of far-Right terrorist and mass murder Anders Behring Breivik.

Yet it has been used by more than two dozen Tory MPs and peers, despite warnings by Jewish groups of its antisemitic origins.

In November 2020, 26 Tory MPs accused the National Trust of being “coloured by Cultural Marxism dogma” in a letter to The Telegraph after the trust produced a report that examined its properties’ relationship to the slave trade and colonialism.

Priti Patel has been criticised for inciting violence against migrants and human rights lawyers

A month earlier, two Tory MPs – John Hayes and Tom Hunt – used the term in Parliament while criticising a debate during Black History Month that proposed diversifying education by introducing more Black authors into schools’ curriculums.

The current attorney general, Suella Braverman, repeated the phrase in a speech condemning “a culture of censorship” in 2019. Braverman said she stood by the term even after she was asked about its far-Right connections during a question and answer session directly after the speech.

‘Hard-Left extremist network’

Another variation on the conspiracy theory was published by The Sun’s political editor, Tom Newton Dunn, just weeks before the 2019 general election.

The piece, headlined ‘HIJACKED LABOUR’, claimed that former British intelligence officers had uncovered a “hard-Left extremist network” at the heart of the Labour Party, including “Marxist intellectuals” and “militant groups”.

But researchers quickly discovered that the web page on which the article was based listed antisemitic and Neo-Nazi groups as sources.

Tory MP Anne-Marie Trevelyan, now the international trade secretary, tweeted a link to the article after it was published, which remains on her profile despite The Sun having removed the story without comment.

Immigration

Tory MPs have also been accused of echoing far-Right rhetoric around immigration. Last year, the home secretary, Priti Patel, was criticised for inciting violence against migrants and human rights lawyers in an open letter by four charities, including Hope Not Hate.

The letter came after Patel denounced “do-gooders” and “lefty lawyers” for representing asylum seekers despite a law firm specialising in asylum cases having recently been attacked. It later transpired that the home secretary had targeted the legal profession even after being briefed about the attack by the police. The alleged attacker is awaiting trial.

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Patel has also made false claims that refugees who arrive in the UK by crossing the Channel are “illegal”. In December, a High Court judge ruled that refugees trying to reach the UK by sea have not committed a crime. Home Office lawyers said a “misunderstanding” about the law had been rectified.

But the home secretary, the attorney general and ministers Victoria Atkins, Baroness Williams of Trafford, James Heappey and Baroness Goldie have continued to repeat the falsehood that Channel crossings are criminal even after the ruling.

The claim is repeatedly made by far-Right groups including extremists who have filmed themselves targeting hotels where refugees have been temporarily housed.

Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities

Last month, the government was accused of criminalising nomadic lifestyles in new trespassing laws introduced as part of its flagship Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.

Traveller groups said that the bill is the latest in a long line of attacks against their community by the Tory party.

Last year, Travellers told openDemocracy that the now Scottish Tory leader, Douglas Ross, had orchestrated a campaign to stop new Traveller sites when he was a councillor in 2010.

When he was first elected an MP in 2017, Ross notoriously said that his number one priority if he were prime minister for a day, would be “tougher enforcement against Gypsy Travellers”.

During the 2019 election, housing secretary Michael Gove listed cracking down on “illegal traveller incursions” as a key priority, while Patel claimed communities live “in fear” of Travellers.

Traveller groups say the comments should be seen in a wider context of rising anti-Gypsyism. A 2016 report by the Council of Europe found that anti-Roma agendas have played a role in the relative success of several far-Right parties across Europe.

The council warned that politicians were giving “silent approval” to extremist groups by failing to condemn or combat anti-Gypsyism.

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