Today
Thu 6 May 2021

Jon Bloomfield and David Edgar deconstruct the nationalist-populist conspiracy narratives that seek to divide and rule

It is of no wonder that the right-wing commentariat greeted the Commission on Racial and Ethnic Disparities‘ Government-commissioned report with unalloyed joy. The report seeks to divide communities of colour against one another and validates a crucial element of the current national-populist narrative: the concept of “the white working-class”.

This narrative alleges that a liberal, cosmopolitan elite is flooding the country with immigrant workers, in the interests of global finance capital. 

The ‘cosmopolitan elite’ concept is not a new idea or an exclusively British one – a virulent version was around in the 1930s, and the current variant is being cultivated by nationalist populists across Europe and America. In Britain, it is being promoted by ‘culture war’ Conservatives and some former Labour supporters.

Despite the iniquities of the voting system, the Conservatives know that the ground is moving against them, hence their drive for a new divisive model focused on cultural warfare

In his 2013 book on immigration, The British Dream, David Goodhart blamed the increase of immigration under New Labour on a conspiracy between New Labour globalisers wanting to suppress wages and multiculturalists wanting to “rub the right’s nose in diversity”. In her 2016 conference speech (co-written by national-populist Nick Timothy), Theresa May’s “citizens of nowhere” were “people in positions of power” in thrall to “international elites”. 

Just before a short stint at Downing Street, former Times journalist Tim Montgomerie set out the clearest exposition of this politics in Prospect magazine, arguing for a “social Thatcherism” – a re-balancing “from a conservatism of freedom to a conservatism of locality and security”.

Montgomerie argued that, within the Conservative Party, “the magnetism of national sovereignty needs to overtake the magnetism of free markets”. The political significance of this anti-globalisation shift from market economics to national populism is that it enables Conservatives to appeal to workers with an apparent ‘anti-capitalist’ message, challenging the iniquities of foreign capital at the same time as decrying foreigners and refugees.


Multinational ‘Woke’ Firms

This new model is advocated by a group of commentators attached to the national-populist Unherd website – including Goodhart; philosopher John Gray; Blue Labour guru Maurice Glasman; trade unionist Paul Embery; and Matthew Goodwin, an academic who co-wrote a perceptive book on the rise of UKIP but has become a fervent advocate of what he started out analysing.

Goodwin has now given the conspiracy theory an explicitly racial twist. Writing about the recent report into racial and ethnic disparities in the Daily Mail, he noted that “minority ethnic groups” are now pulling ahead of white people – a conclusion which “does not sit neatly with ‘woke’ dogma”. This dogma is promoted by “highly educated whites” in alliance with multinational firms, with the end result being an “informal alliance between white elites, corporations and minorities, against the white working-class”.

In Britain and America, the conspiracy narrative is currently corroborated by the phenomenon of ‘woke capitalism’, whereby – as Goodwin puts it – “multinational firms” voice “strong support for the new belief system, while doing all they can to avoid paying a fair share of tax and doing more for their working-class employees”. As the “new belief system” is racial equality, “working-class employees” are clearly cast as white, as if workers of colour don’t have an interest in companies paying tax.

The principal target of British critics of ‘woke capitalism’ – usually the consequence of pressure from a multiracial workforce – is clearly not so much the capitalism as the woke: would Matthew Goodwin have been quite so appalled by Sainsbury’s announcing redundancies in a tweet had the company not also been supporting Black History Month? 

Both the ‘white working-class’ and ‘woke capitalism’ are ideological constructs designed to obscure the fact that Britain’s workplaces – from factories to farms, hospitals to hospitality – are now largely multiracial. But the working-class of which Goodwin writes is never black, Asian or mixed-race – nor does it appear to be Polish, Irish or Scottish. In 2019, Goodwin employed the Powellite trope of indigenous workers “feeling like strangers in their own country”.

Class divisions certainly still scar British society, but the class dividing line is not between white workers and their colleagues from minority backgrounds, but – where it has always been – between workers of all ethnicities and their employers.

For Goodwin, the conspiracy theory is not just about elites seeking to impose their liberal values on the mass of the people, it is those elites working in alliance with racial minorities against white people. Goodwin blames highly-educated elitists for encouraging everybody “to view the world through the prism of race”, but it is he who offers a racialised, conspiratorial narrative to attract nationalist-minded working-class voters to the Conservative Party.


Conspiracy’s Dangerous Popular Appeal

The contemporary conspiracy theory has clearly gained traction in the ‘Red Wall’ seats which Labour lost to the Conservatives in the 2019 General Election.

In her granular analysis of first-time Conservative voters, Beyond the Red Wall, pollster Deborah Mattinson finds that, although many of their grievances are actually economic (lack of job opportunities, inadequate local facilities, decline of the high street), Red Wallers have assimilated the key concepts of national-populist theory – including hostility to London, students and graduates (when not their own children).

Living in places with lower immigrant populations than cities, they have picked up tabloid mythologies about scrounger immigrants. (One of the most striking omissions in the recent report on racial and ethnic disparities, which claimed that racial discrimination is exaggerated, is any reference at all to the tabloid press). Most importantly, Mattinson’s Red-Wallers have ingested key national-populist terms including ‘political correctness’, ‘socially conservative’ and – especially – ‘the elites’.

Anyone looking at the inter-war years is aware both of the dangers of conspiracy theories and of their potential appeal. Donald Trump used them to alarming effect in the 2016 US Presidential Election, claiming that “Hillary Clinton meets in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of US sovereignty in order to enrich these global financial powers”.

In his co-written book, National Populism, Matthew Goodwin outlines an adjacent conspiracy by “billionaire Hungarian-Jewish financier George Soros”, seeking to flood Christian Europe with Muslim refugees “to usher in a borderless world that is subservient to capitalism” – a theory which Goodwin describes as “not entirely without credence”.  

In the UK, these arguments are not just dividing working people along racial lines – they are also driving a wedge through the alliance between the working-class and liberal middle-class, which brought about most of the progressive social achievements of the past century, from the founding of the welfare estate to the social reforms of the 1960s and beyond.

The new fault-line in politics constructed by the national-populists is designed to have supporters of that alliance make an agonising choice between voting for interventionist economics or social liberalism. In fact, it is possible and practical to vote for both, as more than 12 million people did in 2017, as well as in 1997 and 1966.


The Politics of Division

We face a clear choice about our future. Do we remain a deeply divided country, fiercely unequal in terms of income and race, defined by toxic, conspiratorial fantasies? Or do we seek to build on the progressive national unity demonstrated in the first months of the Coronavirus pandemic?

The terrain is more favourable than it looks. Attitude polling suggests that – in reality – Britain is moving left-ward on social and economic issues. For all of Paul Embery’s contempt for what he calls a “protracted moral lecture”, more Premier League football fans support taking the knee than oppose it, and the nation will cheer on a multi-racial England team this summer. 

Even in the harsh reality of electoral politics, liberal progressivism outdoes conservatism. In every election this century bar 2015, the combined popular vote – as opposed to seats – won by the progressive parties (Labour, Liberal Democrat, Green and Nationalist) comfortably exceeded the votes cast for the Conservatives and UKIP/the Brexit Party, even in 2019.

Despite the iniquities of the voting system, the Conservatives know that the ground is moving against them, hence their drive for a new divisive model focused on cultural warfare.

In response, progressives need to focus on the economic and social issues that concern the various components of today’s working-class, combined with new ways to talk about race. A savvy Left can defeat the divisive ideas offered by the national-populists.

Jon Bloomfield is a writer, environmental practitioner and author of ‘Our City: Migrants and the Making of Modern Birmingham’. David Edgar is a playwright and commentator, whose recent work includes an autobiographical solo show, ‘Trying it On’. Since 2009, Edgar has written extensively about the new fault-line in world politics. In the 1980s, both authors were on the editorial board of Marxism Today’

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