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If hiring one disgraced former British prime minister is unfortunate, what’s taking on two at the same time?
I ask because this is exactly what an organisation called the International Democracy Union (IDU) has done. In the last couple of weeks, the IDU added both Boris Johnson and Liz Truss to its advisory board.
Truss’s new role went largely unnoticed. (I only spotted it on her Twitter feed a couple of days ago.) But Johnson’s elevation prompted incredulity: how could a PM who prorogued parliament, introduced voter ID and ran roughshod over parliamentary standards give advice on democracy?
These are all reasonable questions. But there are even better ones that I’ve not seen anyone ask: just what is the International Democracy Union? Who is involved? And who is bankrolling it?
So I decided to take a look – and found an organisation funded by a major Tory donor that stands accused of “whitewashing illiberal autocrats”.
Founded in 1983, the IDU describes itself as “the global alliance of the centre right”. It hosts regular networking events and conferences around the world and counted Margaret Thatcher and George Bush senior among its early champions.
The IDU has an address in Munich and lists 84 parties as members, including the Tories, German CDU and the Swedish Christian Democrats and a host of other centre-right outfits – but the ‘union’ also includes members on the extreme right of the political spectrum.
Viktor Orbán’s party Fidesz is a member. A self-styled ‘’illiberal democrat’, Orbán has gerrymandered Hungary’s electoral system, nobbled the judiciary and banned LGBT teaching in schools. While Orbán is busy shaking hands with Putin, his party has trumpeted its membership of the IDU as evidence of its success.
Orbán is not the only voice from the radical right involved in the IDU. Perennial GOP presidential hopeful Ted Cruz, who has perpetuated Donald Trump’s myth of a stolen election in 2020, gave the keynote speech at the IDU’s annual conference in Washington DC in December.
Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was listed as a member on the IDU website as recently as August. While novelist Arundhati Roy has accused Modi of presiding over a “fascist drift”, the IDU congratulated the Indian prime minister on his most recent election victory. (I asked the IDU if the BJP had left the union, but have yet to receive a response.)
Orbán, Modi, Trump. These are hardly friends of democracy.
Author and authoritarianism expert Anne Applebaum told me that “if the IDU admits Orbán as a member, then it isn’t an organisation that defends democracy, but rather one that whitewashes illiberal autocrats.”
British Conservative MPs and advisors have been publicly slapped down for cosying up to Orbán – yet when I asked the Tories why the party is in a union with ‘illiberal democrats’ like Fidesz I got no reply.
Edward McMillan-Scott, who led the Conservatives in the European Parliament from 1997 to 2001, said that the IDU began as a mainstream centre-right alliance but started to move rightward from the 2000s.
“David Cameron’s association following the 2009 Euro-election with Europe’s far-right parties – Poland’s PiS, the Czech ODS and later the post-fascist Brothers of Italy – set a new direction for the Tories – and the IDU,” said McMillian-Scott.
“It is tragic that the IDU, once the home of moderate centre-right politicians, has now allowed these extreme parties into its ranks,” he added.
Today, the IDU hierarchy is peppered with British Conservative politicians – and a notable political donor.
Tory MP Alec Shelbrooke is an assistant chairman. Former MEP Daniel Hannan is a vice-chairman. David Cameron and William Hague are on the advisory board. Foreign secretary James Cleverly attended the IDU’s 40th anniversary in London in June, while Boris Johnson delivered a “rousing speech” to delegates at the Savile Club.
Belize-based Tory donor Michael Ashcroft appears to be bankrolling the growing links between Conservative MPs and the IDU. Ashcroft, the IDU’s honorary chairman, paid for Liz Truss and former Tory party chairman Sir Jake Berry to travel to Washington for December’s conference, at a cost of £12,210 and £6,420 respectively, according to the Register of Members Interests.
From the IDU to May’s National Conservatism conference, British Tories seem to be increasingly plugged into international right-wing networks.
This week cabinet ministers Michael Gove and Kemi Badenoch appeared alongside Jordan Petersen and GOP presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy at the Alliance for Responsible Citizenship (ARC) conference in London. The Conservative Right might be talking about national borders, but it seems its operation – and its funders – are becoming ever more global.