The Tea Party movement: five highlights

We pick out the movement's controversies, following Sarah Palin's keynote speech to the first nation

Sarah Palin said last night that the US is "ready for another revolution" and condemned Barack Obama's budget as "immoral" in her keynote speech to the first national Tea Party Convention in Nashville, Tennessee.

The Tea Party movement is a grass-roots network of conservatives, a protest movement that sprang up in early 2009. But while they are united in their opposition to Obama's health-care programme, public spending and the growth of government, the 600 delegates who gathered at the Gaylord Hotel (I know . . .) are a rather disparate group of angry right-wingers.

So, as Palin calls for a revolution and taunts Obama ("How's that hopey, changey stuff workin' out for ya?" -- a direct quotation), I thought it was about time to pick five highlights from the Tea Party movement's short history.

1. Palin's notes

The more observant among you might have noticed some scribbles on Sarah Palin's palm, in photos of her giving her speech, in which she mocked Obama's use of a teleprompter.

Oh, irony is a beautiful thing. It appears that Palin, while eschewing a teleprompter, has written herself some helpful notes on her hand.

Stefan Sirucek at the Huffington Post provides this blown-up image:

Tea Party Palin 

It's arguable how useful these notes will have been, but then, Palin works in mysterious ways. Ben Smith at Politico translates it thus:

It appears to be an outline:

Energy
Budget Tax Cuts
Lift American Spirits

Fiscal hawks will note that the difference between budget cuts and tax cuts is pretty much the core of the criticism of Republican economics.

2. Opening-night bigotry

This one's not so funny. The convention's opening speech by Tom Tancredo, a former Republican congressman from Denver, focused primarily on illegal immigration. Amid the standard bigotry about "Islamification" and the "cult of multiculturalism" was an even more worrying historical reference to racial segregation.

He said that Obama had been elected only because "we do not have a civics literacy test before people can vote in this country". This refers to the practice -- banned by the 1964 civil rights legislation -- of setting prohibitively difficult tests to prevent black people from getting the vote in segregated Southern states.

Tancredo received a standing ovation for his speech.

3. Money-making

There was controversy around the convention before it even began. It emerged at the end of last month that Palin's fee was in the region of $100,000, while tickets to the weekend were $550 a head.

If that doesn't seem like it's in keeping with the whole "grass-roots" thing, that's probably because it isn't -- the event was also sponsored by corporations, making the whole convention look like a nice little money-spinner.

Palin said she won't benefit from the fee, and told the adoring crowds last night that "This isn't about money", although that's easy to say when you've just been paid more than $1,000 a minute to make a speech.

4. Questionable placards

Tea Party rallies attract a broad range of reactionaries, and the movement has become notorious for the offensive signs displayed. The Huffington Post has photos of some choice highlights, including:

"Obama's plan: white slavery"

"The American taxpayers are the Jews for Obama's ovens"

"Barack Hussein Obama: the new face of Hitler"

5. Tea Party: the Movie

 

Everything about this documentary looks brilliant. What more can I say?

 

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Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Two referendums have revived the Tories and undone Labour

The Scottish vote enabled the Conservatives' rebirth as the party of the Union; the Brexit vote has gifted Theresa May a project to reunite a fragmented right.

In the final week of the Scottish independence referendum campaign, as the Union appeared in peril, David Cameron pleaded with voters to punish his party rather than Scotland. “If you are fed up with the effing Tories, give them a kick,” he said. Cameron’s language reflected a settled view: the Conservatives were irredeemably loathed by Scots. For nearly two decades, the party had no more than one MP north of the border. Changing the party’s name for devolved contests was discussed.

Since becoming Conservative leader, Theresa May has pursued a hard – she prefers “clean” – Brexit strategy that Scots voted against and the Conservatives have achieved a UK-wide poll lead of 20 points.

Yet rather than regressing, the Scottish Conservatives have resurged. On 22 April, a Panelbase poll put them on 33 per cent in Scotland (a rise of 18 points since 2015). A favoured Labour barb used to be that there were more pandas (two) in Scotland than Tory MPs (one). The poll would leave the Tories with 12 seats and Corbyn’s party with none. Tory aides confess that they were surprised by the figures but declare there are “no limits to our ambitions” in Scotland.

The roots of this recovery lie in the 2014 independence referendum. The vote, and the SNP’s subsequent landslide victory in the 2015 general election, realigned Scottish politics along unionist and nationalist lines. Led by Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Conservatives have ably exploited the opportunity. “We said No. We meant it,” the party’s official slogan declares of Nicola Sturgeon’s demand for a second referendum. Under Ruth Davidson, the Tories have already become the official opposition at Holyrood.

Labour is torn between retaining unionists and winning back nationalists. It has been punished for its equivocation, as it is being punished over its confused response to Brexit. In April 2016, the Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale, said that it was “not inconceivable” that she could back independence if the UK voted to leave the EU (and earlier suggested that MPs and MSPs could be given a free vote). Jeremy Corbyn recently stated that he was “absolutely fine” with a second referendum being held.

“For us it’s a badge of honour but there are some people in Scottish Labour who are quite queasy about that word [unionist] and I think Jeremy Corbyn would be very queasy about it,” Adam Tomkins, a Conservative MSP for Glasgow and public law professor, told me. “Don’t forget the Northern Ireland dimension; we’ve all seen the photos of him rubbing shoulders with leading republicans. The Scottish Union is very different to the Irish Union but the word migrates.”

The irony is that Corbyn allies believed his anti-austerity, anti-Trident platform would allow Labour to recover in Scotland. Yet the pre-eminence of the national question has left it in a political no-man’s land.

In contrast to the rest of the UK, Scots backed Remain by 62 per cent to 38 per cent. Far from protecting EU membership, as David Cameron had promised in the referendum campaign, the preservation of the Union now threatened it. Theresa May has since yielded no ground, denying Scotland both a second independence referendum on terms dictated by the SNP and single market membership. But polls show no rise in support for independence.

Conservative aides believe that Sturgeon miscalculated by immediately raising the prospect of a second referendum following the Leave vote last June. Families and communities were riven by the 2014 contest. Most had little desire to disrupt the uneasy peace that has prevailed since.

Nor are the politics of Brexit as uncomplicated as some assume. Thirty-six per cent of SNP supporters voted Leave and more than a third of this bloc have since turned against independence. As elsewhere, some Remainers have accepted the result and fear the instability that secession would cause. Scotland’s trade with the UK is worth four times as much as that with the EU. Davidson, who was one of the most forceful advocates for Remain, says that pursuing independence to counter the effects of Brexit would be “stubbing your toe to then amputate your foot”.

Theresa May, who spoke of the “precious” Union when she became Prime Minister, has devoted great attention to Scotland. Cabinet ministers are instructed to develop a “Scottish plan” when they formulate policy; buildings funded by the UK government now bear its insignia. Davidson’s influence was crucial to May’s decision to retain the 0.7 per cent foreign aid commitment – an emblem of compassionate conservatism.

After a decade of SNP rule, Tory aides believe that their rival’s poor domestic record, most notably on education, is “catching up with them”. More than a year has elapsed since the Scottish Parliament passed new legislation. “We’ve got a government that simply isn’t very interested in governing,” Tomkins said. “I thought that Nicola [Sturgeon] would change that. I was wrong.” What preoccupies the SNP is the constitutional question.

Shortly after the remarkable Scottish polls, a new survey showed the Tories on course to win the most seats in Wales for the first time since 1859. For some former Labour supporters, voting Ukip is proving a gateway drug to voting Conservative.

Two referendums have now realigned politics in the Tories’ favour. The Scottish vote enabled their rebirth as the party of the Union; the Brexit vote has gifted May a project to reunite a fragmented right.

Before the 2015 general election, Labour derided the Tories as a southern English force unworthy of their official name: the Conservative and Unionist Party. Partly through accident and partly through design, May and Davidson are now reclaiming it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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