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28 February 2024

The new paranoid style

The Conservative Party has succumbed to ideology and has turned on the British institutions it once revered: the judiciary, the civil service and parliament itself.

By New Statesman

The Conservative Party was once renowned for its “majestic pragmatism” and its suspicion of ideology. Liberals and socialists might have disputed its policy positions but there was room for reasonable disagreement. The Tories changed in order to conserve, and accepted the postwar welfare state and then the liberal reforms of the 1960s. But conspiracism and dogmatism are now coursing through the party.

Appearing at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Maryland, America, Liz Truss argued that her 49-day premiership was thwarted by the “deep state”, deploying a term beloved by the Trumpian right. One would never have guessed that, in advance of her calamitous mini-Budget, she sacked the Treasury permanent secretary, Tom Scholar, bypassed the Office for Budget Responsibility and declined to brief the Bank of England. It was Ms Truss’s own incompetence – from which Tory MPs and markets took fright – that brought her down.

During her time at CPAC, Ms Truss also appeared alongside Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s former strategist, and remained mute as he lauded the far-right British activist Tommy Robinson as “a hero”. Such behaviour would be alarming enough were Ms Truss a parish councillor – but she is a former British prime minister. Her trajectory is a mark of how the US right and outfits such as GB News are radicalising the Conservative Party and unmooring it from its traditions.

In the same week as Ms Truss’s American odyssey, Suella Braverman, the former home secretary, wrote in the Telegraph that “the Islamists, the extremists and the anti-Semites are in charge now”. Lee Anderson, the former Conservative deputy chairman, declared on GB News that Islamists had “got control” of the London mayor Sadiq Khan, who had “given our capital city away to his mates”.

Since Hamas’s horrifying 7 October massacre of Israelis, anti-Muslim hate crimes have increased by 335 per cent in the UK. Mr Khan regularly receives death threats and is the third most guarded person in the UK after the Prime Minister and the monarch.

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The Conservative Party initially defended Mr Anderson on the grounds that Mr Khan has “abjectly failed to get a grip on the appalling Islamist marches we have seen in London recently”. Yet if the demand is that the mayor bans protests, the fact is he lacks any power to do so. Singling him out because he happens to be a Muslim merely fans the flames of hatred.

The threat posed by Islamist extremism – as the UK has been reminded all too often – is grave. But as Andrew Marr writes on page 26, “there is a line between objecting to specific behaviours by individuals, and ‘othering’ a huge, peaceable, hard-working community”.

The Conservative Party ultimately removed the whip from Mr Anderson, but even then suggested this was only because of his refusal to apologise. Meanwhile, numerous Tory MPs rushed to defend him.

In his classic 1964 essay for Harper’s Magazine, the American historian Richard Hofstadter wrote of the “paranoid style in American politics”, suggesting that no other term adequately evokes “the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy”. Today, the paranoid style is spreading through the Conservative Party.

Its rise was encouraged by Brexit. Conservatives turned on institutions they once respected: Britain’s sovereign parliament, independent judiciary, impartial civil service, free press.

Across the West, the radical right is gaining ground: the Alternative for Germany, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy and Geert Wilders’s Party for Freedom are all polling at 20 per cent or more. In the UK, as in the US, this transformation is taking place within an established party – the so-called natural party of government.

The Republican Party, the political home of Abraham Lincoln, has been captured by Trumpists who perpetuate the myth that the 2020 US presidential election was “stolen”. Recent weeks have shown how vulnerable the Conservatives are to a comparable takeover.

A defeated and vengeful Tory party risks becoming a breeding ground for conspiracy theories. If decent Conservatives wish to prevent their party from becoming contaminated by prejudice, they must speak up now.

[See also: Europe’s new age of insecurity]

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This article appears in the 28 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The QE Theory of Everything