Thursday, October 06, 2022

Double-speak, revisionism and alternative facts dominate Tory conference

There were no jackboots, military style uniformed security or symbols of far right theology hanging at the Conservative Party Conference this week. But fascism was never likely to return in the form seen in 1930s Germany.

The far right in today's world have discarded the obvious symbols of facism. There will be no swastikas, military uniforms and blatant xenophobic language. The creep of facism is far more subtle. But the game plan is nonetheless, much the same; one of seizing and maintaining power whilst criminalising or sidelining enemies. Meanwhile the same tools are also being deployed; divide and rule, revising history and creating scapegoats for the ills of society.

Professor Tim Snyder, in an interview with Channel 4 News in 2019, laid out the way in which facism could return. The Yale University historian points in particular to simple slogans that are repeated over and over again. Cases in point are the meaningless but rallying calls propagated by the Conservative Party in recent years from Brexit Means Brexit to Get Brexit Done and the most recent slogan Getting Britain Moving.

Such slogans have the effect of dividing listeners into us and them. Politics has also become more about friends and enemies rather than reasoned dispute and constructive policy, a basic facist idea proposed by Carl Schmidt.

Authoritarianism relies on the impotence of a population, passively accepting the new normals as present themselves.

One important aspect that cannot be overlooked is "revisionist history" a term referring to conscious, intentional misstatements about things in the past, whether distant or recent. It has often been said that a lie repeated often enough becomes fact. But an unchallenged lie, said only once but repeated in news broadcasts or in print can have the same effect.

During the Trump administration in the US terms like 'Fake News' and 'Alternative Facts' were constantly repeated with reference to statements issued by the media or in terms of the latter, by the government. 'Alternative facts' was a phrase used by US Counsellor to the President, Kellyanne Conway, during a Meet the Press interview on 22nd January 22 2017, in which she defended White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer's false statement about the attendance numbers of Donald Trump's inauguration as President of the United States.

But it is not just Trumpian politics that has seen revisionist history and alternative facts being peppered into speeches and statements. In the UK, the Conservative Party in particular has continually repeated false claims and 'alternative facts' in recent years. As queues built at Dover due to red tape resulting from Brexit the UK government blamed it on the revengeful French. Despite having been in power for some 12 years, blame for the state of the economy or the declining state of the NHS is put at the feet of the Labour party. And of course the war in Ukraine and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are also cited as causes for increases in inflation and rising energy prices while comparable countries, which are riding the storm much better, are conveniently ignored.

This week's Conservative Party Conference saw further examples of revisionist history being promulgated to a gullible audience.  

In his keynote speech, the chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng made reference to Joseph Chamberlain who he cited as being "an extraordinary civic leader who led Birmingham and the world through the industrial revolution."

However the industrial revolution took place between 1760 to about 1820–1840. Chamberlain was born in 1836 making him about 4 years old as the period of the industrial revolution came to an end.

But why cite Joseph Chamberlain at all? Chamberlain started out as a radical Liberal, then, after opposing home rule for Ireland, became a Liberal Unionist, and eventually served as a leading imperialist in coalition with the Conservatives and split both major British parties in the course of his career.

Chamberlain, who some historians have described as arrogant, ruthless and much hated, was an opponent of the Elementary Education Act 1870 which set the framework for schooling of all children between the ages of 5 and 12 in England and Wales. Chamberlain was notable for his attacks on the Conservative leader Lord Salisbury.

Later, when the Liberal Unionists were in coalition with the Conservative Party, he served as Secretary of State for the Colonies, promoting a variety of schemes to build up the Empire in Asia, Africa, and the West Indies. He had major responsibility for causing the Second Boer War (1899–1902) in South Africa.

However, Kwarteng referred to Chamberlain as an "extraordinary civic leader" and likened the current Mayor of the West Midlands, Andy Street, to this British statesman, who some historians have described as "arrogant and ruthless and much hated".

Meanwhile in her keynote speech, the Deputy PM and Health secretary Therese Coffey claimed Henry Willink as being instrumental to the founding of the NHS.

Whilst the Conservative MP Willink was involved in a White Paper proposing a national health service it was not implemented. When Labour came into office in 1945, it presented its own plan in preference to Willink's, which it had supported. The principal difference was that Willink's plan talked of a "publicly organised" rather than a "publicly provided" service, and Labour's plan brought hospitals into full national ownership. But let's not let actual facts get in the way. Mentioning Willink will in the minds of many people establish a false narrative that it was the Conservative Party that established the National Health Service.

Therese Coffey went on to list the problems in the NHS such as waiting lists and a shortage of medical staff - without acknowledging that many of the failures had occurred during the Conservative Party's watch over the last 12 years. She then said she would open the door to more foreign nurses to plug the NHS staff shortage, mostly caused - but not mentioned - by the exodus of European health service workers since Brexit.

Later came Suella Braverman, the new home secretary, who in an earlier fringe meeting spoke of her 'dream' to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda to be processed.

During her speech she stated her backing of Brexit was in order to 'regain control' of Britain's borders.

However Brexit, rather than helping protect Britain's borders, has made an already bad situation worse.

Before Brexit, the UK was part of an EU returns deal known as the Dublin agreement which had allowed several hundred people to be returned in previous years. No such deal now exists and so Britain has to deal with every asylum seeker or 'illegal immigrant'  arriving in the UK. Often these cases can last many years and it can be difficult to send the individuals back to their country of origin even if their asylum claim is rejected.

Braverman's speech became almost Trumpian at one point as she cited cases of asylum seekers being rapists and paedophiles who took advantage of Britain's asylum system. Remember Donald Trump's assertions concerning Mexican immigrants?

"When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best. They're not sending you. They're not sending you. They're sending people that have lots of problems, and they're bringing those problems with us. They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people." [Donald Trump, 16th June 2015]

Jump forward 7 years and we have the current UK home secretary also conflating criminality with those seeking asylum and fleeing war, famine or poverty.

Braverman said convicted paedophiles and rapists had also tried to "game the system" by using claims of modern slavery to block deportations, including a man who went on to commit a further rape.

"The truth is that many of them are not modern slaves and their claims of being trafficked are lies," Braverman told delegates, "And it's not just illegal migrants. Since entering the Home Office I have seen egregious examples of convicted paedophiles and rapists trying to game the system."

Braverman does not cite how many "egregious examples" of rapists or paedophiles there have been since she entered the Home Office. But in the mindset of those listening the numbers do not matter. Just as Mexican migrants might be rapists so too might asylum seekers of boat people arriving on Britain's beaches. Facts no longer matter. It's all a matter of belief.

Finally came the prime minister's speech in which she spoke of Getting Britain Moving, the conference slogan, which in itself was a perhaps inadvertent admission that Britain had in fact stopped!

Britain was "open for business," Truss asserted, though in fact there are few signs that foreign investment is increasing at all. The shop may be open but few customers are buying anything.

Attempting to assert her non-elitist credentials, Truss told the conference that she is "the first prime minister of our country to have gone to a comprehensive school." However, both Gordon Brown and Theresa May went to comprehensive schools. Moreover, Truss completed her education at one of the bastions of elite further education; Oxford University.

There were of course lots of slogans. As well as the claim to Getting Britain Moving, Truss said her economic vision was one to "grow the pie" so that everyone could have a bigger slice.

Tell that to the increasing numbers of people turning up at food banks which are themselves struggling in providing a service for the poorest in society.

But Truss was taking no prisoners. She declared war on whole swathes of people who she umbrellaed under the slogan of the Anti-Growth Coalition.

She accused her opponents as being obsessed with "more taxes, more regulation and more meddling," calling them "enemies of enterprise" and saying they were, "Wrong, wrong, wrong."

But who were these enemies of enterprise making up a coalition opposed to growth? According to Liz Truss the list of enemies was substantive and included, "Labour, the Lib Dems and the SNP, the militant unions, the vested interests dressed up as think tanks, the talking heads, the Brexit deniers, and Extinction Rebellion."

But the list did not stop there as she went on to refer to two Greenpeace protesters who had earlier disrupted proceedings as they attempted to highlight the Conservative Party's apparent policy on fracking.

"The fact is they prefer protesting to doing," Truss maintained, "They prefer talking on Twitter to taking tough decisions. They taxi from North London townhouses to the BBC studio to dismiss anyone challenging the status quo. From broadcast to podcast, they peddle the same old answers."

Essentially, anyone not on the right of politics and who held a view contrary to the Conservative Party was, it appeared, an enemy of enterprise, a member of the anti-growth coalition and wrong!

Two of the enemies - the aforementioned Greenpeace protesters - were of course escorted from the hall after disrupting the conference, their lanyards ripped from them by a burly man who appeared to be a senior security official.

But they weren't the only people ejected. Overzealous security, accompanied by the same senior security official were filmed only minutes before dragging an accredited EPA photographer from the venue in what they later described as "a misunderstanding" [TwitterDaily Mail / Twitter]. 

It could all well be a misunderstanding. The historical mistakes could have been schoolboy errors by inexperienced speechwriters. The three word slogans might not be anything more sinister than accepting of what a marketing group has told the party bosses will sell the message. And maybe the denial of facts surrounding Brexit or other failures is er … No, surely they can't be as dumb as to believe the French really caused the queues at Dover out of spite? Or that Britain is open to the world as exports to the EU tank?

Even after a disastrous mini-budget wiped the value of the pound to the lowest it had ever been, blame was apportioned to everything other than themselves. Indeed recovery only occurred after a U-turn in policy was announced. But even then Kwarteng referred to the market turmoil as only having "caused a little turbulence."

"I get it. We are listening and have listened," the Chancellor added, words that Truss repeated in her speech later in the week.

But the markets too are listening and watching. And while the double-speak might continue it remains to be seen whether this administration will double down on their financial policies and maintain their grip on power, whilst the country flounders in a cost of living and energy crisis.

tvnewswatch, London, UK