What RT Davies’ Capitol Hill comments reveal about the state of British Conservative thought
Ex-Remainers decrying Wednesday’s riot by Trump supporters in Washington were no better than the thugs who stormed the Capitol building, so claimed the Welsh Conservatives’ Shadow Health Minister, Andrew RT Davies.
This hyperbole is quickly becoming a defining trait of the British right. In recent years, senior Tories – including two successive foreign secretaries – have analogised the EU with totalitarian regimes. Meanwhile, one Conservative MEP even suggested that the Treason Act should be updated to cover those “working against the UK through extreme EU loyalty”.
Seeing such individuals reduced to making half-baked cries of “undemocratic” or invoking dictatorships underscores the extent to which the idea of betrayal is entrenched amongst Brexit’s staunchest advocates.
The campaign to stop Brexit could arguably be described as many things. Strategically naive and factional were but two recurring criticisms from both sides of the left-right divide. However, the campaign only really took off in the aftermath of a hung parliament – in which there was at least a theoretical majority for a second referendum. Far from being counter from the “will of the people”, this situation was facilitated by voters.
In this context, the claims of RT Davies and others are also reflective of how entrenched conservatism-as-victimhood is in right-wing discourse today. The perceived persecutors of this politics? The BBC, Brussels, ‘the establishment’, Remainers, and ‘devocrats’ provide its practitioners a comforting array of bêtes noires against which to fulminate.
These people and organisations stand accused of misrepresenting, patronising, or undermining the lives of the vaguely-defined “ordinary people”.
Although many column inches in conservative-leaning newspapers have been devoted to the left’s alleged fixation on identity politics, the right is no stranger to leveraging identity – as illustrated by its current emphases on unionism and Brexit.
Since the achievement of Brexit or the continued existence of the UK (albeit in ever shakier circumstances) does nothing to calm right-wingers’ fears, they continue to see subversion everywhere.
Yet the idealised world they mythologise is unattainable. Those who told us that the UK held “all the cards” in negotiations with the EU, or that Welsh voters would simply forget independence with a few more regally-named bridges or union flags have had their imaginations dispelled on both fronts.
Regardless, it is hard to deny that the betrayal and victimhood narratives possess a certain lure for their practitioners. It provides a ready-made excuse for whatever economic hits Wales takes following Brexit, while shifting responsibility onto the “other”.
The sad fact of the matter is that the Conservatives in the UK have irrevocably ditched some of the most important foundational traditions of conservatism.
First, they have stopped thinking – and are instead reduced to sloganeering about Brexit and the union.
Second (and perhaps most telling), is the absence of any desire to conserve – abandoned in an almost millenarian flurry to expunge all traces of the EU or devolution. The irony here is that such moves are taking institutions such as Parliament and the Union itself – which right-wingers claim to want to protect – as collateral damage.
Coupled with a lingering predilection for victimhood, this intellectual bankruptcy will endure in our politics for some time yet. The result could well be an electorally effective party, albeit a “zombie” one whose identity is built entirely around grievance and myth.
While analogising the actions of Remainers or the EU to authoritarians has become something of a reflex for right wingers, doing so belies poor taste and even poorer historical understanding. All the same, it is depressingly unsurprising.
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