Whatever happened to the British populist right? | Edward Howard
This is the way the world ends– T. S. Eliot, 1925
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
Although it may be hard to believe now, this week marks the fifth anniversary since Donald Trump’s massive upset victory in the 2016 Presidential Election against establishment favourite Hillary Clinton. Personally, I remember feeling elated at the victory, and that the populist electoral revolution that had begun with Brexit wasn’t simply a fluke – indeed 2016 was the year for this stuff, where anything seemed possible from Brexit to Leicester winning the Premier League (not to mention winning £30 million from a £10 bet on all three outcomes actually happening).
Now while sadly Trump is no longer in the Oval Office, his influence on the American right is still felt and strong, with it now adopting populist mantras and talking points that it would have never dreamed of doing a decade ago, when it was often rudderless at best, and chained to Bush-era neoconservatism at worst.
As of now, many of Trump’s acolytes dominate much of American politics. In Congress, politicians like Senator Josh Hawley and Representative Paul Gosar are still strong torch bearers of Trumpism, among many others. In the media, the likes of Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham dominate TV ratings with their respective shows on Fox News. And undoubtedly in the upcoming 2022 midterm elections and 2024 Presidential race, there will be a great series of upsets and rude awakenings to much of the political establishment in the United States – a taster of which has arisen in the last week, with GOP victories in once formerly strong Democrat areas, from Virginia to Seattle. This is so obvious now to anyone paying attention that much of the establishment right in America have conceded the point that the Republicans are now the party of Trumpism, for better or for worse.
This is in stark contrast with the British populist right. At this same time five years ago, it seemed stronger than ever before. Brexit was happening, with the then Prime Minister Theresa May promising that ‘Brexit means Brexit’, all the while other issues it had highlighted – from culture wars to mass immigration – were at last starting to be taken seriously by the political mainstream. Its main political party UKIP were still considered an electoral threat, with one of its (numerous) former leaders Diane James having recently given a speech warning May that it was ‘the opposition party in waiting’. Finally, much of the right-wing media were at last parroting the movement’s talking points, showing it no longer needed to be rigidly loyal to the Tory Party line, of which was aided by a huge Sceptic/Anti-SJW movement online.
No doubt that during its peak in popularity in 2014 to 2019, those Millennials and emerging Gen Zers who are now involved in politics (especially those of the right-wing) saw this as our entry point, and whose faces have inspired us to be the future torch bearers for conservatism for decades to come. In particular, Nigel Farage probably did more to inspire much of my generation to enter politics in that era than the likes of David Cameron or Theresa May ever dreamed of doing.
Now where is it? Brexit is now over, and the aforementioned issues while no longer taboo, have been crudely shoved to the side lines in favour of liberal elite agendas, like climate change and privatising Channel 4. Instead of UKIP being a unifying force, the political parties of the populist right are now so numerous – rightly dismissed by one commentator as a ‘million splinter parties to the right of UKIP’ – that none of them individually could muster up any electoral threat in the near future, while UKIP itself post-Farage is now a husk of its former self bordering on death, whose only contributions to public discourse being the constant infighting involved and its members saying things very much outside the Overton Window. Even its more fringe elements seem to be weaning in popularity in part as social media censorship tightens – something that has also hindered the aforementioned Anti-SJW movement online, not helped by reputation ruining incidents like the Kraut & Tea scandal of which led them to become the enablers of doxing and cancel culture that they were once so critical of.
There are numerous causes to this collapse.
Firstly, there is the matter of Brexit. Brexit, for all its faults, was the undoubted unifying rallying cry for the movement. Whether you were in the mainstream, populist or more fringe elements of the right in Britain, Brexit was the one thing that could unite these seemingly disparate elements together. This is especially true, given the long-drawn out process of leaving the European Union, of whose nearly year-long delay to our exit gave rise to much fear and angst among that side that many cynics in the Remain camp were using it to bind their time and reverse the result. Such unity was so possible then that even some on the left joined us in that struggle – something of which goes some way of explaining why the British populist right was more successful in achieving some of its goals, given that unlike its American and Italian counterparts, support was not limited to mostly strict party political lines. As columnist Janan Ganesh noted at the time of the referendum campaign:
‘If there is a lesson from recent weeks, it is that mild Conservatives and moderate adherents to the Labour cause share more with each other than with the rest of their own parties. On Europe, but also migration and globalisation, they want to amend the status quo not break it… Against them in this referendum is a party in all but name and formal incorporation, drawn from the Tory right and the Labour left and incubated in the Leave campaign. These politicians are conservative and anti-establishment at the same time’.
Such unity was palpable, and it represented a culmination of much anger at the Westminster establishment as a whole on several issues, with Brexit being simply the convenient catalyst for what was to come. Now it is complete, both the energy and unity that was placed into the Brexit movement has simply gone, as there has been nothing to replace it since, especially with much of the anger that it was based upon being quelled by a semi-successful handling of the issue under Boris Johnson’s government. Not helped is the lack of opportunities to organise and meet up due to the lockdown and COVID restrictions that have been in place for the last year and a half. With Brexit now over, a unifying cause for the British populist right seems to be missing, as voters have returned to more rigid partisan lines – even though opposition to illegal immigration and lockdown has attempted to fill that void.
Secondly, following Boris Johnson’s landslide victory in 2019, there has been a snuffing out of the aforementioned energy that previously existed for the past several years. In his 1971 book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, author Hunter S. Thompson describes the rise and fall of the hippy culture in 1960s America. This culminates in the much-touted ‘wave speech’, arguably the book’s highlight, where he noted that:
‘There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning.… And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil… Our energy would simply prevail… We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave.…So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.’
Johnson’s victory was that point. Given that he’d run his election campaign on the most right-wing platform for his party since the Thatcher era, while parroting and copying many of the talking points and policy proposals of the populist right as he did so, it was seen as the moment where this grassroots movement finally had a government to match it. This is especially true since he also proved that it was populist right messaging the country’s electorate was on side with, not the supposed populist left rhetoric of his Labour counterpart Jeremy Corbyn. Like Trump in the States, Johnson had ridden a wave of discontent to power, of which had been building slowly for many years previously, and whose electorate was now finally satisfied that their proverbial guy was in charge.
Unlike Trump however, Johnson has little to no interest in tackling such problems – he is more of a David Cameron continuity candidate than anything else, and seemingly adopted many of his 2019 election positions on the grounds that it would snuff out the energy of the movement whose votes he was happy to collect, but not to repay. In what seemed like a very cynical scheme for him and his demagogic advisors like Dominic Cummings, such a campaign was fought primarily to keep the real right-wing of Nigel Farage and co. at bay to keep their liberal establishment in power. How long his plan can keep hold is yet to be seen, but provided that he can get occasional victories for his base and that the Labour Party remain in electoral oblivion then it seems very unlikely any real challenges to Johnson’s leadership can be seen for the distant future.
Thirdly and lastly, there is no longer a unifying political party that is going to keep the right-wing establishment honest. Just a couple of years ago, UKIP was it, and it worked for multiple reasons. This was mainly because not only did they represent a genuine right-wing alternative during the meek and weak Cameron years but that, when not infighting, they were unstoppable as a united front. As such, UKIP at its peak were akin to the Temporary Truce between the several warring factions in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. In Skyrim, such disparate and angry groups agree to push aside their differences to make a temporary peace in order to combat their very real and deadly dragon problem that threatens to engulf their eponymous province on the Tamriel continent.
UKIP operated in much the same manner: it was able to put aside much of the infighting that had dominated it since the mid to late-1990s between its various wings (highlighted by the very bitter rivalry and falling out between its co-founders historian Alan Sked and the aforementioned Farage) to become a mainstream political party during a large part of the 2010s. To do this, it combined several of these different wings, whether it be its populist wing under Farage, its intellectual one under Peter Whittle, its morally Christian one under David Kurten, its culturally conservative one under Paul Nuttall, its anti-Islam one under Anne Marie Waters, among many others under the banner of one mission during Farage’s leadership between 2010-6 – its dragon army to defeat in this case was the European Union, as well as the rotten liberal Conservative Party establishment which supported it, and didn’t have enough internal opposition within itself to challenge such a status quo.
To this end, it worked a delight – not only becoming the most successful right-wing opposition to the Tories in British political history, but forced their hand in giving us the EU Referendum, the subsequent Leave vote, Cameron’s resignation and ultimately Brexit. There was no doubt UKIP in its heyday was a big success.
However, following the referendum’s end, UKIP became completely rudderless and whose old infighting reared its ugly head once more with Farage no longer being the uniting leader of the party. Between the constantly shifting leaders and unneeded controversies, what killed UKIP was the tenure of its former leader Gerard Batten. Under his watch, Batten signed the party’s death kneel in allowing the anti-Islam rabble rouser and convicted criminal Tommy Robinson to be an advisor – someone who while having some support among the working class, terrifies too much of Middle England to have taken such a risk. Such a move led to a series of prominent party walkouts as a result, turning UKIP into more of a fringe husk than it once was in the early 1990s. The final nail in the coffin came when Batten also enlisted the help of edgelord YouTubers as MEP candidates of which seemed to be a desperate bid to win over young people.
But their prior comments came back to haunt them, and quickly showed why such a strategy wouldn’t have worked – if Frankie Boyle couldn’t run as a Labour/SNP candidate because of his edgelord humour, or Jim Davidson couldn’t run as a Conservative candidate for the same reason, there was no chance this would work for a much smaller party on the risk of electoral collapse. This, of course, was the ultimate outcome for UKIP, whose vote share plummeted at both the 2019 local and European elections, as Eurosceptic voters flocked to the much more reasonable Brexit Party. If UKIP had been in a battle for its soul since day one between its more moderate and rabble rousing elements, it was beyond clear now that the latter had won the day, and not to good effect. In a recent appearance on GB News, its current leader Neil Hamilton promised to ‘fill the gap’ of a real conservative party left by Johnson – it seems more likely that a Beatles reunion is on the cards, given his party’s declining odds and fortune.
To make matters even worse, with UKIP’s imminent collapse, there are now several small right-wing parties to fill the void – none of which have the obvious electoral clout to challenge the political establishment in any way, shape or form, including that of UKIP itself or its successor the Reform Party, which seems about as electorally irrelevant now as its American namesake. All these parties do is divide the movement among too many widely varying groups to avoid being a united front against the right-wing establishment, as UKIP was once able to do. During an interview, one commentator rightly noted this situation consisted of a ‘million splinter parties to the right of UKIP’ of which have no ‘merit’. Quite right. It’s clearly a case of not the boys being back in town as these parties would like to have it, but rather one of them being too nostalgic and controversial to do so. The commentator was also right to note that entering the ‘mainstream’ was the best move for anyone on the right to do at that present time. With Farage out of the picture politically, UKIP collapsing and the small parties having no chance of keeping honest the likes of Johnson and co., this seems to be for now at least the most sensible course of action.
Meanwhile, other problems remain. While the British populist right may have gotten the political class to take note of the problems occurring and affecting ordinary folk, much of the institutional power of Britain remained firmly in the hands of the left, or rather more specifically the progressive neoliberal globalist left that has far more in common with the ideas of Herbert Marcuse than Karl Marx. So while the populist right may, in theory at least, hold the political reins of the British establishment, its cultural ones still are far outside our grasp. Such reasoning may explain why the anti-Brexit, referendum redo campaigns got far more airtime and were taken far more seriously than they deserved to – not least of which because had the other side done so after they hypothetically lost, they would been dismissed by those same institutions as ‘fascist’ and ‘far-right’.
So, while Brexit represented a necessary ‘crisis’ to use the Gramscian phrase to cause serious political change, the ‘superstructures of civil society’ were still clearly on the other side to make sure that it didn’t go further than a Conservative majority powerless to stop it if it does nothing to turn back the tide of ideological warfare. As Gramsci detailed when discussing his ideas about Cultural Hegemony:
‘The superstructures of civil society are like the trench systems of modern warfare. In war it would sometimes happen that a fierce artillery attack seemed to have destroyed the enemy’s entire defensive system, whereas in fact it had only destroyed the outer perimeter… The same thing happens in politics, during the great economic crises. A crisis cannot give the attacking forces the ability to organise with lightning speed… Similarly, the defenders are not demoralised, nor do they abandon their positions, even among the ruins, nor do they lose faith in their own strength or their own future.’
Such thinking explains how while the populist right holds sway over much of the electorate of Britain, it’s inconceivable to its intellectual life or its liberal elite. It’s no wonder therefore that some, including former UKIP MP Douglas Carswell and historian Andrew Roberts, noted that while Boris Johnson destroyed Marxism in the 2019 General Election in the form of Jeremy Corbyn, it was now equally important to end the Gramscian long march through the institutions that had taken over much of Britain’s public life since the 1960s.
So far, it’s obvious that while this Tory Party clique aren’t all that interested in fighting the culture war, they have instead decided to try and stuff these institutions with pro-Britain people, such as David Goodhart and Katharine Birbalsingh, and attempting to deter statue topplers and the trans lobby to keep their base happy and to stop them from complaining about nothing being done – efforts which while simply red meat, are welcome nonetheless, and could lead the way for a more ideologically conservative government in the future.
Meanwhile, there is a serious lack of popular grassroots organisations representing the movement’s cause on a national stage. To the British left’s credit, they have many such groups, of which they use to spread their cause and get their messaging out there, despite how contemptable they often are – it doesn’t help that much of the mainstream media are ideologically sympathetic to such groups, hence why they’ll give them far more airtime, even as they behave thuggishly or block motorways, so much so that even getting them on to criticise them is still giving them a degree of credibility that they haven’t given to any of its right-wing counterparts, seeing them as beyond the pale. The People’s Assembly, Extinction Rebellion, Insulate Britain, Momentum and the Green Party are good examples of this, often gaining national attention and TV airtime to discuss their views, of which gives them an air of respectability and seriousness simply for being there in a way its right-wing counterparts don’t have.
The right has very little at all in comparison, sans some rather unpleasant football hooligan groups whose violent antics and loutish behaviour is often rightly unappealing to much of Britain’s liberal elite – the fact that they hold ‘disreputable views’ and are from a noisy and angry working class as opposed to the supposedly respectable middle class of the aforementioned left-wing groups probably doesn’t help either. Meanwhile, any other movements are often either hijacked by nutjob elements or killed by their endless infighting stopping any serious progress towards a real threat to the establishment, hence why despite the hype they initially bring, they never really go anywhere.
The much-touted Tory youth group Activate – often seen as a right-wing equivalent of Momentum when it was around – was sunk due to infighting, high membership costs and moronic comments about ‘gassing chavs’. This saw its non-revolution not even start, closing less than a year after launching. UKIP, as previously mentioned, once an electoral juggernaut under Farage, has since collapsed under a coalition of pandering to reactionary elements in its own ranks and the endless infighting that has plagued it since day one. Even the once great original incarnation of the Football Lads Alliance – whose grassroots popularity was so strong that they were able to command up to 40K people to march with them in a general anti-extremism event in London – was crushed through decreasing support, negative publicity stemming from comments on its Facebook page and infighting that saw its leader John Meighan leaving in early 2018.
As we can see, these movements often have promise but the egos and lack of restraint & cooperation of those involved (usually at senior levels, to make matters worse) see them collapse before they become a legitimate opposition to the powers that be.
I should know about this from personal experience too, given that I was once the Youth Leader of ‘Make Britain Great Again’, otherwise known as the ‘Red Pill Factory’ – until its rapid and sudden closure down an Orwellian memory hole back in mid-2019. The story of it, and its collapse is perhaps a better microcosm than anything else as to why the populist right in Britain has never gone further than it could have.
In this role during its meteoric rise between 2017 and 2018, I saw it go from strength to strength. Our news articles were being shared far and wide, across a Facebook page with over 100K likes. Our YouTube page uploaded regularly and had amassed 50K subscribers, and some of our videos had over a million views. We had held many successful rallies, most notably that of the pro-Donald Trump rally in July 2018 in Vauxhall, London, of which was covered by several major news outlets like London Live and the BBC. We had established contact with prominent people, like MEP Bill Etheridge and Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg. We often were interviewed by the likes of the Beeb and RT (not often favourably, mind you), and were becoming the first group on the British populist right to gain some mainstream respectability – a British Tea Party, of which its founder and head Luke Nash-Jones had always envisioned.
However, three specific events led to its swift downfall, of which serve as a cautionary tale for such movements in the future.
Firstly, there was the bitter fallout from that we had from the Justice For Our Boys campaign – specifically that of its co-leader and founder James Goddard, who has since rightly been convicted for harassing former MP Anna Soubry. We had refused to attend a rally we were planned to speak at, due to one of the speakers being linked to Jack Sen, an open national socialist and far-right crank who had been expelled from UKIP for antisemitism.
In response to this, threats of violence were made against many of us, despite us having co-operated well with them long before the incident, as they blamed us for killing their momentum when their rally didn’t have as many people as expected after we revealed their links. At our next planned rally, criticising the BBC and Facebook censorship, there were threats made of them attending and stirring merry hell – while they thankfully didn’t do that, someone did show who disrupted it quite annoyingly, who presumably was from that group.
Secondly, the now infamous Bookmarks bookstore incident happened whereby an intended prank went horribly wrong, as third parties caused criminal behaviour and mayhem, leading to suspensions galore and a lot of negative publicity we didn’t need. It killed our popularity stone dead, and was something we never really recovered from.
Finally, there was a huge split at the top of the org, as Nash-Jones removed its Treasurer Martin Costello for supporting the far-left Yellow Vests movement in France – a decision that was regrettable, and killed a perfectly good friendship that sent Nash-Jones down a bitter and angry road which undid the group in one flail swoop, as he felt that everyone in that ‘scene’ had betrayed him.
Now while I commend his anti-YV stance (as someone who grew up in the 2011 London Riots, I have always hated and resented lawless anarchy and violence, knowing how it can destroy and undermine community spirit, as it certainly did in my area) and am happy to note that it was one of the few populist right media outlets to take a stand against this openly Marxist group (who were more akin to aping the 1968 unrest in France as opposed to any Trump-esque movement many mistook it for), the split with Costello caused him to go down a completely counterproductive direction.
Now, while I wasn’t party to most of this, the fallout was tangible and obvious to anyone paying attention. Most notably this consisted of bashing UKIP during the 2019 European Elections and making sure that it never did well again – something Batten was perfectly capable of doing anyway, as previously mentioned. Nash-Jones didn’t need to do this but did it out of spite against Batten over being rightly kicked out for his extremely poor handling of the Bookmarks situation. After all was said and done, he torched everyone else’s hard work, only bringing it up again to complain about how it was not ever his fault that things went wrong, despite the plethora of evidence to the contrary.
As we can see, ‘Make Britain Great Again’ is a cautionary tale as to how such movements can rise and fall. The problems with extremists coming in and hijacking the movement for their own ends, and resorting to threats of violence when people complain. How the bad behaviour of a few can produce the one necessary article needed to sink the reputation – and therefore the ideas – of the people involved, pushing those issues further outside the Overton Window. And of course, the constant infighting and egos involved which prevent it from ever being a united front against the powers that be, often leading them to close in the process. representing a microcosm of the failings of the British populist right in a nutshell.
Such issues are why a British Tea Party seems really hard to come by, and it’s very telling that the most successful grassroots attempt to undermine the Conservative Party establishment was the already successful Arron Banks flooding the party membership with social conservatives, who will no doubt play an important role in the future.
What of the British populist right now?
To many of us, it seems, it may become a fond memory of the 2010s, joining the likes of indie horror games and the endless wave of superhero movies from that time. Meanwhile, if things continue to not improve in Britain on many important issues, it may provide a sense of nostalgia, in the way that Thompson discussed earlier, of what could have been. As Billy Joel once sang, ‘…son can you play me a memory?/I’m not really sure how it goes/But it’s sad and it’s sweet and I knew it complete/When I wore a younger man’s clothes.’
However, it is too crucial that this doesn’t happen. This is mainly because there needs to be a force, electoral or otherwise, to keep the Conservative Party establishment honest. If the Labour Party can have the likes of the Green Party or the Liberal Democrats to a much lesser extent keeping their proverbial feet to the fire from the left, a similar organisation needs to do the same for the Conservative Party establishment, especially since Farage is no longer in the picture to do so.
Because if there isn’t, there is a problem that it will revert back to its 2010-11 bubble, and to the ‘modernisation’ of the Cameron years. For such people, Brexit wasn’t an opportunity for Britain to do better or to return to a more communitarian style of politics, but something far more simple – an opportunity for more globalisation and free trade at best, and at worst something that made the base uppity, and needed to be quelled to avoid a full rebellion. Now that has gone, they can go back to what they really care about – climate change alarmism, ‘the left are the real racists’ talking points and pandering to their true constituency in the City Of London. Of course, that agenda has very little appeal beyond the M25 and London, but that won’t stop that establishment from perusing it as it benefits them, and they feel no-one is going to stop them correcting course.
Meanwhile, issues like mass immigration and culture wars simply won’t go away overnight, and shouldn’t become the playthings of the football hooligan rabble rousers on one end, and of the legitimate far-right on the other.
That is why we need the British populist right to come back, not only because it is politically necessary, but because it is what the British electorate want and deserve. To paraphrase a Weezer song, many of them want Britain to go back, don’t know how it came off the track and want to return to the good life that they and prior generations experienced growing up in this great country of ours.
There are at least some good signs, albeit from unexpected directions. We can see the media revolution for this movement taking place – ever since its founding in 2016, Talk Radio has become handy for pushing the Overton Window and media discussion to the direction it needs to be, and GB News under new leadership is threatening to do the same. Books that once were slammed for even discussing populist right ideas – usually written by Pat Buchanan and Peter Hitchens – were now finally getting a fair hearing, most notably that of Douglas Murray’s 2017 magnum opus The Strange Death of Europe, of which sold very well and earned strong praise from all sides. Very tellingly, its only major criticisms came down to partisan hacks who disagreed with Murray politically, which can only be seen as a good thing.
Finally, if the Conservative Party can be pushed into being a Eurosceptic one after years of being pro-EU, then there is hope that the grassroots can further push it into other necessary positions over time, of which the aforementioned Arron Banks strategy can only help with. Of course, only time will tell, but none of it could have happened without this initial 2014-9 wave – showing that while it is currently mostly dead politically, it has had staying power in one way or another.
Until then, at least Brexit and Trump can serve as beacons of light in such times of darkness, and that sometimes the democratic will can still win in the end, and perhaps there is a brighter future for the West after all.