Conservative Leadership: A Summer of Invented Enemies?

In a week of “campaign” launches the candidates for Prime Minister all spoke broadly along the same two themes: tax cuts and culture war. The first, while not uncontroversial, is fairly standard political fayre. The second is more pernicious. “Culture war” transfigures public debate into a rage-soaked fantasyland and leads to the persecution of the most vulnerable.

To understand “culture war” we must first understand the unreality of our political discourse, in which politicians seek to convince without regard for the truth. This is inherently undemocratic because, when public debate is no longer bound by reality, it becomes a race to simply reach as many people as possible. Those with the largest platform and most resources can thus more easily dominate politics: power is truth.

Boris Johnson is an inveterate misleader, but he is not unique. As they kick off their campaigns, his would-be successors have all embraced a particularly vicious form of fantasy: the invented enemy, by which powerful people create a pretend threat (often a marginalised group) that they can win political plaudits for “dealing with”. This generally involves persecuting the chosen victims, stripping essential rights, and rolling back democratic fundamentals. The term “culture war” seems to trivialise and obscure. It is persecution, pure and simple. For the victims, it can be a matter of life and death.

So far the candidates have focused on four invented enemies. First, LGBT+ people. Nadhim Zahawi wants to “protect” school children from learning about queer people. It’s an entirely unreal problem. Teaching children that some people are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or trans (and that’s ok!) does no more than educate them about the reality of the world. For many, it may lead to acceptance (both from themselves and their peers) and avoid years of psychological torture. The fact that some people are LGBT+ has no effect whatsoever on those of us who are not. If Zahawi is taken at his word, defeating this non-existent enemy involves discriminating against LGBT+ people and perhaps even a return to something like Section 28.

A familiar pre-occupation is immigration. Kemi Badenoch bemoans criticisms of the government as for “enforcing its own borders”.Jeremy Hunt promises to tackle channel boats. Both are artificial issues. Immigration has a net positive economic effect (and social effect – the areas of largest immigrant populations are also where public support for immigration is highest). Channel crossings are a problem of the government’s own creation. Ministers could end them tomorrow by re-instating the safe and legal routes that successive governments have shut down (ironically, to prove they are tough on immigration). Yet, to defeat this enemy, the Home Office has embraced paroxysms of performative cruelty, persecuting the victims of trafficking, war, rape, and poverty all to prove that it’s tough on this invented “enemy”.

Suella Braverman has turned her fire on human rights, railing against a “foreign court” “obstructing lawful, politically legitimate deportations…” and even blames the ECHR for people trafficking in the channel. This takes aim at an entirely imaginary version of the ECHR. The Convention was drafted, largely by British lawyers, in the wake of the Nuremberg trials (deporting a hated minority to camps – the essence of the Rwanda policy – was very much in the minds of the drafters). The rights it enumerates flow from our humanity, not our nationality, and all states parties contribute judges to the court. The whole point of human rights is to “trump” the will of the majority in certain, limited, situations
where the fundamental dignity of the person is at stake (and essential check to ensure democracy does not degenerate into mob rule). Talking about “foreign judges” or “political legitimacy” is a different debate entirely. Braverman’s “solution”, leaving the ECHR, isn’t really an attack on “foreign judges”. It’s an assault on those who rely on human rights – the vulnerable and marginalised.

All of the candidates (including the, supposedly “grown up”, Tom Tugenhadt) promise to “fix” the Northern Ireland Protocol by breaking it. Yet, as I have argued before, the protocol is overwhelmingly popular in Northern Ireland and has led to unprecedented economic growth. The “solution” will likely throw Northern Ireland into recession and reignite the Troubles.

A leader who obsesses over fake problems is generally ineffective at addressing real ones. The Johnson government, having defined itself against a series of invented enemies (judges/the EU/the “liberal elite”), failed its first real challenge: Covid-19 (the insistence that it “got the big calls right” crumbles in the face of reality: UK’s death rate and economic collapse both outstripped much of the Western world). The candidates for Johnson’s replacement seem to have relatively little to say about real challenges like the cost of living crisis, inflation, or global heating. The leadership contest is in its early stages and there is still plenty of time for candidates to develop their offering. But victimisation of an arbitrarily selected minority is no substitute for a plan to make things better for the country.