There is a voluminous literature of ideological converts travelling from left to right (and of a few people going in the other direction). Some of it is outstanding. Witness by Whittaker Chambers, a former Soviet spy, is a memoir of honesty and even beauty, whether or not you share the conservative politics and Christian faith he came to embrace. But it’s much rarer that an entire political organisation transplants itself from left to right. The Japanese Communist Party arguably did so in the 1930s, embracing imperialism and xenophobic nationalism, and far-left splinter groups (such as the followers of the French communist leader Jacques Doriot) attached themselves to fascism, but I can think of no other obvious institutional case bar one.
That exception is a tiny organisation called the Revolutionary Communist Party. This group had its origins in a splinter from the International Socialists (now the Socialist Workers Party) in 1973. Its principal figures were an economist called David Yaffe and Frank Furedi, a sociologist, who wrote under the name Frank Richards. Over the years, and under various titles and auspices, this group has completed an extraordinary infiltration of itself into British public life and in particular the politics of the right. The reason for its topicality is that one of its former members, Munira Mirza, last year joined Boris Johnson’s incoming team as head of No 10’s policy unit, and another, Claire Fox, has been nominated for a peerage.
Ms Fox’s proposed ennoblement has elicited opposition for an excellent reason. The group was, in the 1980s and 1990s, an unabashed supporter of IRA terrorism. After the Warrington bombing in 1993, the group lauded “the right of the Irish people to take whatever measures necessary in their struggle for freedom”. Charlotte Nichols, the Labour MP for Warrington North, has written to the prime minister urging him to block the peerage.
Another scandalous event in the group’s history dates from the wars in the former Yugoslavia. In 1992, the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, now serving a life sentence for genocide and war crimes, challenged western journalists to find evidence of atrocities by his forces as they laid waste to Bosnia’s multi-ethnic and constitutional state. Penny Marshall and Ian Williams of ITN and Ed Vulliamy of The Guardian did precisely that. They found evidence of horrific suffering – gaunt and emaciated men, bearing the marks of repeated beatings, clinging to life in the Omarska and Trnopolje camps in the Prijedor region of northern Bosnia. The images were redolent of Belsen. Some years later, the magazine run by Furedi’s supporters, then called LM, published a fantastical and fraudulent article claiming the pictures were faked. ITN rightly, given that the reputation of their reporters was as stake, sued for libel and won the case. LM shut down, to be succeeded in due course by an online magazine called Spiked.
To me, this later episode epitomises the group’s approach. An ostentatious commitment to being contrarian ends up not in freethinking but in a willingness to deny horrific atrocities. But rather than this past see them marginalised, the party’s former members have entered the establishment – and specifically the right-wing establishment in an age of Brexit. It’s not my purpose to inveigh against individuals so much as to try and understand how people nominally on the left have made a seamless transition to the right, and to influential roles in the media, pressure groups and politics.
The answer is that, at root, theirs is the politics not of democratic principle but of a furious sophistry. It’s not just that the likes of Ms Fox have never apologised for their support for terror, or renounced their apologetics for the deranged campaign of Slobodan Milosevic and his satraps to create a “Greater Serbia”. It is that, throughout the group’s existence, they have failed to grasp the nature of a constitutional society. The things we value are not necessarily compatible with each other or even measurable on the same scale. The economic goals we pursue are always subject to trade-offs. The politics of the RCP and its successors have never been like that. They’ve trumpeted liberty and rationalism yet exemplified intolerance and dogmatism. Back in 1982, when Britain fought a just and necessary war to liberate the Falklands from Argentine aggression, the group produced a pamphlet titled Malvinas are Argentina’s – prefiguring their consistent support for repressive regimes. In 1987, it published The Truth About the Aids Panic, an early work of denialism that is completely consistent with their later rubbishing of good science on climate change.
Most obviously, the group’s public stands have shown a remorseless incomprehension of the trade-offs and compromises that a liberal society relies on. That’s the consistency with their rejection of the Northern Ireland peace process. The political ructions caused by the Brexit vote pitted conflicting ideals of democracy against each other: direct democracy, where a narrow popular vote opted for one course, and deliberative democracy, where most parliamentarians felt strongly that Brexit was a mistake. To the RCP and its supporters, transmuted into activists for the Brexit Party, these conundrums were of no significance. Brendan O’Neill, editor of Spiked and a purported contrarian whose views on any given issue can be predicted with complete accuracy, literally called for riots in the streets.
This case of a left-wing group that has gone over to the right has a lesson for those who value constitutional politics, whether on the liberal left, as I am, or in the more authentic traditions of conservative thinking. It’s expressed in the warning of Michael Oakeshott, one of the great political theorists of the last century: “The predicament of our time is that the Rationalists have been at work so long on their project of drawing off the liquid in which our moral ideals were suspended (and pouring it away as worthless) that we are left only with the dry and gritty residue which chokes us as we try to take it down.”
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