NatCon and the British war on woke

Thursday, 25 May 2023 — Institute of Race Relations

The American hard Right are coming to the UK – and Europe. But, unlike in Hungary, where the gathering of Europe’s extreme-right figures (including the prime ministers of Hungary and Georgia) was an offshoot of the Trump and Bolsonaro supporting US Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), the National Conservatism conference in the UK is a project backed by the Washington-based Edmund Burke Foundation. The NatCon participants may not be so brazen in supporting white nationalism as their counterparts in CPAC, but their preoccupations with ‘faith, flag and family’, birth-rates and ‘traditionalism’ also speaks to an Alt-Right and Christian conservative agenda. Several of the organisations represented at NatCon, such as Policy Exchange, the Common Sense Society, Free Speech Union and the Legatum Institute, have been linked to the Atlas Network, an integrated pro-corporate network which grew out of the UK-based Institute of Economic Affairs and has received funding from US billionaire and right-wing libertarian Charles Koch.

Like CPAC Hungary’s ‘No Woke Zone’, NatCon 2023 speakers regularly decried ‘woke dogma’ as an existential threat to society. Many of them feature in a crucial new Race & Class article, An anatomy of the British war on woke by Huw C. Davies and Sheena E. MacRae. Davies and MacRae show how motifs such as ‘cultural marxism’, ‘critical race theory’ and ‘woke ideology’ are framed as pseudo-religions that pose a threat to ‘western civilisation’, generating a modern moral panic about perceived left-wing cultural hegemony. As MacRae told The Guardian’s Nesrine Malik this week, ‘The number of actors, the number of channels, the space that they’re given, has allowed the vernacular to change. So much of the rhetoric is about projecting the left’s opinions. It’s about trying to do the thinking for the public.’

Thankfully, the IRR has produced a wealth of materials, not only to understand the racial basis of National Conservatism, but to develop resistance strategies to its anti-woke campaigns and culture wars. The individuals and organisations that came together under the banner of NatCon cannot be considered fringe; they have had a significant impact on government policy. The Higher Education (Free Speech) Act, which passed into law days before the NatCon gathering, is a case in point. This piece of legislation, which several of the NatCon participants helped to draft, was the first fruits of the anti-equalities agenda of the hard Right. And as we warned in 2021, the danger of this legislation is that it will lead to the creation of an environment where bigoted ideas pass into the mainstream under the guise of ‘viewpoint diversity’.

The kind of racialised demographic scaremongering indulged in at the National Conservatism conference, has consequences, as a group of lawyers and faith organisations who have lodged a complaint with the Bar Standards Board against the ‘racist sentiments and discriminatory narratives’ of home secretary and qualified barrister Suella Braverman, remind us. We record this intervention in our regular Calendar of Racism and Resistance, also gathering examples of anti-fascist and trades union interventions to protect migrants and refugees from anti-immigration and far-Right protests outside asylum hostels in Scotland and Ireland. In Ireland, anti-migrant blockades have been formed outside refugee hostels in Dublin and Co Clare, with Real Message Eire claiming responsibility for burning down a makeshift camp in Dublin. (There was another suspected arson attack in Co Donegal.) And it’s not just the racism that happens outside refugee accommodation that should concern us. This week, we learnt of serious allegations of institutional abuse by racist staff inside five Home Office run hotels in Merseyside, including the Suites hotel in Knowsley, where violent far-right protests took place in February.

IRR News team

 A resource on the ‘war on woke’ from IRR News and Race & Class Natcon 2023

What does this week’s UK National Conservativism conference reveal about global trends amongst the international Right? This week, Race & Class published this twitter thread of resources from the journal and IRR News authors. If you don’t use Twitter, you can also read it on your browser and at Instagram.

Read now

A fortnightly resource for anti-racist and social justice campaigns, highlighting key events in the UK and Europe. Calendar of Racism & Resistance

This week’s Calendar of Racism & Resistance highlights examples of anti-fascist & trades union interventions to protect migrants & refugees from anti-immigration & far-Right protests outside asylum hostels in Scotland & Ireland.

One story shows the Scottish TUC organised an anti-fascist rally outside the Muthu Glasgow River hotel in Erskine, to counter anti-asylum protests by Patriotic Alternative/ Homeland targeting the hotel in recent months.

Find these stories and thousands more on our Register of Racism and Resistance database.

Read Calendar

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Watch and listen back to New Circuits of Anti-racism Available now: IRR50 conference

In case you missed it last time, The IRR is delighted to release video and audio of all the sessions from New Circuits of Anti-racism – an IRR50 conference on racism, imperialism and new lines of resistance. A range of thinkers, scholar-activists and campaigners from the UK, the United States and beyond gathered at King’s College London for a day of reflection, action and imagination. We collaborated with Surviving Society for a series of podcasts, which can be listened to and downloaded on Soundcoud and our website. You can also watch each session via our YouTube channel at this playlist.

Watch / Listen here

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