On Thursday, as Donald Trump touched down in the UK, Britain’s oldest conservative think tank, the Bow Group, held a ceremonial presentation, discussion and Q&A to celebrate.
According to the blurb for the event a bust of Sir Winston Churchill was presented to a Republican official “on behalf of the Bow Group in recognition of President Trump’s return of the Churchill bust to the Oval Office of the White House”.
Speakers at the Bow Group event included Daniel Kawczynski, Conservative MP for Shrewsbury best known for his ardent support of Saudi Arabia, alongside Raheem Kassam, the former UK editor of right-wing news website Breitbart, previously headed up by Steven Bannon, Trump’s ex-chief strategist, and Nigel Farage, who told the audience: “Frankly, this prime minister has at every conceivable opportunity followed the politically correct pack in criticising Trump and his actions.”
While Theresa May entertains the president at Blenheim Palace, his visit is facilitating cross-pollination between British conservatism and the Trumpian alt-right. Mainstream conservatives are organising and speaking alongside alt-right figures with the legitimacy conferred by the “special relationship”.
Sycophancy for Trump is given the gloss of realpolitik – the need to welcome “our biggest ally” with what is a state visit in all but name (the “working visit” includes tea with the Queen among other baubles).
The Conservative government will be forlornly hoping for a smooth visit in order to service the national interest in the context of Brexit as they see it – Theresa May has said there will be “no alliance more important in the years ahead” than with the US. Those on the wider political right are, much like the president, unshy about criticising May.
They want to welcome their hero. They are intent on showing that the idea that people see him as a pariah is just a media construct, and by extension hope to normalise his crass nationalism. All of which, in the context of the culture wars, is causing a Trumpian turn for the right wing of UK politics, including many in the Conservative Party.
The Bow Group’s board of senior patrons includes a triumvirate of the Tory old guard: Geoffrey Howe, Norman Tebbit and Norman Lamont. Recent events have seen turns from such luminaries as Mail on Sunday columnist Peter Hitchens and high ranking Tory politicians: trade secretary Liam Fox, former leader Michael Howard, John Redwood, Owen Patterson.
The group has been aligning with the populist right in recent years under its chairman, Ben Harris-Quinney. In 2015, Harris-Quinney encouraged people to vote for Ukip and was sternly reprimanded by Bow Group patrons. That year he was also called a “homophobe and a menace” by senior Conservative sources after he said David Cameron was “forced to endure the indignity” of legalising gay marriage, “only with the support of opposition parties” at an anti-gay event in Moscow.
The group was embroiled in controversy when it held an anniversary celebration and invited the Traditional Britain Group – a right-wing organisation which has called for the repatriation of black people to their “natural homelands”. Trump’s visit is another opportunity for Harris-Quinney to push his charming brand of conservatism, but rather than deviating from the Tory party hymn sheet, he’s part of a chorus led by the prime minister.
Elsewhere links between the Conservative Party and the further reaches of the right are being made at a grassroots level. The Jamerson pub in Hammersmith is temporarily rebranding itself as “The Trump Arms” in honour of the US President’s visit to the UK. Nigel Farage and Steve Bannon are rumoured to be joining a welcoming party there on Saturday.
“Not everybody in Britain is down on Donald Trump’s visit,” noted The Spectator’s deputy editor Freddy Gray, tweeting a picture of the pub decked out in union jacks and stars and stripes. Trump described the it’s new name as “wonderful”, adding: “I love those people. Those are my people.” But who are they exactly?
The party is coorganised by Patrick Sullivan, CEO of Tory think tank Parliament Street, while Gawain Towler, ex-head of press for Ukip is offering some PR advice. Another organiser is Lucy Brown, who until recently worked producing videos with former EDL leader Tommy Robinson, before the two fell out. As an alt-right commentator and media figure in her own right, she turned up to the 2018 London women’s march in a Trump T-shirt in order to “piss them [feminists] off”, so it’s no surprise she’s part of the welcoming committee.
On social media she has also shared a video welcoming Trump by Anne Marie Waters, leader of For Britain, a small far-right party. Brown told Talk Radio: “Trump is cool, funny, and he’s stuck two fingers up to the establishment. He’s a strong male figure and I think he’s a good leader.”
Alongside her in the interview was young Tory activist and coorganiser Daniel McIlhiney. His profile on the website of right-wing think tank the Bruges Group modestly notes that he became “deeply engaged in the political system during the Brexit referendum strongly believing that, although it may be of personal detriment to him and his work, he was duty bound to use his skills to seek to get a Leave vote for the good of his country and its future”. He is pictured on social media with James Cleverly, deputy chairman of the Conservative Party.
McIlhiney has distanced himself from the far-right, telling Talk Radio: “It’s okay to criticise Trump but to label anyone who supports him a fascist or a Nazi is not debate, it’s absurd.
“This kind of group of people would never come together for anything else,” he added. “We all disagree on a lot, we come from very different backgrounds, but the one thing I think we all agree on is that he is the democratically elected president of our closest ally and he should be welcomed.” You said it, pal – Trump’s visit is causing meetings between parts of the right that might not usually consider themselves allies.
Among the expected attendees is Sargon of Akkad, real name Carl Benjamin, a “classical liberal” YouTuber who recently joined Ukip and gave a speech at Tommy Robinson’s recent “Day for Freedom” rally, also organised by Brown. (With Robinson now in prison for contempt of court, there’s a “Free Tommy Robinson” protest in London on Saturday. In further evidence of transatlantic intercourse on the right, an activist at a recent “Freedom and Courage” rally in Portland Oregon made a speech against the imprisonment of “this hero, our brother, Tommy Robinson”.)
Many moderate Conservatives would baulk at connections to the vlogger generals of the internet culture war. But their party’s close proximity to Trumpian vulgarity comes as the party is embroiled in its own racism scandal, with numerous Tory council candidates suspended for Islamophobia.
Just yesterday an embarrassed Michael Fabricant hastily deleted a tweet depicting Donald Trump having set up two blimps, with the face of London mayor Sadiq Khan on one pig-shaped blimp, having sex with another pig blimp. The caption read: “Breaking News: Trump defeats Sadiq Khan in balloon wars.” He deleted the tweet and claimed not to have noticed Khan’s face on the picture.
But it goes further than Twitter gaffes and rogue councillors, and further than Boris Johnson and Donald Trump’s mutual adoration, or Theresa May’s desperate deference to the president.
In December 2017, Jacob Rees-Mogg met with Steve Bannon. Breitbart’s Raheem Kassam, who brokered the meeting, commented: “Brexit and the election of President Trump were inextricably linked, so the discussions focused on how we move forward with winning for the conservative movements on both sides of the pond.”
With Brexiteers outraged at what they see as the Chequers sell-out, and the president accusing May of wrecking Brexit, Trump’s visit will have buoyed an already boisterous British right.