How Military Adventurism and Suspicion of Islam Have Become Part Of The British Political Landscape 23 October 2015
“The neocon ascendency is total”. These words were written by associate editor of the Spectator Peter Oborne, describing the political ideology that has been championed by both Tony Blair and David Cameron.
Neoconservatives have dominated the political landscape now for nearly two decades, and as a result, they’ve shifted political orthodoxy dramatically. Despite this, all but a few political commentators have noted their influence from Parliament to the media, and even fewer yet have recognised the extent to which they have shifted acceptable politics.
Neoconservatism, as a movement, has American roots. It traces its origins to left-wingers who were critical of state socialism and communism, particularly that represented by Stalin and the Soviet Union. They made a political journey across to the right, and thus the term neoconservative was born. In Britain, they began gaining influence with New Labour and particularly during Tony Blair’s tenure. John Kampfner, former editor of the New Statesman, wrote about these emerging political elites in 2003. In an article titled “The British neoconservatives” he outlined their political manifesto. Kampfner observed that US and British neoconservatives ‘agree on the use of force to depose dictators and impose democracy’, a belief that was already in action at the time with disastrous consequences in Iraq. They also held strongly to belief in the ‘fundamental goodness of the US and of any pax Americana’, the free market, scepticism of ‘European-style collectivism’ and a ‘deep-rooted conviction that virtually all criticism of Israel must, by definition, be inspired by anti-Semitism’.
Since 2003, British neoconservatism has continued to grow in influence, as well as developing its views. Kampfner’s article was almost prophetic in describing a movement which has been increasingly powerful and influential in upper echelons of parliament, but has largely been ignored by popular discussion of politics. His article however failed to predict two aspects of British neoconservatism today.
The first is a belief in majoritarianism. ‘Moral majoritarianism in Britain is unfashionable, even among many thinkers on the right. Whatever Blair’s personal convictions, he knows religion doesn’t play in politics here’ Kampfner observed. This is no longer the case.
Majoritarianism, the view that the majority, whether ethnic, cultural or religious, have a primacy in society to which others in society must concede. Since a 2011 speech by Cameron about a “muscular liberalism” that was needed to replace multiculturalism, majoritarianism thinking has now found voice amongst politicians in the language of “British values”. Statements about Britain as a “Christian country”, which Cameron has been keen to stress, tie into this. In the view of Cameron and other neoconservatives, being a “Christian” country has less to do with moral values and religious outlook, and more to do with identity and cultural heritage.
Christianity is simply reduced to a signifier of belonging, which leads to the second development in neoconservative thinking – the way in which neoconservatives turned their attention towards Islam and Muslims as a perceived ideological threat. Peter Oborne wrote in the Middle East Eye that neoconservatism today ‘focuses less on making the argument for liberal intervention, and more on making the case against what it calls radical Islam.’ Islam has become a foil for neoconservative visions of society. Muslim threats abroad justify military excursions, and Muslims at home are the cultural and religious threats which seek to undermine the “silent majority”.
This has resulted in two things, a dramatic shift in political discourse, as well disastrous policies at home and abroad.
The Overton Window
The Overton Window is the term given to the range of acceptable political ideas in public discourse. Anything outside of the window is considered too radical and too extreme to be considered by the public. The window of course is not static, it moves and so what is acceptable today may not be acceptable tomorrow. It is a useful tool for describing the way in which politics establishes (and destroys) orthodoxies.
Europe in general has had a shift towards the right in political discourse, thus the rise of far-right parties such as Golden Dawn in Greece, The Front National in France, Jobbik in Hungary as well as a general movement to the right in Britain with the growth of Ukip. The picture of course is not uniform, with radical leftwing parties such as Syriza also gaining political footholds (and of course, the meteoric success of Jeremy Corbyn here in Britain).
The success of the neoconservatives in Britain however has been to establish their radical ideas firmly into the mainstream political discourse. This includes military interventionism. The incredible failure of the Iraq War, which has cost over 500,000 lives and led to a political vacuum in which Isis has seized control, should arguably have led to a diminished appetite for interventionism in Britain. By contrast, the neoconservative argument has continued to keep Britain involved in international conflicts, most recently bombing Iraq (again) as well as supporting Saudi Arabia’s bombing of Yemen. The political instability and massive loss of life caused by such military campaigns are, in the view of neocons, a necessary part of rebuilding these nations in the neocon image.
A good deal of the intellectual steam for neoconservatism comes from the Henry Jackson Society, a think-tank which was recently the subject of a report by Spinwatch. The neocon group has cross-party support, with signatories from Labour, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. Journalist Nafeez Ahmed describes them as such: –
“While touting their support for freedom, liberalism and democratisation as their core organisational remit, in practice they appear to be a neocon trojan horse for the very opposite: state-expansionism, state-militarisation, interventionism, rampant market deregulation and privatisation in the interests of Western investors, coupled with anti-Muslim hostility and white supremacism.”
Alongside international foreign policy, neoconservatives have also created a toxic atmosphere in Britain in which Muslims are subject to a political suspicion. Michael Gove’s particular brand of neoconservatism emerges strongly from a suspicion of Islam, he is author of Celsius 7/7, a book which outlines his views on Islamism as a totalitarian ideology akin to Communism, one which was allowed to grow through a failure of Western foreign policy. Gove, Ed Vaisey and George Osbourne (all neocons and signatories of the Henry Jackson Society) have shaped government policy on everything from preventing violent extremism to issues of integration and community cohesion.
So well-established are neocon ideas within government that there were only a few murmurs of dissent when former director of the Henry Jackson Society, William Shawcross, was appointed Chairman of Charity Commission. Shawcross, like Gove and Osbourne, sees Islam as a political and cultural enemy. He reportedly said “Europe and Islam is one of the greatest, most terrifying problems of our future. I think all European countries have vastly, very quickly growing Islamic populations.” And perhaps unsurprisingly, as Chairman of the Charity Commission, he has been accused by think-tank Claystone of leading a campaign against British Muslim charities, concluding in a report (.pdf) that Muslim charities have been ‘disproportionately affected by investigations’ conducted by the commission.
The neoconservative fascination with Islam has also led to a counter-terror policy that focuses on religious interpretation, rather than political factors, as being central. This is despite the fact hundreds of academics, many who specialise in radicalisation and conflict, signed a public letter criticising the Government’s PREVENT policy’s obsession with the “unsubstantiated view that religious ideology is the primary driving factor for terrorism”. They argued instead that “academic research suggests that social, economic and political factors, as well as social exclusion, play a more central role in driving political violence than ideology.”
Research and the experiences of those involved with tackling extremism on the ground however are largely relegated to a backseat against the neoconservative conviction that ideology breeds violence.
It is the shift in the Overton Window of British politics that has allowed these politicians and policies to flourish. Only a decade ago, it seems inconceivable a mainstream politician could describe Muslims as a “fifth column”, as Nigel Farage did during the run up to the 2015 elections.
Hilary Aked of Spinwatch, one of the authors of the latest report on the Henry Jackson Society, believes the think-tank is responsible for the growth of neoconservatism. “Of all the think tanks who have the ear of British politicians, the Henry Jackson Society is undoubtedly propagating some of the most dangerous and discredited ideas currently able to voice themselves in the heart of Westminster.”
She believes the society “is not only trying to deepen and uphold the worst excesses of the war on terror, it is threatening to push the UK further in the direction of the US, in every facet of domestic and foreign policy. Militarised policing, mass incarceration, belligerent and imperial designs abroad – these are the fruits of the transatlantic relationship the HJS would have us partake more of.”
For those troubled by how successfully neoconservatism has become part of the national political landscape, the remedy is also part of the reason for their initial success. There exists few political opponents to the necons, either in ideology or through individuals, and for the large part – they have been unopposed in propagating their political manifesto. A concerted articulation of a political alternative is more than capable of stopping their growth. For those who believe in a multicultural society and not majoritarianism, and for those who believe in diplomacy and not militarisation, there is much work to be done.
This article is from Issue 11 of On Religion. If you enjoyed it, subscribe to our magazine for just £19 a year and help us to keep publishing.