"Who are these thugs?"

How the far right gained power in the Tory party

21st January 2020

Westminster’s already fractured foundations have been shaken over the last few months by what many have seen as a slow-moving coup by the right-wing of the Conservative party.

From the initial attempt to prorogue parliament, to the flirtations with law-breaking in the wake of the supreme court drama which blocked that attempt, Johnson’s rhetoric and tactics are moving rightward. As too is the make-up of the parliamentary party he leads, now shorn of around 20 more-moderate Tories, including a number of grandees.

Such a forceful swing to the right and the excision of the mainstream has put the UK in truly uncharted waters, but for the Conservatives, it’s nothing new. It’s happened before: ten years ago, in Brussels.

Daniel Hannah 📷Gage Skidmore

Edward McMillan-Scott led the party in the European Parliament from 1997-2001. At that time, the Conservatives belonged to the pro-European, centre-right grouping of MEPs: the European People’s Party (EPP). He traces the Conservatives’ current toxicity back to Tory MEP Daniel Hannan — a close ally of Dominic Cummings in 2016’s Leave campaign. Hannan had cultivated an ambition to take Britain out of the European Union for decades.

“Hannan’s arrival on the scene was a godsend for the Eurosceptics,” says McMillan-Scott, “because there’s always been a Eurosceptic element within the Tory party, even as far back as the 1975 referendum.”

In 1999, despite McMillan-Scott’s efforts at blocking him, Hannan was elected into the EU Parliament on a Conservative ticket in South East England. He’s held the seat ever since.

a bunch of nutters, anti-Semites, people who deny climate change exists, homophobes

“After he’d been elected, I asked him what he wanted to achieve,” recalls McMillan-Scott. “Hannan said, ‘I want to achieve Britain leaving the EU and if possible the collapse of the EU itself.’ I said that seemed a very extreme proposition to me and that he wouldn’t be getting any help from me.

“Hannan worked alongside Roger Helmer, Chris Heaton-Harris, Martin Callanan — some pretty nerdy Eurosceptics — and they endlessly banged on about the EPP being some hotbed of Euro-federalism.”

By 2009, “they’d put together a new nationalist group of MEPs, which was described by Nick Clegg as ‘a bunch of nutters, anti-Semites, people who deny climate change exists, homophobes’ — which is broadly true… It’s all going to come full circle when David Cameron’s book is published, because he will have to deal with that move out of the EPP, as it was seen by most people as the beginning of the end of our relationship with the European Union.”

If anybody in this room has had any neo-Nazi activity or associations, that’s it for me

Cameron had formed the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) with Poland’s authoritarian Law and Justice party and a host of other hard-right outfits. McMillan-Scott remembers when he first saw them.

“We were in Strasbourg that week and a journalist came down the corridor and said to me ‘God, there’s this horrendous bunch of people hanging around outside the committee room!’ and I said, ‘Who are these thugs?’

“It was just a shock to see them all. I left the meeting thinking: ‘I can’t cope with this stuff.’ I expressed my reservations, saying, ‘If anybody in this room has had any neo-Nazi activity or associations, that’s it for me.’

Michał Kamiński 📷 Adrian Gryuk

“I discovered that one of them, a man called Michał Kamiński [from Law and Justice] had been in the NOP, a Polish revivalist party — it uses neo-fascist symbols and Nazi hand-salutes.

“I learned that he’d been an MP in Poland, representing a place called Jedwabne, where, in 1941, one of the most horrendous massacres of Jews had taken place. The town’s local population forced the Jews to pluck all the moss from the high street’s cobblestones on their hands and knees, egged on by the Nazis. They were finally rounded up and put in a barn, which was set on fire. 400 died.

“When later, while Kamiński was Jedwabne’s MP, there was an attempt to have a national apology for the massacre, he opposed it, saying if you blamed the Nazis, you’ve got to blame the Russians too, which was utterly irresponsible and dreadful.

“He was put up as candidate for vice-president of the EU parliament by the new ECR group and as a way of protesting, having left the ECR, I stood against him and won handsomely.

“Then there began a process of squeezing me out,” says McMillan-Scott, “much like we’ve seen recently, with the 21 MPs having the whip removed. I was actually the first parliamentarian to fall on my sword over the EU issue.”

After his expulsion, McMillan-Scott’s Wikipedia page was changed to make him seem more of a Europhile while Kamiński’s page was edited to airbrush details of his extremist associations. The edits were later traced back to an IP address in the House of Commons. Does McMillan-Scott believe someone was acting under instruction?

“I think it was all part of the Hannan operation.”

He thought he could get away with it. He thought he could appease the right wing of his party

Since McMillan-Scott’s removal from the delegation, the Tories’ company in the ECR has grown even more questionable.

The Sweden Democrats were admitted into the group last year. They trace their roots back to a man called Gustaf Ekström, an activist during the 1930s for the Swedish branch of the Nazi party. After the war he remained active in various neo-Nazi organisations and was appointed the party’s first auditor when he co-founded it in 1988.

The then Conservative MEP leader Ashley Fox claimed that his party was out-voted in trying to keep the Sweden Democrats out of the alliance, but that they would help them “on their political journey”. Fox argued that the party “have made progress in reforming themselves, expelling any members displaying unacceptable views or behaviour and diversifying their party base” and said that they ultimately “respect the decision of our ECR colleagues.”

Steve Bannon 📷 Gage Skidmore

Following 2019’s EU elections, the Tories were culled from 19 seats to just four, drastically reducing their sway in the group. Nevertheless, they remain members even as their ranks have grown to accommodate the far-right Brothers of Italy — a party directly descended from Mussolini’s fascist Italian Social Movement.

So in touch with its past is this party that Rachele Mussolini, granddaughter of Benito, stood as a candidate for them in last year’s general election. Both they and the Sweden Democrats received generous offers of support from Steve Bannon, the editor of the alt-right Breitbart website.

But even Bannon stopped short of sponsoring Latvia’s National Alliance, who also sit with the Conservatives — a party sporting swastika-like symbols, an ethno-nationalist leader, and MPs who talk of preserving the country’s “blood lineage.” In this case, the Tories have no excuse. The party was permitted to join the ECR as a founding member, back when it was called For Fatherland and Freedom.

At 2009’s Labour party conference, then Foreign Secretary David Miliband expressed his outrage that the Conservatives were now co-operating with a party who annually commemorate their dead Nazi-allied troops. Senior Tory MP William Hague demanded that he apologise and said Miliband had chosen to “recycle false Soviet propaganda”.

Cameron had no friends!

Did the Conservatives think that not enough people in the UK would care about who they partnered with in Brussels, no matter how extreme?

“That was Cameron’s view,” says McMillan-Scott. “He thought he could get away with it. He thought he could appease the right wing of his party, but unfortunately with those people, the more you give them, the more they take.”

Leaving the EPP greatly reduced the Tories’ influence in Brussels.

“It was an utterly self-defeating act. It’s led to absolutely nothing but disaster… When it came to the renegotiation [in early 2016] of the arrangements with the EU, Cameron had no friends!”

It’s a sort of proto-Bannon operation

The move did, however, give the Tories more freedom to help direct a flow of EU funds to conservative causes around the globe.

“The machinery of the parliament provides groups with staff and funding” McMillan-Scott points out, “but funds are also given to ACRE [Alliance of Conservatives and Reformists in Europe], the association attached to the ECR, which can do almost anything it likes as a political entity. It’s a sort of proto-Bannon operation.”

Such funds are meant to be spent on events and activities relevant to the work of the EU, but in 2018, ACRE was ordered to repay €535,609 after allegations of inappropriate spending. Included within the repayment demand was a sum of €90,000, which parliamentary authorities said had been put towards a post-Brexit trade summit at a five-star hotel in Kampala, Uganda. The summit hosted the then Minister of State for International Development Rory Stewart as keynote speaker.

MEPs operate in deep cover, so nobody really knows what they’re doing

In addition, EU officials believed €108,985 had been used polling black and Asian voters ahead of 2017’s UK general election – which they claimed flouted EU law as the funds cannot be used on national campaigns.

The story generated almost zero headlines in the UK.

“I used to say that MEPs operate in deep cover,” says McMillan Scott, “so nobody really knows what they’re doing.”

21st January 2020