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Suella Braverman makes a speech at the National Conservatism conference in central London.
Suella Braverman makes a speech at the National Conservatism conference in central London. Photograph: Victoria Jones/PA
Suella Braverman makes a speech at the National Conservatism conference in central London. Photograph: Victoria Jones/PA

The Tories have form with far right conspiracy theories. This time it’s ‘cultural Marxism’

Samuel Earle

The party turns nasty and brutish when it fears for its future. The use of this term – with its clear links to antisemitism – is just the latest example

This week, London played host to the National Conservatism conference, an orgy of rightwing anxieties about threats to the west and the future of Conservatism. The lineup saw an eclectic coalition of rightwing firebrands raising the alarm about the left’s purported plans for world domination via a “woke revolution”.

The fascistic undertones of this conspiratory narrative – which effectively calls on conservatives to save their country from an insidious alliance between progressives and minorities – sounded particularly pronounced during a speech by Tory MP Miriam Cates. Describing falling birthrates as “the one overarching threat to British conservatism, and to the whole of western society”, she laid blame for Britain’s woes at a surprise foe: “a cultural Marxism that is systematically destroying our children’s souls”.

What is cultural Marxism? The term, which emerged in the 1990s in the US with clear antisemitic origins, imagines that an anti-western ideology was concocted by Jewish intellectuals after the second world war. The conspiracy taps into confected panics about political correctness and wokeness that first started in the US. Only in more recent years has it captured the minds of Conservatives in Britain as well.

In March 2019, Suella Braverman declared that “we are engaged in a battle against cultural Marxism”, tying the threat to Jeremy Corbyn. In November 2020, 22 Conservative MPs and peers then signed a letter criticising “cultural Marxist dogma”. Each utterance brings fresh calls from Jewish groups and leaders to stop the usage and exploitation of the term. But for the Tories the allure of a phantom threat destroying Britain from the inside – exonerating the party for its dismal 13 years in government – is too good to turn down.

It’s tempting to frame the Conservatives’ flirtations with conspiratorial thinking as an aberration. But the truth is that the party has always contained darker, apocalyptic undercurrents. These are usually repressed and marginalised in the interests of electability – politeness, levelheadedness and respectability are essential to the party’s brand – but at times of crisis, when Conservatives fear for the future and feel threatened by social trends evolving beyond their control, they often rise to the surface.

In many ways, the foundational challenge for the Conservative party has been how to harness the most reactionary forces of society while also keeping the party’s moderate reputation untarnished by them. This balancing act – embracing the far right with one arm, keeping them at a distance with the other – has caused all kinds of contortions in the party’s past: from Margaret Thatcher dismissing the National Front as a “socialist front” at the same time as it accused her of stealing its rhetoric and policies, to David Cameron mocking Ukip as “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists” and then surrendering to its main demand for an in/out referendum. However much they might not like it, Conservatives know that their winning coalition usually requires keeping those “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists” on side.

Winston Churchill with prime minister David Lloyd George in 1922: in 1920 Churchill suggested that ‘international Jews’ were leading a ‘world-wide conspiracy for the overthrow of civilisation.’
Winston Churchill with prime minister David Lloyd George in 1922: in 1920 Churchill suggested that ‘international Jews’ were leading a ‘world-wide conspiracy for the overthrow of civilisation.’ Photograph: PA

But the Conservatives’ reactionary tendencies are also more than mere tactics. Between the two world wars, when fascist leaders came to power across Europe, many Conservatives succumbed to fascism’s core conspiracy: that Jews and communists were in cahoots against the west. The Conservative leader Stanley Baldwin tried his best to dissuade his party from fascism. “Fascism … takes many of the tenets of our own party and pushes them to a conclusion which, if given effect to, would … be disastrous to our country,” he warned. But dozens of Tories funded, founded or joined fascist groups such as the British Union of Fascists and the Anglo-German Fellowship. Fascism is often associated with thugs, but in Britain, as elsewhere, it was often an upper-class affair.

Not even the greatest heroes of the Conservative party have been immune to these prejudices. The fact that Winston Churchill helped to defeat Hitler doesn’t change the fact that he indulged in antisemitic conspiracy theories, too. In 1920, Churchill suggested that “international Jews” were leading a “worldwide conspiracy for the overthrow of civilisation”. He wondered whether the Jewish heritage of many revolutionary leftwing thinkers – Karl Marx, Leon Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg, Emma Goldman – spoke to “inherent inclinations rooted in Jewish character and religion”.

Like other Tories, Churchill was ultimately stirred into action not by Hitler’s antisemitism or his fascism, but by “the threatening continental expansionism that it inspired in Germany”, as the historian Priya Satia has explained, which endangered Britain and its empire. Arch-imperialist and Conservative politician Leo Amery believed that, on matters of race, Churchill was “not quite sane”, suggesting that here there was little difference “between his outlook and Hitler’s”.

The Conservatives’ impressive feat is knowing how to tap into reactionary forces one moment, and how to dissociate the party from them the next. After the second world war, as the evils of fascism entered national folklore, the Conservatives committed to cleaning up their image. Fascist sympathies and antisemitism were no longer tolerated as understandable eccentricities. In early 1953, a young Jewish man named Sir Keith Joseph, who would later go on to become Thatcher’s right-hand man, approached the party about becoming an MP. John Hare, Conservative vice-chairman for candidates, immediately saw his value. “There is a good deal of talk about antisemitic prejudice within the party and his adoption, therefore, by some constituency would be helpful,” he said.

The remarkable diversity of the Conservative cabinet – unmatched anywhere else in the western world – is testament to the party’s power of adaptability. But their recent readiness to indulge conspiracy theories and reactionary rhetoric suggest the embrace of multicultural Britain was always more a matter of expedience than enthusiasm. Contained within invocations of “cultural Marxism” is a vast constellation of more mundane conservative anxieties about the modern world, from the culture of victimhood supposedly enabled by universities to the erosion of family values.

Conservatives now claim they simply want to restore a respect for tradition and a sense of personal responsibility among young people, undoing the damage done by the left. But they should perhaps ask whether they are in fact the architects of their own unhappiness – whether the erosion of traditional values and rise of identity politics has more to do with the free-market capitalism they have championed so fervently than any nebulously defined cultural Marxism. “I sometimes wonder,” Norman Tebbit confessed in 2013, “whether our economic reforms led to an individualism in other values, in ways we didn’t anticipate.” Most Conservatives prefer to avoid any such reckoning.

This is now the paradoxical core of conservative psychology: a cult of personal responsibility that refuses to take any responsibility for the world that, through its promotion of free-market capitalism, it has in large part created. It’s clear they will conjure up all kinds of conspiracies to avoid confronting this unhappy truth.

  • Samuel Earle is the author of Tory Nation: How One Party Took Over

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