Until 2001, the Conservative Party was a racist party.

That is to say, the Conservative Party had members – including MPs – who were actively involved in far right politics, with the consent and sometimes encouragement of the party leadership.

The clearest example was the Monday Club. The Monday Club – like the National Front at the time – called for the ‘voluntary repatriation’ for immigrants. Not all immigrants, of course. Just those from the “New Commonwealth” and Pakistan. The links between the Monday Club and European fascism more generally were well known. Searchlight and other newspapers carried exposes of attempts by the National Front and other far right organisations to take over the club. From time to time, members of the Monday Club joined the National Front, and ex-members of the National Front were found in positions of influence within the Monday Club. Members of the Monday Club, it was sometimes argued, were associated with other more clearly fascist organisations, like the League of St George, whose membership in turn blended into the unapologetic European neo Nazi scene.

What was the reaction of the Conservative Party to Monday Club activity by its members? It encouraged and applauded it. The Tory party in 1970 had run on a platform of repatriation of immigrants, after all.  The Conservative Party leader Alec Douglas-Home who was guest-of-honour at the Monday Club’s annual dinners of 1964 and 1969. A number of MPs were members of the Monday Club.

Then, in 2001, everything changed. Davis Davis and Iain Duncan Smith declared that membership of the Monday Club was incompatible with membership of the Conservative Party. Three MPs who were members of both, resigned from the Monday Club, and publicly repudiated its policies on race and immigration.

This was a moment of huge significance for the Tory Party. “Polite” racism had been very much part of the ‘canteen culture’ of the British right. That did not mean that all Tories were racists. Far from it. It just meant that an association with racist and even fascist politics was seen as something which was unremarkable, within the big happy family of conservatism. By banning a Tory ginger group, that once had held the ear of the party leader, the Tories made it very clear that a line was to be drawn between fascism and conservatism.

The banning of the Monday Club wasn’t mere opportunism by a party that had finally sensed the mood shift within this country, and which had realised that they’d lose more ‘natural conservatives’ who deplored racism than they’d win by playing to those who were ‘a bit racist’. It was more than that. The generation of Conservatives who are now at the top of their party are essentially economic liberals, who are also mildly liberal social conservatives. They think of themselves as anti-racists. Some are involved in anti-fascist activity. Davis Davis apparently teared up at his friend Alan Duncan’s civil partnership ceremony, despite opposing the legislation that made it possible. We’re not living in the 1970s any more.

So, how does the Tory Party react to bigotry, these days?

  • John Jenkins has stood down from contesting the Llanelli seat after writing that homosexuals needed medical help and that the state should not recognise gay marriage or adoption.
  • A young Conservative student leader has been thrown out of the party and suspended from his university after making homophobic and anti-Semitic remarks on Facebook.
  • Nigel Hastilow has stepped down as the Conservative party’s candidate for his constituency after claiming Enoch Powell “was right” on immigration
  • A Tory councillor has been suspended from his party after addressing a British National Party meeting and agreeing to front its campaign to promote Christian values. Robert West now faces a Conservative investigation into his role in setting up the Christian Council of Britain
  • Ann Winterton has been sacked from her post on the Conservative front bench for telling a racist joke.
  • A Tory MP has been forced to quit his frontbench role after making comments on race in the Army which party leader David Cameron called “unacceptable”. Shadow homeland security spokesman Patrick Mercer said he had met “a lot” of “idle and useless” ethnic minority soldiers who used racism as a “cover”. The former officer also told the Times that being called a “black bastard” was a normal part of Army life.
  • A Tory MP  [Julian Lewis] has resigned from The Oxford Union in protest at its decision to invite two controversial figures to a free-speech event on Monday. Nick Griffin, leader of the British National Party (BNP) and David Irving – jailed for denying the Holocaust – were invited by the union debating society.

Is the conduct of the Tory party McCarthyism?

No it is not.

I’m sure that if I googled around, I would find people suggesting that it is outrageous that somebody should be excluded for the party for ‘making a joke’ or even ‘telling the truth about gays/black people’.

But to use “McCarthyism” in this context wholly fails to understand what the term means.

The USSR pursued a policy of recruiting the assistance of members of the satellite Communist Parties that operated in democratic nations, both to spy on those countries, and to subvert democratic politics. This took place in the United States, which was betrayed by Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs, and in the United Kingdom where the traitors included Philby, Burgess and McLean. Other ‘agents of influence’ found homes at the Guardian Newspaper and in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. The intentions of those who cheered for Stalinism may have been mixed: but in effect, they were sympathisers with a political system which had slaughtered millions, and many hoped to introduce such politics to the democratic countries in which they lived. It was right that spies be prosecuted, and the participation of Stalinists in mainstream politics, condemned.

It is the absolute right of a political party to define itself as it chooses. It is also a virtue to campaign against political activists who are associated with organisations that push a vicious politics.  When the Tory Party made a stand against the bigots in its ranks, it deserved praise. This is the bread and butter of political debate. It was most certainly not ‘McCarthyism’.

What is ‘McCarthyism’, in my view, is attempts to hound people from their jobs, merely because they hold distasteful ideas, or are members of nasty parties. The essence of ‘McCarthyism’ is the blacklist: the denial of employment as writers of musical comedies to people who often had the most tenuous link to extreme politics.

To lose your job is one of the most terrible things that can happen to you. You won’t be able to provide for your family, or yourself. You may be reduced to penury. And, just as bad, the sacking of one person because of their politics has a chilling effect on others who want to speak their minds, or participate in the democratic process.  There are a very few jobs where it is absolutely essential that extremists be shown the door. Police Officers, for example, have so much power that the danger that they might abuse it to persecute members of minority groups is too great to allow them to continue to serve in a capacity that presents a risk to the public. However, by and large, a political activist should only be sacked if they actually do abuse their power: not merely because they might do so.

It should also be remembered that many people do ‘pass through’ extremist politics at some point in their life. There are many public figures – and and even more quite ordinary people – who have at one stage flirted with the extreme Left or Right: if only to see through the shabbiness of the politics they once embraced, and to spend the rest of their lives working against it. I’m thinking of John Bercow, who was once the secretary of the Monday Club’s ‘Immigration and Repatriation Committee’, but 20 years later nearly defected to Labour when the Tories opposed equality for gay people.  Some – like Ricky Tomlinson – made the same mistake twice. But so what? Ricky Tomlinson is a character actor. He is entitled to be stupid in his political life.

Not everybody will agree with this argument. Some might say, for example, that an employee is an ambassador for their employer, and if they do something in their private life that brings shame and odium on their company or institution, they should be sacked. Many employment contracts do indeed contain such a provision. However, even where they do, I think that the damage that they do to the reputation of their employer should be balanced against the unfairness of seeking to control the freedom of thought, expression, and association of the individual employee. The Guardian should not have sacked Dilpazier Aslam: he could have written about plant photography, rather than Islamist op eds. Employment security should ordinarily trump other considerations.

Here are three examples of persecution that I think can fairly be described as ‘McCarthyism’:

Simone Clarke:

Musicians and workers at the English National Ballet (ENB) have reacted with outrage at the revelation that the company’s principal dancer, Simone Clarke, is a member of the fascist British National Party (BNP).

Unite Against Fascism has called a protest outside a lunchtime performance of the ballet Giselle this Friday which Clarke is performing in.

The anti-fascist campaign group is also circulating a petition condemning Clarke and calling on her to be removed from her position.

Frank Ellis:

The campaign by staff and students at Leeds University to sack the racist lecturer Frank Ellis has scored a success. The university has suspended Ellis after racist and homophobic comments he made.

Arthur Redfearn:

The former Bradford City member for Wibsey worked as a bus driver for children and adults with special needs and had never had a complaint made about him.

In 2004, he announced he was to stand for the BNP in local elections and was returned to office in June.

Later that month, Serco – which has a large number of Asian employees and whose clients are mainly from ethnic minorities – sacked him, claiming his presence on the workforce constituted a health and safety hazard.

All of these individuals share a similar disgusting politics. It sticks in my throat to defend them, just as I hate having to defend the likes of Irving and Tobin. But it is right to do so.

Redfearn tried to get elected, in order the better to implement his vision of a racist Britain. If Redfearn had tried to discriminate against his passengers, he should have been sacked: but he didn’t. Frank Ellis might have marked down his black students in the end of year Russian exams: but as marking is anonymous in most British Universities, the chances of this happening are pretty remote. Clarke’s crime was – what? That she might dance Giselle in a racist way? She is now married to the former gay erotica merchant, Richard Barnbrook. That is as relevant to the performance of her job as is her half Cuban-chinese child.

So, when we look for true McCarthyism, we’re more likely to find it in the treatment of those on the far Right than those on the far Left. And, more often than not, the McCarthyists are on the far Left.

That is ironic. It is those on the far Left who are the quickest to cry “McCarthyism” when their politics is criticised.

We hear the cry of “McCarthyism” whenever an attempt is made to campaign against the malign influence of the Socialist Workers Party in the University and College Union. It echoes around the blogosphere, when we discuss the leading roles in CND and the Stop The War Coalition of members of the Stalinist Communist Party of Britain. It is even deployed to defend the participation of racists and members of clerical fascist Islamist parties in RESPECT and the STWC. Yet, each of these examples involves, not the jobs of workers, but criticism of the composition of electoral alliances and political fronts. In fact, it is impossible to oppose such a politics, without pointing to the participation and leadership of extremists in these organisations.

Why then is the charge of McCarthyism so often made in these contexts? Why does the accusation ever receive a sympathetic hearing on the Left?

I think the reason is this. Whereas the Tory Party has owned up to its past disgrace, and exorcised the ghosts of its racist past, the Left still cherishes its one-time love affair with totalitarianism. I say ‘one-time’: but in fact, the phlegmatic approach to the leadership of the Communist Party of Britain and the Socialist Workers’ Party of so many important Left organisations show that the affection is undiluted, among some parts of the British Left, at least. That’s how we get little more than shrugs, when the SWP tours a Hezbollah spokesman around Britain, or showcases the anti-semite, Gilad Atzmon, or forms an electoral alliance with the genocidal Jamaat-e-Islami, or puts a member of the clerical fascist Muslim Brotherhood up as a candidate for its electoral front, or appears on a platform with a Hamas spokesman. That’s why there were no mass resignations from the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament when they invited the Iranian Ambassador along to their National Conference, to push their nuclear programme. That’s why Unite Against Fascism still staggers along – barely – even though it is run by the Socialist Workers Party and the Qaradawi-defending Socialist Action, and even though it essentially chased the admirable Searchlight out of its ranks, reputedly in an “anti-Zionist” purge.

And it goes a little wider than that. Liberty and Demos organised a conference with the clerical fascist group, the British Muslim Initiative. The London Review of Books published a love letter to Mugabe.  The Guardian runs op eds by pretty much any pro-dictatorship crank that it can find.

The greater part of the Left isn’t like this. There really is a stark difference between the earnest academic, who thinks that Marx may have had a point, or the benighted liberal who hears the frenzied cries for theocracy from the cleric, and thinks it benign; and those like the SWP who have made it their mission to facilitate and defend a racist and totalitarian politics that is on the rise in many parts of the world.

But the flabbiness of a part of the mainstream Left on this issue, is the mirror image of the pre-2001 Conservative Party, where liberal Tories and fascists slapped each other on the back as they toddled through the lobbies.

Or perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps there isn’t widespread acceptance of this sort of politics on the Left. The ex-ASLEF leader, Mick Rix, resigned from the Stop the War Coalition Steering Committee when the CPB/SWP-penned “by whatever means they find necessary” letter was circulated. Perhaps the dwindling number of attendees at STWC events – supported now by essentially nobody but jihadists and other totalitarians – tells its own story. Even the SWP has woken up to the fact of its failure:

Alex Callinicos told the South London aggregate that ‘Its clear that Stop the War will be less important in the future.’

Possibly what has happened is this.

Just as no decent person would admit to being a Tory, while it maintained its links with the far Right, an increasing number of people who think of themselves as liberal, progressive, and Left wing now steer clear of any politics that is associated with the racism, totalitarianism, support for theocracy, or other cranky beliefs.

I hope that is what is happening. Because if it is not, the spectre of the racist Tory party of the past will haunt us still.