Last Wednesday, Danny Kruger, the Tory MP for Devizes, stood alongside Miriam Cates, MP for Gilead (oh, all right: Penistone and Stocksbridge), his co-chair of the right wing “New Conservatives” group, and issued his response to the Supreme Court’s ruling on the government’s Rwanda policy.
“We do not need the membership of international arrangements in order to make us an honourable and decent country,” he said. “I think our common law tradition, our longstanding commitment to human rights and personal freedoms are sufficient, and should be sufficient, to ensure that our government behaves well, and that we do not breach people’s human rights.”
What Kruger said was notable in two respects. First, the “international agreements” to which he referred are not confined to the 18 articles of the European Convention on Human Rights. In its ruling, the court also invokes international law embedded in the UN Refugee Convention, the UN Convention Against Torture, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Is Kruger saying that we need none of these?
Second, it’s important to note that he is no swaggering populist. On the same day, Lee Anderson, Conservative deputy chairman, declared that “we should ignore the laws and send [the refugees] straight back the same day”. Appalling, yes, but full marks for candour.
But Kruger does not hail from the Anderson saloon bar school of political fuming. Indeed, he has just published Covenant, a thoughtful and readable book on his variety of conservatism.
In this respect, he is a leading light of a new cohort of Tories, for whom nationalism and nationhood are the intellectual core of public life. Most of them were present at the now-notorious National Conservatism conference in London in May.
That gathering was organised by the Israeli-American philosopher, Yoram Hazony, whose 2018 book, The Virtue of Nationalism, is the key text for this generation of conservative right wingers. In his opposition to “liberal empire” and “universal design”, Hazony argues that nations should be free “to pursue aspirations that are original to them” and “be released from the old imperialist hatred of the different and the diverse”.
Why does this matter? Because what is happening to the Conservative Party is not simply the product of gormless nativism (important as that undoubtedly is). There is also a cerebral dimension to the new nationalism that makes it all the more dangerous.
When Rishi Sunak ought to have been celebrating the achievement of one of his principal economic objectives – the halving of inflation – he was otherwise engaged: angrily pledging emergency legislation, a treaty with Rwanda to answer the court’s concerns, and anything else necessary to get the planes full of refugees off the tarmac by the spring. “I will not allow a foreign court to block these flights,” he said at a Downing Street press conference, in his special scary voice.
And if the House of Lords tried to slow down his new measures? Well, there were even hints of a snap general election to grant him a specific mandate. In June, Boris Johnson quipped in his Mail column that it was time to “Get Rwanda done”. It is no longer unthinkable that Sunak could go to the country using precisely such a slogan.
It is also far from inconceivable that the Conservatives – before or after the election – will commit themselves fully to leaving the European Convention on Human Rights. According to George Osborne, who was David Cameron’s chancellor from 2010 to 2016, withdrawal from the convention is “off the table” as long as his newly ennobled friend is foreign secretary.
Then again: it should not be forgotten that, as long ago as August 2005, testing the waters for a run at the party leadership, Cameron himself made a speech in which (as he recounts in his memoirs), “I made the case for tougher security measures… arguing that, if necessary, we would have to leave the European Convention on Human Rights”. It was a prospect he raised intermittently in the years to come.
Like a congenital condition, this idea has been lurking in the Tory heart just waiting for its moment. And now it is doing so, with a vengeance. Brexit has given many Conservatives a real taste for such drama. To adapt the wisdom of the late Rick James: quitting international agreements is a helluva drug.
Modern nation-states provide, and will continue to provide, the basic institutional framework for the organisation of defence, law and order, essential public services, taxation and much else. But, as became horrendously clear during both world wars, there was also an irresistible case for supranational arrangements to protect humanity from the violent caprice of nations that had lost their moral bearings.
In the words of the Conservative MP Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe, deputy British prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials and one of the key draughtsmen of the ECHR: “We cannot let the matter rest at a declaration of moral principles and pious aspirations, excellent though the latter may be. There must be a binding convention”.
In our own era of extreme political volatility, autocracy and populist mania, the need for such guard rails is no less clear and present. Only two nations have ever left the ECHR: Greece, which withdrew in 1969 during the rule of the military junta (returning in 1974); and Russia, which was expelled in March 2022 after the invasion of Ukraine. Does the UK really want to be the third country on that list?
Whether the new nationalists like it or not, climate emergency, pandemics, fundamentalist ideologies, population mobility and the technological revolution are quite indifferent to borders. The 21st-century world is more than a spherical marketplace, a planetary wi-fi service and a map of 195 countries minding their own business behind picket fences.
Which means that if the UK chooses to look inward, to sever ties, to insist that we are so flawlessly “honourable and decent” that we need no other jurisdiction, then our influence, impact and relevance will diminish accordingly.
Sorry, Mr Kruger: global facts don’t care about your nationalist feelings.