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The Henry Jackson Society and the Degeneration of British Neo-conservatism

A new report by Spinwatch, a public interest investigation group, provides an in-depth scrutiny of The Henry Jackson Society and the Degeneration of British Neo-conservatism; it examines the history, activities and politics of the right-wing think tank, which is a leading exponent of neo-conservatism in Britain.

Based at the University of Bath, Spinwatch has developed a reputation for carrying out cutting-edge research and investigations into key social, political, environmental and health issues in Britain and Europe. Its previous report in this area was a detailed investigation into the Cold War on British Muslims that is being advanced by the political right-wing.

The new report is sponsored by the Cordoba Foundation, a London-based research and advocacy group promoting religious and cultural understanding. It exposes the Henry Jackson Society’s activities in pushing for liberal interventionism abroad, spreading Islamophobia and its stalwart support for the “war on terror”.

In the 83-page report, the four authors trace the ideological as well as the organisational evolution of the HJS. Beginning with a short biography of the eponymous US senator, whose most consistent characteristic was military intervention as the answer to almost all foreign problems, they sketch the militaristic and uncompromising worldview of the think tank’s mentors. The list includes US hawks like Richard Pearl, Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld and others whose neo-conservative world view combined with strategic manoeuvring under the second Bush administration led to arguably the worst foreign policy disasters of our time.

Many striking features of the cross Atlantic group are described in the report. None is more remarkable, perhaps, than its ubiquitous presence within the corridors of power and evolution from a small Cambridge group to an influential think tank in Westminster with powerful financial and political backers in Britain and the US.

Within the six different sections of the report, a number of interesting and at times worrying details of the group – which has influence over many British lawmakers and public officials – are exposed. Its close connection with William Shawcross, for example, an ex-director of the HJS and the current chair of Britain’s Charity Commission raises difficult questions about the impartiality of the regulator and its ability to investigate political lobby groups – such as the Henry Jackson Society – that are also registered charities.

The first part of the report sketches the political context and ideological roots that gave rise to the non-profit organisation back in 2005. The report portrays the organisation as a fluid movement capable of taking advantage of political ebbs and flows to further its own narrow agenda. It then takes us through the Cambridge Movement from 2004-2007 during which the HJS emerged as a leading institutional expression of British neo-conservatism, a novel creation of British intellectuals who shared the same concerns as the original American neo-conservatives in the face of an emerging popular anti-war movement in Britain.

Its flexibility is highlighted further in part three, in which the authors examines the internal coup followed by a sharp turn away from the pro-European style Atlanticism associated with its founders, such as the academic and historian Brendan Simms, towards a position more in line with the dominant Euro-scepticism of the British right.

It was during this period that the society aligned itself distinctly with illiberal anti-Muslim groups and figures like Daniel Pipes and Frank Gaffney, who worked previously under Richard Pearl. As the Henry Jackson Society’s Zionist credentials were strengthened, many of its founders were replaced by key people from Just Journalism, a pro-Israel media watchdog.

The society entered a new phase after 2011. It purged some of its less xenophobic staff members and merged with the Centre for Social Cohesion (CSC); the latter’s director, Douglas Murray, joined the Henry Jackson Society as an associate director. Its lurch to the right and metamorphosis into a leading proponent of Israel and vilifier of Islam was complete. The society consolidated itself ideologically, matured as an organisation and relocated to Milbank Tower, a building known for housing high-profile political organisations, including the Conservative Party.

Financially secure and ideologically confident, the HJS began to have noticeable influence in Westminster through all-party parliamentary groups: it operated as a secretariat for Homeland Security, for example, and Transatlantic and International Security. This is the subject of discussion in part five of the report, which goes on to detail the frenzied lobbying and lack of transparency in carrying out parliamentary affairs, including the organisation of briefings and seminars.

Part six provides an eye opener about the exponential growth in the group’s funding levels which increased from a few thousand to over a million pounds. The sharp increase in donations in 2010 and 2011 appears to coincide with the period of the Henry Jackson Society’s controversial merger with the CSC, a move that marked a definitive break with the more liberal aspirations of some of the society’s early members.

An examination of known funding sources leads the authors to make two main conclusions. For a start, there has been a large overlap between the funders of the HJS and other pro-Israel groups in recent years. Secondly, the HJS’s largest known donors include a number of prominent backers of the Conservative Party.

The funding sources provide more evidence of the view that Israel and its international supporters are manoeuvring to influence the British democratic process in order to serve Israel’s interests. The pro-Israel lobby has, from 9/11 onwards (and perhaps earlier) wanted to link the pro-Palestine movement to terrorism. Zionist lobbyists want governments like Britain’s to create a regulatory framework that would mean the legal harassment of pro-Palestine activism. This is one of the desired outcomes of a very long game in which the Henry Jackson Society is playing a part.

Spinwatch has again produced a timely report which sheds light on the growing Islamophobia industry on both sides of the Atlantic, one that is also sweeping through Europe. The authors have raised a number of concerns, not least the hijacking of the democratic process on key issues such as foreign policy and Britain’s approach to “radical Islam” and the “war on terror”.

The rise in prejudice, anti-Muslim bigotry and suppression of pro-Palestine activism coincides with the rise of the Henry Jackson Society within the British establishment. In exposing this, if nothing else, Spinwatch has done us all a great service.

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