Earlier this month the right-wing Alliance for Responsible Citizenship held their first-ever conference. ARC Forum is the latest in a network of political and media projects seeking to influence the direction of the British and international conservative movements. What do we know about the ARC?
For the second time this year, London has played host to a glitzy conference for right-wing politicians, academics and influencers. Following the much-publicised National Conservatism conference in June, the 8th-10th of November saw the inaugural conference of loftily-titled Alliance for Responsible Citizenship (ARC) take place in Greenwich, East London.
Announced as a concept back in February of this year, ARC describes itself as an “international community with a vision for a better world where every citizen can prosper, contribute, and flourish”, and the project was striking for the high-profile names among its 44-strong Advisory Board. Such conferences have never before been a feature of British political life, and appear to indicate a new brand of conservative activism and networking on these shores.
“If we are wise, faithful, courageous, and responsible…then we can tilt the world towards heaven and away from hell!”Jordan Peterson
Among the big names on the list were Canadian academic and “anti-woke” influencer Jordan Peterson, two former Prime Ministers of Australia and two members of the US House of Representatives – including Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana, who was little-known when the ARC was first announced but has since been elevated to the powerful position of House Speaker. Also included are Vivek Ramaswamy, the tech-entrepreneur now making a bid for the Republican candidacy for the 2024 Election.
Also involved are Conservative MPs. It will not surprise many to find that Danny Kruger and Miriam Cates are involved, having been at the forefront of much of the recent machinations within the Conservative Party and wider conservative movement: both spoke at the National Conservatism conference, co-founded the New Conservatives group of MPs in May, and also co-run the New Social Covenant unit. Also speaking at the conference were Cabinet Ministers Michael Gove and Kemi Badenoch.
The Legatum Network
ARC was created as a project of the Legatum Institute, a pro-Brexit free-market think tank founded by the owners of the Legatum Ltd, a sprawling Dubai-based private investment fund. The Legatum Institute’s Economics Director Shanker Singham was reported to have been the “third man” in drafting Boris Johnson and Michael Gove’s ultimatum to Theresa May in 2017, while in 2018 the Charity Commission forced the Legatum Institute to remove a pro-Brexit report from its website as a breach of its guidelines on political impartiality.
Legatum Ltd is also one of the two key investors in the conspiratorial right-wing news channel GB News, the other being Sir Paul Marshall of investment firm Marshall Wace Ltd. Marshall also owns the commentary site Unherd, and is currently believed to be preparing bids to purchase the Spectator and the Telegraph.
Unsurprisingly, there is significant overlap between ARC, Legatum and GB News. Two of the Legatum Ltd founders and Legatum Institute CEO Baroness Philippa Stroud sit on the advisory board of the ARC, as does Sir Paul Marshall and his son, former Mumford & Sons banjo player Winston Marshall. Also included are Baroness Helena Morrissey, a director of the GB News holding company All Perspectives Ltd. and Colin Brazier, a former presenter on the channel. Baroness Phillippa Stroud is the CEO of ARC Forum, having apparently transferred from her CEO role at the Legatum Institute in March.
The make-up of this Advisory Board indicates that the group is aimed squarely at the English-speaking world with 38 of the 44 founding members living in the USA, UK, Australia or Canada. It also gives significant clues as to exactly what the group means when it refers to “responsible citizenship”.
Accepting the result of democratic elections does not seem to be a prerequisite of responsible citizenship, if the inclusion of US congressmen Mike Johnson and Mike Lee is anything to go by. Both men were involved in the plot to overturn the 2020 US Presidential election; the January 6th committee revealed text messages from Lee stating that he was “working 14 hour days to unravel” President Biden’s victory, while now-Speaker Johnson urged Trump to “keep fighting” and “exhaust every available legal remedy” rather than accept the result.
Nor does “responsible” appear to involve accepting the scientific consensus on climate change. The investigative climate-change campaign group DeSmog has noted that many of ARC’s directors and advisory board members have either denied or downplayed human-caused climate change themselves, or had links to organisations that advocated for continued fossil fuel usage.
Nepotism appears to be acceptable in ARC’s brand of responsible citizenship: the inclusion of Winston Marshall, for example, seems more likely to be related to the status of his father Paul Marshall than his banjo skills or new career as anti-woke talking head, while the daughter of GB News CEO Angelos Frangopoulos probably found her surname handy when applying for a summer internship earlier this year.
Jonathan Pageau, one of the speakers at the conference, also acknowledged the religious element of the conference that permeated through the speeches but was rarely made explicit:
“There’s really [been] an elephant in this room for the past few days. Everyone is tip-toeing around it, no one is really acknowledging it: there’s a lot of religious people in this room! It’s been a strange ghost floating through the talks, with plenty [of] code words like “transcended” this and “faith” that”.
As Pageau acknowledged, the speakers and advisory board are not exclusively Evangelical Christians – Rep Mike Lee is a Mormon, for example, while Vikek Ramaswamy is Hindu – but the group is heavily dominated by those who wish to see a greater role for religion in public life. When Pageau asked audience members to raise their hands if they identified as belonging to a religious faith, a sea of hands went up. When he asked the same for those who identify atheists or secular, just a single hand was visible in footage of the event.
This underlying religious-flavour appears to reach down to junior staffers at the organisation. Of the eight junior ARC employees we have identified, at least four have recently graduated from the CARE Leadership Programme, a scheme by the evangelical campaign group Christian Action, Research and Education that offers internships to young Christian graduates, usually in the offices of MPs, Peers or Scottish/Welsh Assembly members, in order to “equip a generation of Christians to be salt and light in our culture”.
This internship programme has come under much scrutiny over the years, thanks to CARE’s wider campaigning activity against LGBTQ+ rights. The group was actively opposed to the repeal of Section 28, the homophobic legislation that criminalised the “promotion of homosexuality” by local authorities that was repealed in 2003, has organised conferences where advocates of conversion therapy were invited to speak, and has campaigned against same-sex marriage in the UK and across Europe.
At time of writing, the ARC has released less than 9 hours of footage from the three-day event, most of which were uploaded days after the conference had ended and may therefore have been curated and edited for wider consumption.
One refrain repeated constantly throughout the event, to the extent that it could be considered the overriding narrative, is that Western civilisation is in desperate need of “a better story”. At times the repetition of this phrase became almost nonsensical; the word was repeated 22 times in the first five minutes of one panel discussion. Issues as diverse as racial inequality, declining birth rates and climate change are all dismissed as being mere civilisational pessimism, which can be overcome by the power of selecting and promoting a “better story” – ie one that minimises or subverts their negative impact.
In this vein, the conference offered a variety of stories that might be preferable to the scientific consensus on climate change. The former Australian PM Tony Abbott told a fringe event that “the anthropogenic global warming thesis, at least in its more extreme forms, is both ahistorical and utterly implausible”, and also gave an insight into how a politician might obscure their climate-denial by agreeing in principle but rejecting any efforts that might tackle it:
“As party leader I had a little mantra which went something like this: “climate change is real, mankind makes a difference and we should take reasonable steps to reduce our emissions as far and as fast as possible”. And then I would invariably add this rider: “but not at the expense of jobs, at the expense of ordinary people’s cost of living, and with the effect of driving important industries offshore to countries that don’t take emissions as seriously as we do.””
The Danish self-proclaimed “climate-skeptic” Bjorn Lomborg took to the stage to argue that although climate change is a problem, “it’s by no means the end of the world, and this is important – this is the story that we need to get out!”. A panel-talk with climate-sceptics Alex Epstein and Marian Tupy similarly ended with the chair Amanda Stoker announcing that “we have a better story of abundance and resilience as a counter to that narrative of perma-crisis”.
Miriam Cates delivered a speech to the conference, not dissimilar to the one she delivered at the National Conservatism conference a few months earlier. In amongst her doom-laden prognosis of modern Britain, she laid bare a contradiction in her worldview: whilst simultaneously decrying modern British culture as a hedonistic-yet-depressing hellscape where family breakdown and low birth rates pose an existential crisis, she also lists “failure to integrate migrants” as a contributing factor to our national decline.
More topically, she appeared to describe recent pro-Palestinian demos as consisting of “those who hate the West”, saying:
“The last few weeks have shattered any remaining illusions that our nations are cohesive or united, as those who hate the West have marched on many of our great cities. A kingdom divided against itself cannot stand.”
Given Cates’ apparent despair at the state of almost every aspect of modern British culture – and leaving aside that the party she belongs to has governed for the last 13 years and most of the century preceding that – it is unclear which part of society she’d like to integrate migrants into.
The event itself drew a wide array of global right- to far-right wing influencers, creating an opportunity for global networking. Among the 1500 attendees were Ben Shapiro, the editor of radical-right US media platform the Daily Wire, the CEO of New Zealand-based Christian conservative campaign group Family First Bob McCroskie, and anti-trans campaigner Chris Elson AKA “Billboard Chris”.
The Dutch right-wing conspiracy theorist Eva Vlaardingerbroek tweeted that she was “joining the ARC as one of their Young Leaders” and that it was “time to show the WEF [World Economic Forum] who’s boss”. However, she later backtracked and insisted that she was not part of the organisation after a blowback from her followers, who took issue with the involvement of centre-right politicians and less extreme conspiracy theorists in ARC and saw “young leader” as uncomfortably close to the accolades given out by the WEF itself.
The Arc of History
The landing page of the ARC’s website is emblazoned with an unattributed quote from Martin Luther King Jr, who originally suggested that the “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”.
In the UK at least, the ARC has an almighty task ahead of it if it seeks to bend the arc of public opinion towards its own vision of “responsible citizenship”. In a country that is both increasingly religiously diverse and increasingly irreligious, the faith-based foundations of society that many speakers called upon has significantly less traction in the UK than the USA, for example.
On the topic of climate change, polls indicate that a comfortable majority of Brits agree that humans are responsible for most or all of the global warming that is taking place, and agree that strong measures are required to address it.
The reaction from supporters to Eva Vlaardingerbroek’s “Young Leader” status also highlights another issue that the wider conservative movement has faced: pandering to conspiracy theorists might lead to short-term alliances, but leaves you perpetually vulnerable to criticism from those further down the rabbit hole than you’re willing to go. Efforts to downplay the threat of climate change might be popular with oil companies, for example, but they will not satisfy those who reject the premise of human-caused global warming altogether.
The ARC might have served a useful networking function for its attendees, but it is less clear that it will make any impression on the irresponsible citizenry that it was set up to re-educate.
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