Disaffected Right

Making Sense of UnHerd

Old Queen Street Café can be found just off the corner of Storey’s Gate in Westminster. This plush restaurant is the innocuous salon of an online magazine for disaffected conservatives.

Populist darlings: Anti-lockdown protesters, London.

UnHerd has its club upstairs, where it holds events charging £15 for a ticket (and £8 for a beer).

Thankfully, the place offers a gender-neutral bathroom in stark contrast to the editorial line on biological sex.

Downstairs, the beer is cheaper at £5 and available in can form to reduce the venue’s carbon footprint (at least that’s what the menu says).

The idea is simple: chicken schnitzel and a couple of beers for lunch, followed by a political talk upstairs.

It’s easy to see why UnHerd picked this venue, given its location.

The Houses of Parliament are within walking distance. Even closer, the Conservative Party Campaign Headquarters is nestled in the backstreets.

Much closer is the Queen Street office of The Spectator and Policy Exchange on the corner.

A 10-minute walk south leads to 55 Tufton Street, the centre of the UK’s network of right-wing think tanks.

Not many publications have a restaurant as a nice-to-have accessory. The London Review of Books has a café and a bookshop where writers can hawk their wares, but this is very unusual in a post-industrial media landscape.

It’d be even more unusual for UnHerd given it is not a print publication, whereas the LRB is a powerhouse of literary criticism. This is a sign of the grandiose ambitions of the editors.

Sharper than Spiked and less stuffy than The Spectator, UnHerd occupies a similar space to The Critic and Quillette. The difference is its range of writers runs from mainstream conservative commentators to the fringes of the left.

Many of UnHerd’s left critics will point out most of its contributors are plucked from the national press. Pundits like Julie Bindel and Suzanne Moore have been published by liberal newspapers for many years.

In fact, UnHerd is full of establishment writers such as pop historian Dominic Sandbrook and David Cameron’s old speechwriter Ian Birrell. Others are career journalists like Sam Leith and Sarah Ditum.

On the other hand, UnHerd will also give a platform to Quinn Slobodian to critique authoritarian capitalism or Yanis Varoufakis to take apart George Osborne on the Parthenon fiasco.

Somehow the magazine ends up running better articles on internal Labour politics than what The Guardian publishes. Former Labour candidate Mark Seddon, who was purged by the Blairites, often provides critical coverage of the Starmer era.

It’s clear that UnHerd is no friend of the radical left, but the magazine is sympathetic to disaffected voices at large. There is occasional symmetry between certain kinds of contrarian leftism and its eclectic right-wing content.

Syncretic Right

UnHerd is a similar outfit to Compact in the US. Both are part of a syncretic moment on the international right.

We might define this moment as sceptical of globalisation and neoliberal values.

The two organisations differ when it comes to solutions but end up running some of the same writers and similar content. Compact comes out of the American Catholic right, while UnHerd is more secular and more libertarian.

This is why some left critics see Compact as a fascist magazine. Some people make the same claims about UnHerd, given it represents a more radical right, but it is more inchoate as much of its base consists of dissenting Tories.

I was not surprised to find UnHerd editors Mary Harrington and Ed West at the National Conservatism conference last month, but The Critic had much closer ties at NatCon with its stall.

If we were to summarise the politics of UnHerd’s editorial line, we might identify lockdown scepticism, support for Brexit and opposition to trans rights as the three planks.

Several UnHerd contributors are sympathetic to the rump Social Democratic Party (SDP). Some are even card-carrying members, including Giles Fraser. Contributing editor Mary Harrington has written for the SDP on gender politics.

Naturally, the SDP takes the ‘gender critical’ line on trans rights versus women’s rights.

This fits with UnHerd’s ideological position on gender. It regularly publishes anti-trans feminists such as Julie Bindle, Suzanne Moore and Kathleen Stock.

Another political party popular with UnHerd contributors and readers is Reform UK, the Brexit Party by a new name.

Unlike The Spectator or Spiked, UnHerd has positioned itself as the magazine of radical alternatives to the Conservative Party.

Perhaps the proximity to Reform UK and the SDP represent two poles of UnHerd’s political spectrum: national libertarianism in one corner, conservative social democracy in the other.

This basic tension represents one of the major contradictions of right-wing populism today.

Much like the Conservative government, these reactionaries don’t want to own the consequences of their own politics.

Establishment Connections

Former Times columnist Tim Montgomerie announced his plan to launch UnHerd in April 2017. His vision was a platform for slow journalism that puts the important before the new (in his mind, at least).

Montgomerie was well-connected enough to procure financing for a start-up magazine and bring on board big names from the national newspaper industry.

The magazine started out with a staff of 12 to 15 people. This was large by the standards of new media and fairly slender for old media.

Of course, the early brand had some difficulty with self-image. Many people laughed when Montgomerie unveiled UnHerd’s logo: a cow standing on its hind legs.

“Today I’m unveiling the icon that will top those emails – a cow, who like our target readers, tends to avoid herds and behaves in unmissable ways as a result,” said Montgomerie at the time.

Suddenly the naff pun made all the more sense. The readers were not sheep, but they were supposedly cattle. And some people to this day still think of UnHerd as “the cow site”.

But, six years on, UnHerd looks a lot more serious online.

The cow logo is long gone (unless you know how to rustle through Facebook photos) and the platform has developed a multimedia wing complemented by an events business.

Tim Montgomerie left the publication in March 2018 and returned to his roots as a Tory operative. He went on to briefly serve as an adviser to Prime Minister Boris Johnson and advocated closer ties to Hungary.

This gave UnHerd the space to define itself as something other than a vanity project.

Money, Old and New

Few disaffected Tory magazines can say they partly got started thanks to a Lib Dem donor who made his fortune partly thanks to George Soros.

UnHerd isn’t like most Tory publications in this regard.

In the beginning, Montgomerie claimed to have secured four years of funding from former Lib Dem donor Sir Paul Marshall and Conservative Lord Theodore Agnew. This was only the start, though.

Investigative journalist Solomon Hughes once described Marshall as a “right-wing sugar daddy”.

Marshall broke with the Lib Dems over Brexit and backed Michael Gove in his aborted campaign to become Tory leader in 2016.

Today, Marshall helps finance GB News but his political history goes back to the 1980s when he was a researcher for Charlie Kennedy and later stood for Parliament in 1987. His association with the Liberal Democrats dragged on for three decades.

Marshall made his fortune – estimated at over £630 million – as co-founder and chairman of one of Europe’s biggest hedge fund groups: Marshall Wace. The firm manages $64 billion in assets today.

He started the firm with $50 million, partly raised from liberal financier George Soros. Marshall and Ian Wace raised £25 million and turned to Soros to provide another £25 million to help the fund get off the ground.

From 2002 to 2015, Marshall was a major donor to the Liberal Democrats and co-edited The Orange Book with David Laws. It was a liberal free-marketeer pamphlet with contributions from such stars as Nick Clegg, Vince Cable and Ed Davey.

The common thread running through the right of the Lib Dems to UnHerd and GB News can be defined as libertarian. Paul Marshall is not the only person to follow this thread.

Our 49-day Prime Minister Liz Truss was once a Lib Dem too. She was a republican who supported drug legalisation. Even after Truss joined the Tories, she was a late convert to the Leave cause.

These transformations will become more common in a volatile age, and UnHerd may be the UK platform for such shape-shifting right now. The disaffected right is not going away. However, it’s not necessarily all that new, either.

Ever since the dawn of populism, conservatives appropriated ideas from the centre-left, oftentimes playing down nationalism, for example, by claiming they were defending the welfare state from being robbed by migrants and women’s rights from Islam.

Think long-forgotten Dutch populists like the late Pim Fortuyn, an openly gay ex-communist who was assassinated in 2002 by an animal rights activist. This is populism in that guise. It’s not exactly the same, but the ideological heterodoxy is entirely parallel.

However UnHerd evolves, for the moment, it’s an ideal space for conservatives anxious about the thuggish neofascism normalised by Brexit.

Photograph courtesy of Steve Eason. Published under a Creative Commons license.