A secretive training school for far-right “culture warriors” set up by Steve Bannon has close links to Tory politicians and advisors, an investigation has revealed.
The Academy for the Judeo-Christian West set up shop in a remote 800-year-old former Italian monastery earlier this year with the stated aim of becoming a “gladiator school” to train the “next generation of nationalist and populist leaders” who would propagate the ideology across Europe.
While former Trump adviser Mr Bannon wrote the academy’s curriculum and picked its name, day-to-day operations are handled by a right-wing think-tank called the Dignitatis Humanae Institute (DHI), which took on the abbey’s lease in January this year. DHI boasts an array of links to Britain’s Conservative party dating back years.
DHI’s website is liberally peppered with pictures of and quotes from Mr Bannon praising its founder, Benjamin Harnwell. Mr Harnwell set up the institute while working for Conservative MEP Nirj Deva at the European Parliament, before leaving that role to focus on the institute.
But the Tory MEP Mr Deva, who is standing for his party again in next week’s European Parliament elections in the safe South East England constituency, has his own connections to the institute – as do other British Conservatives.
The MEP, whose phone number and official European Parliament office address in Brussels are listed prominently on the contact page of DHI’s website, confirmed that he was honorary president of the organisation.
He told The Independent that his role “has largely been to promote awareness of the institute with my fellow MEPs”, particularly with regard to “to stopping abortion on demand and euthanasia”.
He added: “I don’t sit on the board or have any decision-making authority.” Mr Deva however met with Mr Bannon in the White House in 2017, the OpenDemocracy website has reported.
The Institute also lists Ben Harris-Quinney, the director of the Tory think-tank the Bow Group, who met with Mr Bannon last year in London, as a “consultant”. Mr Harris-Quinney, who is also director of the pressure group Tory Grassroots, told The Independent that his own role at DHI was that of “a supportive patron” and not a day-to-day one.
DHI has also listed Sir Christian Sweeting, a former Tory parliamentary candidate with proven access to Cabinet ministers among its trustees. Sir Christian was described in a press release dating from July 2015 as the organisation’s vice-chairman, though his role today is unclear. At the time of publication DHI did not return a request for comment clarifying Sir Christian’s role today.
Founder Mr Harnwell uses DHI’s website to expound on population control conspiracy theories popular on the far-right, while its email list has also featured attacks on US billionaire George Soros, who it described as wielding the “dead hand of cultural imperialism”.
“I do believe that there is an international movement, led by organisations such as the European Union and the UN, to reduce global population. I’m certain of that,” DHI quotes its founder Mr Harnwell as saying in one press release from 2016.
“I spent fifteen years working in politics at the House of Commons and in the European Parliament, and I studied these things quite closely. It’s beyond coincidence that one sees pieces of legislation, introduced in one country after another, in almost identical wording. There has to be some kind of coordination for this.”
In the same press release, which is based on a radio discussion between Mr Harnwell and Mr Bannon, the DHI founder indicates support for “the wholesale collapse of what we would call liberal secular government”, saying that it “might not be such a bad thing”. He also argues that “what we would call ‘far-right’ it’s really basically just centre, centre-right” because of a shift in terminology in recent decades.
The populist training academy run by DHI is located in the Abbey of Trisulti on the outskirts of the remote mountain town of Collepardo, in Italy’s Lazio region. The school’s establishment has been subject to protests by locals, who say its reactionary purpose is at odds with the open academic history of the monastery. The academy is yet to have a publicly confirmed opening date or faculty.
“Even the name of the academy was chosen specifically by Steve [Bannon],” Mr Harnwell said in March, adding that the former Trump aide would teach a course on politics.
Mr Bannon himself told US news channel CBS News that the institution would give its first cohort of 50 students a “kind of underpinning of the Judeo-Christian West, kind of what the values are, what we stand for, and also in modern media, what we call a modern gladiator school: so we’ll kind of each the ins and outs of how to be a honey badger right in modern media”. The school is aimed at people who are “mid-career” and want to re-train, he added.
Notably, sections of Italy’s populist government have political sympathy with the academy’s founders. DHI won a public tender to take over the monastery in 2018, but Italy’s culture ministry, run by the Five Star Movement (M5S) has now launched a probe into whether the bid was won fair and square. The populist anti-corruption M5S are in coalition with the far-right League; the two parties are squabbling ahead of European Elections next week.
The revelations come amid growing alarm at home and abroad about links between elements of the Conservative party and the far-right on the continent. The Tories sit in the same group as parties such as the anti-Islam Danish People’s Party, and the post-fascist Brothers of Italy, having left the European mainstream conservative group because it was too pro-EU.
Right-wing populist leader Viktor Orban was one of the first European heads of government invited to Downing Street when Theresa May was appointed prime minister in 2016, and her party’s MEPs caused a storm in 2018 after they voted against censuring his government over breaches to the rule of law, unlike the vast majority of western European conservative parties. It comes amid criticism of Labour over antisemitism, and a spate of resignations from new centrist party Change UK over racially-charged comments by candidates at the EU elections
It was reported last year that Boris Johnson, who sees himself as a future leader of the Conservatives, has been in low-key contact with Steve Bannon.
Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament Brexit chief and leader of the legislature’s liberal group told The Independent: “Revelations about links between the Tory Party and Europe’s far-right in the European Parliament are deeply worrying.”
“It is imperative that the quiet majority of pro-Europeans in Britain and elsewhere across Europe come out to vote in these European Elections.
“Nationalists and populist groups, often funded opaquely by hard-right organisations who want to divide our communities, risk undermining the European peace project.”
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