The Independent, 27th November 2011
Far right politics is on the rise across Europe, we are told. Not just in mainland Europe, with notables such as the Danish Peoples Party, or one of the favourite villains of many left-wingers, Geert Wilders in Holland. In the UK too it is supposedly a threat. The English Defence League gains headlines due to the sound and fury of their street protests, the British National Party, despite recent setbacks, sits in the European Parliament; and there are many accounts of white nationalist keyboard crusaders working themselves into hysteria, supposedly ready to emulate the atrocities committed by Norwegian gunman Anders Breivik.
With the worst economic and financial crisis since the Great Depression engulfing Europe, it is all too easy for commentators to draw parallels with the 1930s. With uncertainty about the future, hatred and contempt towards mainstream politicians, and millions across Europe unemployed, there is often fear that a kneejerk reaction from the public will be to blame and try to punish ‘the other’. Thomas Klau of the European Council on Foreign Relations draws a direct parallelwith the populist right wing parties of today, with the Fascist movements across Europe in the interwar years: ‘As anti-Semitism was a unifying factor for far-right parties in the 1910s, 20s and 30s, Islamophobia has become the unifying factor in the early decades of the 21st century. To some, this is just a repeat of history, with a rerun of the 1930s, but with the Jews replaced as Muslims.
However, while not denying the role played by the economic crisis in allowing far right groups to gain some support – although as some rightly point out, this is in many ways far less than anticipated – such sloppy historical parallels ignore some of the issues specific to the past two decades or so. A significant factor in the rise of British ‘far right’ politics has been the collapse of traditional working class politics, and the large-scale abandonment of the white working classes from the Labour party. In 1959, Labour’s support among the manual working classes was 62 per cent. By 1983 it had dropped to just 38 per cent. From that period to now, both the core staff and support base has been wholly middle class. And, rather than working to rectify this, ensuring that the views of the group that once formed their base were better represented, certainly New Labour seemed more interested in micromanaging, nudging and remoulding them into ‘ideal citizens’ instead – with initiatives ranging from intrusive public health policies to ASBOs.
This abandonment of what was once Labour’s core voters, coupled with the contemptuous treatment of them by an increasingly elitist clique of career politicians resentment at elitist politicians, has allowed for a space to be filled by groups claiming to be truly represent people, or simply to provide a ‘two fingers up’ vote to despised mainstream politicians. The fact that most British National Party supporters come from the Labour party’s traditional constituency, and the third largest reason for people claiming to join the English Defence cited in Demos’ study Inside the EDL was ‘disillusionment with the major political institutions, the political elite or the direction of their country’, is testament to this trend.
Blame for the rise of such groups must also be pinned to the ascent of divisive multicultural politics (that is, multiculturalism as a state policy, not as a lived experience). Since the 1980s, politicians have increasingly attempted to address people along cultural and tribal lines rather than the universal or class lines of the past, and emphasising that each ‘community’ has its own distinct customs and way of life immune from criticism or scrutiny.
For example, it became common to address unelected ‘community leaders’ such as the Muslim Council of Britain, as the representatives of something as diverse and varied as those who are Muslims in the UK. Whilst trying to portray themselves as opponents of multiculturalism, right wing populist groups have actually bought into the logic themselves. With politics now addressing people on cultural lines, far right groups have been able to position themselves as the defenders of the ‘indigenous culture’ against competing cultures in Britain’s multicultural map. As Demos’ EDL study – authored by Jamie Bartlett and Mark Littler – shows, the reason many English Defence League members gave for joining was ‘commitment to preservation of traditional national and cultural values, and representation of the interests of ‘real’ British countrymen (31 per cent)’. Also, the most prominent reason given by supporters for joining the EDL was the perceived rise of Islam. Considering the EDL was founded when an Islamist group attacked British soldiers in Luton, and issues such as the alleged attempts of Muslims to ban wearing of poppies or flying England flags have been significant gripes of the EDL, this too can be interpreted as wishing to defend English cultural heritage. The aim of defending traditional values and culture is in many ways a reaction to multicultural policies so beloved by many on the left.
Attempts to portray the right’s rise as a return of trends in the 1930s, when Mosley’s Blackshirts marched the streets, with grand self-flattering claims from ‘anti-fascists’ that by opposing the EDL they are repeating the Battle of Cable Street, fails to address its very modern causes. The mainstream left must realise its own role in any rise of right wing populism in Britain. By abandoning much of their traditional constituency or treating them with disdain, and embracing culturally divisive politics, they have created a space and for the far right to fill.