Does the election of two BNP MEPs and the success of the far right elsewhere in Europe mean we are facing the threat of fascism? Or is this just a protest vote that will quickly fade?
Author of The Third Reich, A New History
We should be wary about the rise of the far right but not panicky. Even though I write commentary pieces for the Daily Mail, I am not given to hysteria. I don’t like all these stupid historical analogies – this is not a re-run of the 1930s. In some ways, history can box you in and limit your options. We live in a very different world, and these parties organise themselves in a very different way. Hitler didn’t Twitter.
Conditions in Europe are very different now from those that prevailed in the 1930s. We haven’t had a catastrophic European war, with resentments about how that ended. We should also be cautious about saying that an economic recession inevitably leads to the rise of the far right. The fascists came to power in Italy long before the Depression. There is no automatic link. In Germany, most of the unemployed voted for the communists.
It is too early to say whether the rightwing parties that did well in the European election will have any historical significance, or whether they will offer a Europe-wide threat to mainstream politics. Although I suspect they may be better co-ordinated than leftwing parties, they are all subtly different. We should also be aware that rightwing parties can evolve. It is odd that the evolution of communist parties into Eurocommunist parties was recognised, but these rightwing parties are seen as mysteriously static and rooted in the 1930s. You just have to look at the BNP to see how it is trying to adapt its approach to changed circumstances, ramping up its hostility to the EU while playing down other aspects of its policy.
The left has a vested interest in playing up the threat of fascism. It uses it to reoxygenate itself: Margaret Hodge has been doing this for years, and Labour was doing it again before this election. A better approach is to take the BNP seriously. Don’t turn them into martyrs by banning them from the airwaves. Ask them about their other policies: how they would get us out of recession; what their foreign policy is. Launch an assault on the BNP brand, and don’t let them appropriate symbols of Britishness – such as the Spitfire they were using on their posters in this election.
We shouldn’t panic about these results. The real story is that the centre-right has done very well across Europe. Where far-right parties have been elected in the past they have tended to be woefully incompetent and lackadaisical, and on the whole they haven’t been re-elected. Supporters of the BNP tend to be disaffected Labour voters who are voting as an act of defiance against the political elite – and the elite has given them plenty to be defiant about. I’d only start to worry if this became a trend. The real danger, though, may come in the Baltic states and eastern Europe. Countries there have been hit by severe economic turbulence, they have little experience of democracy and politics is volatile. Parties can come from nowhere and win power.
Professor of history at Exeter University and author of The Morbid Age: Britain Between the Wars
The BNP have been around for a long time and have never managed to make a serious breakthrough, so we have to get this into perspective. This should be seen as a protest vote at a difficult moment; it does not mean that the UK electorate is swinging in favour of fascism.
The Ukip vote is more interesting. That is a vote the BNP might have been expected to pick up, and if it had won 20% or more, that would have been worrying. With the loss of public confidence in parliament, growing nationalism and alarm at terrorism, this is a moment when you might have expected votes to flow to the BNP. A loss of confidence in parliamentary institutions is characteristic of all periods when fascists have come to power – in Italy and Germany, for example – but on this occasion the BNP has not done especially well. People have preferred to vote for Ukip. It is essentially a protest vote at a moment of crisis in the political system. Parliamentary politics will eventually be restored, but almost certainly not under Gordon Brown.
I am more worried about the drift to the right in the rest of Europe, where the mood is fearful, anti-immigrant, anti-Islam and deeply hostile to the left. Europe clearly feels embattled because of factors such as terrorism and the rise of China, and has been moving to the right for some time. But we shouldn’t interpret this rightwing drift as a return to fascism.
Fascism with a capital F was a phenomenon of the 20s and 30s. It was a revolutionary movement asserting a violent imperialism and promising a new social order. There is nothing like that now. Far-right parties now are based on fear – fear of immigration, fear of aliens, fear of being Europeanised. They have no vision of a new social order, nor can they legally campaign for the replacement of a democratic government by an authoritarian regime. This is a protest vote by fearful people.
Professor of modern and contemporary history at University College London
If we think about Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts, we shouldn’t be too apprehensive about where the BNP might go in the future. Even at their height, the entire membership of the British Union of Fascists could barely raise a single marching column. It is unfortunate that the BNP have won seats and some will see it as alarming, but I can’t see it spreading all over the country. The BNP did badly in east London, for instance, where they would surely have hoped to do well, especially at a time of economic recession.
I cannot imagine what cataclysm would have to happen for a far-right party not only to be able to grow but to win power in the UK. This is an extremely old country with old mores, and the great rump of the people are not going to be attracted by a far-right party. What we have seen is the sort of protest vote that often happens midterm, and it won’t occur at the general election, when real power is at stake.
The only countries in Europe that I would be apprehensive about are Austria, which did, after all, welcome the Nazis back in 1938; Romania, which has a nasty rightwing party; and Hungary, where the Roma are a big issue. Poland is encouraging in the way it has taken to membership of the European Union, and the election there has been won by a mainstream centre-right party. In general, this is not at all like the 30s: some voters are supporting alternative fringe parties, but I would be astonished if they were able to consolidate their power.
Author of The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century (1914-1991), among others
It is not the threat from the extreme right that is the most striking characteristic of these elections, though clearly there is a shift to the right, and centre-right governments are likely to make more concessions to the far right. The real story is the crisis of the left .
We have been here before, in the 1930s when the net effect of the Depression was to strengthen the right and nullify the left – Labour was reduced to 50 MPs in 1931. The left rose again, but I am not optimistic about it being able to do so this time. Social democratic parties across Europe are in decline. That decline is not as dramatic as the communists a generation ago, but it is still marked. The European left relied on a working class that no longer exists in its old form, and in order to recover it will need to find a new constituency. That may be hard.
The left is in trouble everywhere: Labour in the UK, the French socialists, the Italian democrats. The Spanish socialists, one of the few leftwing parties to gain in recent years, have also slipped. The SPD in Germany are not doing as badly as expected, but they are down to around 20%, and these losses are not compensated by the votes for the New Left party. We have seen the demoralisation of the French left and a degree of disintegration of the left in Germany. Social democrats will need a new vision as well as a new constituency.
Professor of history at Birkbeck College, London
We shouldn’t panic, though nor should we be complacent. The levels of racial hatred and antisemitism and all those things that the far right feed on are remarkably small in comparison with the past and in comparison with the rest of Europe and the United States. The far right has much more purchase in the US than it does in the UK, especially the religious right.
Here I tend to be much more optimistic about British institutions and about the ways they have managed these sorts of hatreds. What was interesting about Mosley in the 1930s is that our institutions did not give legitimacy to the claims of the far right. They didn’t make them into scapegoats or martyrs; they responded with the force of law in a fairly reasonable fashion. If you oppress them or deal with them heavyhandedly, it only serves to unite them and justify them using force in return.
In Italy, the fascists, faced by an oppressive state, were seen as martyrs, and that won them popular support. In the UK, they were seen as thugs and marginalised. Mosley’s New Party, which sought to work through the democratic system, attracted a large membership, but once he openly became a fascist and his party became virulently antisemitic and anti-immigrant, that support melted away. Don’t censor or oppress the BNP. Marginalise and ridicule them. Ridicule is an underestimated weapon.
Research fellow at Kingston University and author of Austerity Britain
As Nadezhda Mandelstam, wife of Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, said of Stalinism in her book Hope Against Hope, “Don’t think it can’t happen to you.” There are definite parallels between Germany in the prewar years and now, most obviously the economic crisis that sparked mass unemployment. The Wall Street Crash took place in 1929 but it wasn’t until January 1933 that Hitler became chancellor of Germany; I would suggest that we are a long way from seeing the worst of our own economic crisis and if we date the start as being September 2008 then we still have a while to go in which the far right could gain a stronghold.
More worryingly, the recession has been accompanied by a rise in populism and a loss of faith in democratic politics; the sort of people who, a generation ago, did not used to be cynical about politics now are. Worse still, people are not just indifferent to politics, they are ignorant about it: the level of hostility to intellectualism in this country is deeply depressing.
The BNP is a different animal to Ukip. Ukip can at least make a defensible democratic case for itself; we were promised a referendum on Europe and we haven’t been given one – almost certainly because it would be lost. There is something far more sinister about the BNP because it is an overtly racist party. This is a problem because liberal democracies are not good at dealing with extremism.
Somehow we need to find a way of exposing the BNP, while stopping it from manipulating the system to its advantage. It would help here if politicians from the main parties were more honest and treated the electorate like adults. It is clear from the budget forecasts that the country is basically bust, yet the Labour party carries on its “yah boo” politics of claiming it is not going to cut any public services while the Conservatives have fudged the whole issue on what they intend to do. Both stances are patronising and unsustainable. The public knows the country is bust and there are hard choices to make: it’s time the main parties allowed us to join in a grown-up debate about them.
Supernumerary fellow at Wolfson College, Oxford, and fellow of the British Academy
Any comparisons with 1920s Germany are completely overstated. Fascism grew out of the crushing military defeat in which millions of Germans were killed and the moral humiliation of the Treaty of Versailles which held that Germany alone was responsible for the first world war. This was tantamount to saying that German families, who had done exactly the same as the British and Americans in sending their conscripted sons to fight, had killed their own children and was the catalyst for anti-Jewish conspiracy theories and the emergence of a far-right nationalist movement. Economic depression on its own would not have allowed fascism to flourish.
That does not mean we should be relaxed about the rise of the BNP. While Ukip thrives on the notion that the EU is the new Third Reich, the BNP is much more Anglo-centric; it wants to reclaim an imagined Albion dominated by white nationals. It is a party that is actually misnamed, for its essence is the English National party and, with the collapse of the Labour vote in Scotland giving the SNP an overwhelming majority, the break-up of the United Kingdom must be a possibility.
The BNP also has more natural allies among the far right in Europe – the Dutch Freedom party and the French National Front in particular – than Ukip. However, it is worth remembering that the one thing on which you can rely is that far-right parties will fall out with each other, so they are unlikely to form a mass European movement.
What we do need to be concerned about is David Cameron’s current flirtation with the Polish rightwing Law and Justice party, led by Jaroslaw and Lech Kaczynski. Up until now the British media has been giving the Kaczynski brothers far too easy a time. The brothers, totally lacking in ideology, are falling over themselves with joy at being courted by the Conservatives. They are manipulative politicians with no scruples. In the past they have boycotted state TV, restricting their appearances to Radju Marija – the station belonging to an extreme Catholic nationalist group – and have repeatedly tried to smear centrist politicians and have even claimed that Lech Walesa was a Soviet agent. It’s too simplistic to call them merely far-right – homophobia and anti-Semitism aren’t nearly as much of a problem in Poland as is often claimed – but they do hold the communist-era assumption that Germany is plotting to take over Poland again. Fundamentally, they are anti-liberal and determined to do down democracy. Cameron will definitely come off badly if he gets too close to them.
Professor of international history at the LSE; author of The Penguin History of the First World war
The election of two BNP MEPs is a very depressing development. But in some ways the surprising thing is that their support hasn’t gone up more. The recession, the influx of immigration and the fact that all the mainstream parties are tarred with the same brush in the expenses scandal should work in their favour.
The parallel I would make is not with the rise of fascism in the 1930s but with the success of Jean-Marie Le Pen in France in the 1980s. He made his breakthrough in areas where the French communist party had been strong. As the communists collapsed, Le Pen’s Front National came in and took over. Now, in the UK, a portion of the vote that traditionally went to the Labour party has gone to the BNP. When Nick Griffin talks about the country being full and immigrants taking British jobs, he strikes a chord.
The BNP is different in style and structure from fascism in the 1930s. Clad in uniforms, fascists then organised themselves in paramilitary groups; they marched and engaged in street fighting. Far-right parties still have their bully boys, but there are fewer of them, though the danger is that they will multiply.
Even more worrying, though, is what will happen in other parts of Europe. The far right did badly in France and Germany, but areas of concern are Hungary and the Baltic states. Then there is the whole question of Italy. Berlusconi has strengthened his support and is a threat to civil liberties. He controls the media, and the left are weak and powerless against him. He is not far-right in the sense that Hitler was far-right, but he is a threat to democracy. Italy has become a western-European equivalent of the sort of guided democracy you get in Russia.
There are many worrying developments across Europe, and a number of different phenomena we need to be aware of. It is wrong to expect that an economic depression will help the left. It didn’t in the 1930s, nor in the 1870s and 80s, when the radical, populist right was born. It seems that in periods of economic uncertainty, people look to authoritarianism rather than democracy.