by In Wales
Tue Jun 9th, 2009 at 06:06:56 AM EST
The Guardian has an extremely interesting discussion piece in the G2 supplement today asking if Fascism is really on the rise and trying to analyse what the Euro elections results really mean.
I'm going to take various snippets, which have all come from interviews with historians. The overall message seems to be, don't panic yet but don't be complacent either, especially in Eastern Europe.
Although there are analogies with the war, a number of historians were pointing out that conditions today are extremely different to 1930s Europe and there is not necessarily an automatic link with recession and the rise of the far right - fascists came to power in Italy before long before the Depression.
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.
A number of those interviewed made the point of taking the BNP seriously, and not attempting to oppress them. Instead of giving them further opportunity to unite and play the martyr, "marginalise and ridicule them". The BNP are an overtly racist party, despite their protests to the contrary. Unlike fascism of the 20s and 30s, the BNP are not really proposing any new social order, they just play on fear. They can't legally campaign for an authoritarian regime to replace democracy.
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.
The issue of the success of UKIP was raised and discussed, and considered in many ways to be more interesting than the BNP, who actually didn't do all that well, really, even if it is unsettling that they managed to gain seats. Votes for the BNP, and UKIP, were seen as a protest vote
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.
But what of elsewhere in Europe?
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.
Another historian's take:
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.
Perhaps what we should really be worrying about is the decline of the Left - of social democratic parties in particular - all across Europe.
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.
Then of course, discussion around the state of the political system itself - the rise in popularism and loss of faith in democratic politics:
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.
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.
So what of allies - for the BNP from across Europe, but also for the Conservatives?
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.
A comparison of the BNP not with the rise of fascism in the 30s but with the success of Jean-Marie Pen in the 80s:
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.
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.
The key messages from this analysis? The far right have evolved from the 1930s, so direct historical comparisons with that era are perhaps not the most accurate. The rise of the far right is seen to be more of a threat in Eastern Europe but the decline of the Left is a worrying trend across all of Europe.
A new vision and a new constituency must be sought for social democrats.
The current economic and political climate is one of great unease and perhaps people feel more secure with authoritarianism than with democracy in such times.
In the UK certainly, politics is in a mess, all the mainstream political parties are caught up in the expenses scandal, and the protest vote has turned out.
I'm not sure what the political analysts would say and how closely this would match with the view of some of the historians interviewed by the Guardian but in my view the Left need to work to restore faith in democracy, to restore faith in the Left. Perhaps it is time for the return of ideology after all?!