Who’s afraid of the far right?
A couple of local council seats for the BNP does not signify the resurgence of fascism, any more than the election of a man dressed in a monkey suit as the mayor of Hartlepool shows the rise of primate power.
It is hard to say which is more pathetic: the notion that the British National Party (BNP) winning three council seats in Burnley, Lancashire, marks a breakthrough for fascism, or the claim that the failure of the far-right BNP to win seats elsewhere represents an important victory for democracy.
‘Nazis are crushed’, screamed the headline on the first edition of the Daily Express on 3 May 2002. It wasn’t one of those historical reprints of a newspaper from 1945, but an excited frontpage report that English voters – under the guidance of the Express – had stopped ‘the return of evil fascism’ to local councils in Sunderland and Oldham. (The paper did not say exactly when evil fascism had previously ruled these northern towns.)
Within hours, however, a different mood had emerged elsewhere in the media, as it became clear that the BNP had won two council seats in Burnley and was on the way to getting a third. ‘Alarm bells at BNP wins’, reported BBC News (1); ‘BNP breakthrough stokes racism fears’, said the Guardian website (2).
Since the success of Jean-Marie Le Pen of the National Front in the first round of the French presidential election a fortnight ago, the European political establishment has seemed in a state of shock. There has been much frightened talk of fascism marching back across Europe, and many have sought to make comparisons with the 1930s. ‘Hitler – 1933; Le Pen – jamais‘ declared French May Day protesters. In Britain, news that the BNP was standing 68 candidates in this week’s local elections prompted panicky discussion of a possible knock-on from the ‘Le Pen effect’ in France.
This debate reveals far more about the weakness and insecurity of the political centre than any strength of the far right. Of course the likes of Le Pen and the BNP are obnoxious racists (although they hardly have a monopoly on that). But the relative success of Le Pen and (on a far lesser scale) the BNP does not signify the resurgence of fascism, any more than the election of a man dressed in a monkey suit as the first mayor of Hartlepool in north-east England points to the rise of primate power.
During the 1920s and 30s, fascism rose to power in a Europe convulsed by world war and civil war, revolution and counter-revolution, general strikes and mass street battles between right and left. Hitler’s Nazis in Germany and Mussolini’s fascists in Italy emerged as mass movements in society before success at the polls. The contrast could hardly be greater with today’s lifeless political scene, where there are no mass political movements of any colour and the likes of Le Pen can ‘stun’ pollsters by winning 16 percent of the votes in an historically low turnout.
Indeed, as Josie Appleton has argued on spiked, the way that Le Pen won through to the second round of the presidential election (on 5 May 2002) does not qualify as a breakthrough at all (3). The National Front leader won more or less the same numbers of votes as in the previous two presidential elections; the difference this time was that the mainstream parties’ vote crumbled.
As for the BNP, their share of the vote in the seats they contested in England (standing at around 18 percent, according to results through on Friday morning) looks impressive for a party that does not really exist as a political organisation; it is effectively a one-man band sustained by media hysteria. But in real terms, getting three council seats by winning a few hundred votes and finishing second or third in Burnley wards is hardly historic.
What is most significant is not these far-right parties themselves, but the way they seem able to traumatise the political establishment. When the ruling and major opposition parties of Europe look at the votes won by Le Pen or the BNP, they see a stark reflection of their own isolation and lack of authority. Who are these people, they ask in consternation, that they could even think of voting for such ‘Nazis’? For Jacques Chirac or Tony Blair, it is like looking at life on another planet through a telescope. The fact that many of ‘these people’ are the same ones who previously voted for their parties is beyond comprehension.
At the same time, however, politicians and many in the media have tried to use the far-right bogey to rally support. Focusing on ‘the threat of fascism’ has allowed those whose public standing has plummeted to adopt a tone of moral superiority, posturing as the champions of ‘decency’. Even such a sleaze-ridden character as French president Chirac has been able to strike high-minded postures as the symbol of French democracy against Le Pen. In Britain, the Labour, Tory and Liberal Democrat parties all issued calls for disenchanted voters to turn out this week and help stop the BNP.
The result was that the turnout was up in some areas where the BNP stood; in Burnley, turnout was a high 63 percent. But to the further amazement of the politicians, a number of these voters – 27 percent in the Oldham wards – actually did the opposite of what they were told, and turned out to vote for the BNP. No doubt many of them did so as a direct response to all the patronising hysterics about jackboots marching across Lancashire.
Most of those who voted BNP will have done so, not because they are hardcore racists any more than Labour voters in the same wards, but as a way of giving two fingers to the political class. It means much the same as voting for the monkey man to be mayor of Hartlepool, or for the non-party health campaigners who took control of the council in Wyre Forest. As Brendan O’Neill has argued on spiked, in so far as race was a factor in the local elections this was more a result of the politicisation of race through mainstream multicultural policies, than of the antics of the BNP (4).
The reaction to these results has revealed the ambivalence that our ruling elite feels towards democracy today. Worried about the way that recent poor turnouts reflect their own loss of legitimacy, politicians have pleaded with voters to take part in the democratic process. Initially, there was much excitement that the local turnout had gone up slightly (to around 35 percent) since the 2000 local elections. But when people vote in ways that displease the elite, our leaders are not so keen on the democratic process. Thus, the election of the monkey-suited football mascot led Labour figures to call for a rethink of their treasured elected mayors project, to stop such candidates ‘ridiculing’ democracy. What they mean is that the voters can’t be allowed to ridicule them.
In France and Britain, the political class has come together to call on voters to defend democracy against the far right. Yet they have done so by extinguishing real democracy, setting aside all political debate between the parties on key issues and uniting against Le Pen or the BNP. Democracy is thus reduced to a demand that we cast our vote against Evil, like children told to boo whenever the pantomime villain comes on stage.
And if they can encourage us to do so by postal vote in the safety of our homes, so that democratic participation becomes as passive as paying the gas bill, then that will be all the better for them.
Mick Hume is editor of spiked, and is speaking at the spiked conference After 11 September: Fear and Loathing in the West, on Sunday 26 May at the Bishopsgate Institute in London. See here for full details.
The myth of the far right, by Brendan O’Neill
Continental drift, by James Heartfield
Who divided Oldham?, by Brendan O’Neill
Defending democracy – against the voters, by Josie Appleton
Too late, the French left have a cause, by James Heartfield
(1) Alarm bells at BNP wins, Nick Assinder, BBC News, 3 May 2002
(2) BNP wins third Burnley seat after recount, Matthew Tempest, Guardian Unlimited, 3 May 2002
(3) See Defending democracy – against the voters, by Josie Appleton
(4) See Who divided Oldham?, by Brendan O’Neill
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