The myth of the far right

The obsession with the rise of the right tells us more about European elites' insecurity than about any real fascist threat.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

Is Nazism making a comeback? According to Martin Jacques, former editor of Marxism Today, ‘Not since the 1930s has the threat of racism and fascism been so great in the West’.

With ‘racist parties of the far right in government in Austria, Denmark and Italy’, Jacques warns that ‘Europe is sliding into an abyss…and it is all happening with frightening speed’ (1).

According to Richard Overy, professor of modern history at King’s College London and described by the London Evening Standard as ‘Britain’s leading expert on fascism’: ‘The assassination of Pim Fortuyn [on 6 May 2002] has ghastly echoes of the savage political violence of the interwar years, when politics moved from the ballot box to the street.’ Overy concludes that ‘fascism…is on the march again’ (2).

Is he serious? That the murder of a cranky Dutch politician by a cranky Dutch vegan is reminiscent of the revolution, counter-revolution, general strikes and descent into world war that marked out 1930s Europe? Overy says we have to ‘be alert’, because ‘history has the unhappy habit of springing surprises’. ‘Who, in 1928, with a Europe returning to prosperity…could have predicted that only five years away Germany would be plunged into the most criminal dictatorship of the century?’, he asks, ominously (3). But there were many signs in 1920s Europe of what was to come – by 1928, Benito Mussolini’s fascist party had been in power in Italy for six years, and throughout the late 1920s Hitler’s Nazis were gaining strength in Germany.

One US commentator reckons Europe is ‘heading for a nasty fall’, with its ‘plague’ of far right parties: ‘Look at the parties making the headlines there. The National Front in France, the Swiss People’s Party in Switzerland, the Popular Party in Portugal, the British National Party in Britain, the Hellenic Front in Greece, the German People’s Union in Germany… All of them far right, all of them a threat to democratic politics.’

According to German Social Democrat chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, tackling ‘the advance of the extreme right’ should be ‘top of Europe’s agenda’. He declared on 27 May 2002 that he would not ‘let Europe fall into the hands of people like Berlusconi, Haider or Le Pen’ (seeming to have forgotten that Berlusconi already runs Italy) – while Britain’s Labour Party prime minister Tony Blair urged Europeans to ‘rally’ against the far right, and called on ‘democratic people of all persuasions to stand together in solidarity against extremist policies of whatever kind’ (4).

Is Europe really heading for a new Dark Age, with its Nazi past coming back to haunt it? Are fascistic far-right parties really ‘on the march again’ everywhere from Greece to France, from Italy to Holland? In a word, no. The current obsession with the rise of the far right tells us far more about the European elites’ crisis of confidence and legitimacy than it does about any Nazi reality.

Consider the list of far-right parties that are supposed to be ‘plaguing’ European democracy. Many of them are so small they are insignificant. The Hellenic Front in Greece is, according to one report, ‘a tiny party that didn’t even register on the electoral radar in the 2000 elections’. According to the UK Guardian, ‘The Hellenic Front’s insignificance illustrates the comparative weakness of extreme right politics in Greece’ (5).

The German People’s Union, one of three far-right parties said to be ‘gaining ground’ in Germany, won just 1.2 percent of the vote in the 1998 parliamentary elections – which, as one report points out, ‘is way off the five percent hurdle over which votes can translate into seats under Germany’s dual PR/first past the post electoral system’. In fact, ‘None of Germany’s three minor far right parties has made headway at national level…. The postwar far right in Germany has manifested itself largely as a neo-Nazi youth protest movement, with unpleasant rallies by disaffected and racist youths.’ (6)

As for the British National Party, it might be the subject of numerous hand-wringing editorials and documentary exposes in the UK media, but it wins next-to-no support at the ballot box. The BNP’s best-ever electoral showing was in this year’s local elections in May, where it won three council seats (out of a national total of over 6000) in the deprived and racially tense north English town of Burnley.

These parties may have some fascists in them – but there is a vast difference between a handful of fascists and fascism as a social movement with real power. These parties may win many of their votes on the race issue, but they win very few votes. Yet such tiny, powerless parties get lumped together with Berlusconi’s ruling party in Italy and Jorg Haider’s Freedom Party in Austria (which won 27 percent of the vote in 1999 and holds six cabinet posts), as examples of far right parties upsetting mainstream politics.

Even the larger right-wing parties causing consternation among the European elite and press are far too different from each other to constitute what one commentator calls ‘an increasingly homogenising far right threat’. Right-wing Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi is now talked about in the same breath as Jean Marie Le Pen of the French National Front. But Berlusconi is a mainstream European politician (however much Schroeder and others might dislike him), while Le Pen is Europe’s number-one pariah whom not a single mainstream politician would dare to meet (as illustrated by Jacques Chirac’s refusal to debate him in the first round of the French presidential elections of April 2002) (7).

The supposedly fascistic Berlusconi is in fact a close political ally of Tony Blair. In February 2002, Blair and Berlusconi formed a British/Italian alliance to ‘champion economic liberalisation in Europe’ – with Berlusconi declaring that he and Blair had ‘an absolute convergence of views’.

The late Pim Fortuyn (whose List party won 26 parliamentary seats in Holland’s general election on 15 May 2002, a week after Fortuyn was killed) is talked about in the same breath as Austria’s Freedom Party leader Jorg Haider. But Fortuyn was openly gay and justified much of his anti-Muslim ranting by claiming that Muslims are homophobic and therefore ‘enemies of diversity’ – while Haider is accused by his opponents of being anti-gay, as well as being racist and anti-Semitic. (Though a German newspaper claims it is ‘common knowledge’ in Austria that Haider is in fact a homosexual, but no one discusses it because in Catholic Austria ‘you only really discuss these things with your priest in a confessional…’) (8)

Indeed, the ambivalent appraisal of Fortuyn’s politics following his assassination illustrated that he couldn’t so easily be labelled a fascist. In the immediate aftermath of his death, we were told the Fortuyn was a far-right racist in the same mould as Le Pen. But twenty-four hours later, many European politicians and commentators were praising Fortuyn’s commitment to cultural diversity and gay equality. UK home secretary David Blunkett said: ‘I too believe in diversity through integration….a point Pim Fortuyn [made] in his more rational moments’ – while UK foreign secretary Jack Straw said Fortuyn was not ‘another Le Pen or Haider’, but was ‘much more balanced’.

Many of the larger European parties that are said to make up the ‘new Nazi threat’ seem to be little more than right wing. According to one report, the Swiss People’s Party, which won 23 percent of the vote in the 1999 general elections and is described by some as ‘Switzerland’s BNP’, is ‘best described as hard right’, not ‘extreme right’ (9). The Popular Party in Portugal, which has nine percent of the vote and is accused by its critics of trying to ‘resurrect Franco’s politics’, is ‘not particularly extreme’, but wants to ‘introduce tight immigration limits and prevent the transfer of further national powers to the EU’ (sounds like Britain’s Tories) (10).

Jorg Haider’s Freedom Party in Austria (27 percent of the vote) may be obnoxious and anti-Semitic – but this is hardly a novel stance in Austrian politics. There have been, and still are, many anti-Semitic parties in Austria – but there has only ever been one Nazi Party.

Other far right parties are trying to appear more mainstream, and are adopting mainstream arguments against immigration. The British National Party has a transport policy (‘more investment in public transport’) and an environmental policy (‘clean parks for everyone’), and has an ‘ethnic liaison officer’ who communicates with blacks and Asians who want to find out more about the BNP. BNP members are certainly racists, yet they seem to recognise at some level that there isn’t a broad audience for their racist politics, so they have toned things down. But what kind of hardcore fascist party tries to win support by pretending to be a community-friendly organisation that is concerned about ‘ethnic issues’?

The BNP is miniscule compared to many European right-wing parties, but like Norway’s Progress Party (14.7 percent of the vote), Belgium’s Flemish Block (nine percent of the vote) and Denmark’s Danish People’s Party (12 percent of the vote), it increasingly justifies its anti-immigration and segregationist policies in the language of ‘celebrating diversity’ and ‘protecting identities’. This hardly sounds like a return to fascism.

Despite their differences in size, influence, politics and policy, media commentators point out that there is one thing that unites Europe’s ‘far right’ parties – they are all vehemently anti-immigration. Even here, however, there are differences. Norway’s Progress Party wants to cap immigration into Norway at 1000 people a year, while the British National Party is keen to ‘stop immigration’ into Britain completely. Holland’s List party, whose leader-in-waiting is a black man, is concerned about immigration upsetting Holland’s ‘current cultural balance’ of black, white and Asian people, while the German People’s Union wants to repatriate all immigrants and ‘make Germany white again’.

In the discussion of the far right, European commentators have attempted to squeeze very different parties into the same category. They have labelled a ragbag of right-wing organisations as a new Nazi threat to Europe, using a one-size-fits-all explanation for the supposed rise of the far right. In fact, the only thing that these extreme right parties do have in common is that their support, the votes they win, is more a reaction against mainstream politics than a declaration of support for anything resembling fascism.

Where extreme parties win electoral support, it is not that voters are ‘voting for fascism’ or endorsing everything the party stands for. Rather, it is a sign of isolation from mainstream politics. Across Europe, votes for small hard-right parties look like a two-finger ‘fuck you’ to traditional politicians, rather than an endorsement of Nazism.

Even the immigration question – which all of the far right parties flag up – is not the same today as it was in the past. People’s fear of immigration in modern Europe seems to have less to do with old-fashioned racism and xenophobia, than with a broader sense of fear and insecurity. Contemporary debates about immigration, particularly in the wake of 11 September, express society’s general fear of risk and the unknown, more than an old-time hatred of Johnny Foreigner.

Being anti-immigration is hardly a political stance exclusive to far right parties. Schroeder’s Germany and Blair’s Britain – the two leaders who have been most vocal about tackling the far right – both have restrictive immigration policies. In the same week that Blair stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Schroeder against the threat of the racist right, his home secretary David Blunkett announced the building of three huge ‘accommodation centres’ (otherwise known as prisons) in the UK, each of which will be able to hold 750 asylum seekers before booting them out of the country.

Schroeder has used his anti-far right stance to call for a further tightening of Germany’s immigration policy. Following ‘Le Pen’s success in France and events in Holland’, said Schroeder on 15 May 2002, it is clear that ‘Europeans are concerned about immigration’. His solution? To address their concerns by making ‘immigration and law and order priority issues for my government’. According to one newspaper, as Schroeder heads for a general election in September 2002, he has ‘made a bid to turn the rise of the far right to his advantage’ by ‘signalling that he intends to lump his [German] opponents with the anti-immigrant populists of other countries’ – while also taking a lead by clamping down on immigration (11).

Similarly, Spain’s conservative prime minister Jose Maria Aznar is using the far right issue to put immigration back on the Spanish agenda. According to one report, Aznar recently ‘blamed the rise of the radical right on the inability of left-wing parties to address popular concern about immigration, [and] claimed that the left was trying to run and hide from popular opinion on immigration and simply did not want to talk about it’ (12). ‘But we do want to talk about it’, Aznar said – promising to give Spanish people ‘less to worry about’ on the immigration question.

As European commentators attack the far right’s anti-immigration policies, mainstream politicians are exploiting the issue to limit immigration into and around Europe. Unlike much of the far right, however, mainstream politicians have the power to implement such policies, and to make immigrants’ lives a misery.

In fact, it is mainstream parties that make immigration into such a big issue in the first place. Take Britain, where there is little public racism today, and where people are far more accepting of immigrants than at any time in recent history. Immigration only becomes an inflamed issue in British society when the New Labour government brings in a new policy, or issues a statement about the problem of Sangatte, or builds a new detention centre for immigrants.

Politicians increasingly justify anti-immigration policies as a way of ‘calming people’s fears’ on the issue. In reality, anti-immigration policies put immigration centre stage and stir up people’s fears. Mainstream politicians have only themselves to blame when extreme right parties then run with the immigration issue and play on society’s fears in an attempt to win support.

The idea that fascism is returning to Europe is nonsense. There are some large right-wing parties either in power or in coalition, which might have loathsome politics and policies but they are hardly fascists. There are medium-sized right-wing parties, many of which promote their anti-immigration beliefs in modern PC-speak. And there are small hard-right parties, some of which talk like Nazis but in reality are small groups of sad men and women with very little support.

Yet this mix of right-wingers is being compared to the march of fascist parties in 1930s Europe – when the continent was gripped by class war, civil war, world war, revolution, general strikes, and raging street battles between the left and right. As spiked editor Mick Hume argues, the contrast of the past ‘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’ (13).

Some commentators and politicians seem to have cottoned on to the fact that votes for the far right are an expression of disaffection with mainstream politics – and have started to fret about the electorate’s ‘disenchantment’ and ‘isolation’ from traditional politics.

According to one newspaper, the French men and women who voted for Le Pen in May 2002 saw the presidential elections as ‘an opportunity to send a message of disaffection to their leaders’ (14). Another reporter says the votes for Le Pen ‘unveiled the full and shocking extent of [French voters’] political disenchantment’ (15). Other commentators write of the ‘chronic political disaffection felt by many poor white people’ in Europe (16), ‘a general feeling of disaffection with the political mainstream’ (17), ‘deep voter apathy and insecurity’ (18), and the ‘electorate’s drift away from its leaders’.

Not surprisingly, some on the far right are exploiting this disaffection to win votes. Jorg Haider points out that ‘a gap has developed between the people and the political establishment…and now people are rebelling all over the place’ (19). Jean Marie Le Pen accuses the French left and right of ‘ignoring people’s concerns’, and driving ordinary people ‘away from political life’.

In response, Gerhard Schroeder says we must avoid the ‘Haiderisation’ of Europe – and European leaders ‘must re-engage their voters’, to tackle our ‘fear, insecurity’ and ‘disaffection’.

This is where we get to the crux of the debate about the ‘rise of the far right’. When they see their electorates voting for nasty right-wing parties, European politicians see their own isolation. They see their dislocation from voters and voters’ concerns. British, German and French politicians cannot believe that people would dare to vote for the BNP, the German People’s Union or Le Pen (especially when they are told not to on a regular basis) – and they wonder what they have done wrong to push voters away, and how they can make amends. In the supposed rise of the extreme right, mainstream politicians imagine their own decline and fall, and their isolation from the people.

The obsession with the far right tells us far more about insecure and uncertain elites than it does about political reality on the ground. This was clear in the French elite’s response to Le Pen’s relative success in the first round of the French presidential elections at the end of April 2002. Le Pen won pretty much the same number of votes as he did in the last presidential election (about 17 percent) – but the response this time around was very different.

In the past, French politicians employed a tactic of ignoring Le Pen (he’s been standing in presidential elections since 1974) or just denouncing him as a fringe politician who voters should avoid. But in April 2002, the turnout for Le Pen almost brought French political life to a standstill, with political leaders suffering a traditionally French existential crisis. Many on the left turned out in force to protest against the Le Pen vote. The strength of support for Le Pen didn’t change dramatically, but the French elite’s response to Le Pen did – capturing how the debate about the far right tells us more about our leaders than about fringe politicians.

French fears that Le Pen’s relatively successful showing in the presidential elections would translate into increased support at the legislative elections were unfounded. In France’s 9 June elections, Le Pen’s vote actually fell. His National Front won 11.3 percent of the vote, a fall of five points from the presidential poll and down from the 15 percent it won in the 1997 legislative polls (20).

The European elite’s insecurity means they exaggerate the threat of the far right – but they also underestimate the extent of their own isolation. Schroeder, Blair and co are wrong if they imagine that only the pockets of people who vote for hard-right parties are disengaged from political life. Across Europe, there have been historically low turnouts in recent presidential, parliamentary, European and local elections, as millions of people haven’t bothered to vote at all. And even many of those who do vote are less engaged with their political parties than in the past – with membership of political parties and organisations declining on a European-wide scale.

Listening to European politicians discuss the ‘threat of the far right’, you soon realise that they are talking about themselves and their own sense of insecurity. Tony Blair claims that the best way to tackle the far right is to ‘make society more secure’ and to increase people’s feelings of ‘safety’ – reflecting his own sense that society is spinning out of control. Likewise, Schroeder responded to the Le Pen vote in France and the assassination of Fortuyn in Holland by promising to put ‘law and order’ centre stage in European politics, and to ‘ensure European security’.

The European elites’ fear of the far right also captures their fear of strongly held political views – whether far right, far left, or far anything. Blair’s response to the Le Pen vote was to call on voters ‘to stand together in solidarity against extremist policies of whatever kind’. For Blair, Schroeder and co, ‘extremism’ is the enemy – by which they mean hardcore belief in anything. In a political age where consensus has replaced conflict, and where the clash of opinions that was once the lifeblood of democracy is frowned upon as outdated, Third Way politicians don’t like the look of anything that smacks of conviction.

Instead of launching a political fightback against the far right and giving voters a decent political alternative to the likes of Le Pen and the BNP, European politicians can only propose a law’n’order clampdown to make us all more secure, and a promise that mainstream politics will be anodyne enough to offend nobody.

The far right may not be a threat to Europe, but the elites’ response to the far right could well be. In response to a ragbag of right-wing parties, European leaders have called on voters to ‘defend democracy’ against the ‘fascists’ – but in the process they have destroyed real democracy by sidelining political debate about important issues in the name of displaying a united front against the far right. Democracy is reduced to a straightforward battle of Good v Evil, where the electorate’s only role is to ‘do the right thing’ and vote for the good guys against the Le Pens of the world.

European leaders have also turned politics into an even more boring affair. More than ever strong political beliefs are looked upon with suspicion, and the elites’ only solution to a political challenge (which is more imagined than real) seems to be, not politics, but more law and order, to stop society spinning out of control. Add to that the elites’ promise to tighten up immigration controls to stem ‘our fears’, and you can see that European politicians’ reaction to the far right is more significant than the far right itself.

In the obsession with the far right, the European elites are reflecting their own crisis of confidence and self-belief on to society more broadly. And society will suffer for it.

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

Who’s afraid of the far right?, by Mick Hume

spiked-issue: Race

(1) The new barbarism, Martin Jacques, Guardian, 9 May 2002

(2) Why the rise of the right should worry us, Richard Overy, London Evening Standard, 15 May 2002

(3) Why the rise of the right should worry us, Richard Overy, London Evening Standard, 15 May 2002

(4) Blair rallies EU against far right, BBC News, 13 May 2002

(5) Far right politics in Europe, Guardian

(6) Far right politics in Europe, Guardian

(7) See Defending democracy – against the voters, by Josie Appleton

(8) Austrians stay discreet over Haider’s outing, Kate Connolly, Guardian, 26 March 2000

(9) Far right politics in Europe, Guardian

(10) Far right politics in Europe, Guardian

(11) Schroeder calls on EU leaders to quell far right, John Hooper and Edward Pilkington, Guardian, 11 May 2002

(12) Immigration the key as left faces loss of power, John Hooper, Giles Tremlett and Jon Henley, Guardian, 16 May 2002

(13) See Who’s afraid of the far right?, by Mick Hume

(14) The jolt in a victory on the right, Philip H Gordon, New York Times, 23 April 2002

(15) Le Pen vote shocks France, Jon Henley, Guardian, 22 April 2002

(16) Far right runs Lib Dem candidate close, Helen Carter, Guardian, 3 May 2002

(17) The rise of the far right, BBC News, 25 April 2002

(18) Far-right leader stages upset in French election, Jocelyn Noveck, North County Times, 24 April 2002

(19) Do you wanna be in my gang?, Kate Connolly, Guardian, 31 May 2002

(20) Far right slips in French elections, BBC News, 10 June 2002

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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