The last few weeks has seen an explosion in the use of the word “fascism”; both online and offline. This has been all the more poignant this week as the Allied forces commemorate the 75th Anniversary of the D-Day landings and what fascism led to.
But today the word is being used expansively in ways that very inaccurately and unhelpfully conflate everything from neo-Nazis and white supremacists to people who voted leave in the 2016 referendum. When being interviewed about President Donald Trump’s recent visit to the U.K., Rupa Huq MP referenced the Leave vote in warning of us being on a slippery slope towards fascism.
Yes we are, and some of those who are claiming to be the guardians of the centre ground are the ones pushing people down the slope.
George Orwell in the early 1940’s said “the word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable’”. How true. The discourse around Brexit has become so polarised, so toxic, that the word is being thrown around with abandon by senior politicians as a means of shutting down debate and extolling one’s own virtuosity.
This is dangerous. We know from the ensuing research that the most significant issue driving the 2016 referendum result was concern over immigration. Inevitably, this has come to frame much of why people voted to leave the EU. In the simplified world of social media Brexit = Racism. And yet, this has been a missed opportunity to have a proper discussion about immigration which has largely been ignored by political parties of all persuasions over the last three years. These are issues that we should feel a lot more comfortable talking about. If we do not retain them within mainstream discourse, then we surrender them to the extremes.
Populism is about appealing to ordinary people who feel unrepresented by established political parties. By its very nature, it threatens the status quo. Let’s make no mistake, populism is here to stay. And that’s not a bad thing if the established parties wake up to their part in this. Re-establishing links between the government and the governed is positive, especially as when you leave London and the South-East you find great swathes of our communities who feel left behind. This is where the appetite for political re-alignment and the desire for a renewal of representative politics are the greatest.
I’ve been researching the responses to English Defence League demonstrations since 2013. When you actually speak to frontline practitioners including police officers and youth workers who are out there in the thick of these demonstrations, the insights are fascinating. They would report that far from the xenophobic football yobs which characterise the EDL, they saw large numbers of people turning out because they feel culturally and economically threatened, marginalised and demonised for their views on everything from controlled vs. uncontrolled immigration to social inequality and lack of mobility within the U.K. And yet, local authorities and police services didn’t have the first idea how to engage with those predominantly white communities turning out for the EDL. They are the forgotten tribe in many parts of the country. Frontline practitioners would ask: “where would we go? The pub? The working men’s clubs? We wouldn’t know where to start”.
In the three years since the referendum result there has been no effort whatsoever by the Conservatives or Labour to engage with immigration as a topic of concern to voters. They have become so consumed with the mechanics of Brexit; they’ve missed the drivers of why we got here and the passions that animate populist politics.
To add insult to injury, to be a member of the forgotten tribe is also to be branded a “fascist” when the debate becomes uncomfortable. And there has been a definite shift on social media from the use of the phrase “I’m not racist but...” to “If that makes me racist, then I’m a racist”. Just look at the sense of threat in response to recently reported incidents of an army veteran and Brexit Party supporter having a milkshake thrown over him, a male being called “Nazi Scum” and again having a milkshake thrown over him at a Trump rally, and an elderly male Trump supporter being pushed over at a demonstration. What this tells people is that you’re either with us or against us. And if you’re against us then you’re fair game. We should all be concerned by the escalating levels of violence. Britain feels like a febrile environment at the moment, like a tinder-box of rage that will only take a nudge for us to see wide scale public disorder implications.
What do we do about a mainstream being sucked to the extremes? By God we take it back.
The answer lies in our politicians acting responsibly, to act with a sense of public service rather than celebrity status in search of social media likes. Are there some uncomfortable views out there that have been allowed to fester because elected representatives have taken the easy route and avoided the difficult conversations? Yes. Whatever happens with Brexit, the bigger message here is about the political establishment re-engaging with the communities they represent to find a way forward. If this takes difficult conversations, so be it.
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