For anyone paying attention, the radical right is on the march. Recent years have been more favourable to their fortunes than at any time since the end of World War Two. True, much of this is driven by demographic change in western Europe and the US, and elsewhere; by appalling acts of terrorism that rightly offend everyone’s sensibility; and by socio-economic shocks exemplified by the so-called ‘migrant crisis’ in Europe, and before that, the ‘great recession’ and accompanying austerity politics.
Yet none of these phenomena are new. What is different this time around?
For my money, the biggest change in recent years has been the erosion of the ‘cordon sanitaire’ – that invisible red line separating those hostile to, or outright rejecting, liberal democracy. To a large extent, this tradition owes much to what Dan Stone termed the ‘antifascist consensus’ obtaining during the Cold War. On the Soviet side, expressions of radical nationalism were simply outlawed; while for liberal democracies, the searing memory of Axis terror – especially, but not only, in occupied central and western Europe – meant that any politics espousing ethnic nationalism and minority scapegoating were, with some exception, relegated to the fringes.
But that consensus is breaking down. A quarter of a century on from the mainstreaming that began at the fall of the Berlin Wall, radical right parties regularly secure 20% of the vote in European elections. Radical right terrorism is back with a vengeance. And rarely does a weekend pass without a demonstration or march that puts those at risk of suffering violence or abuse on edge.
Moreover, radical right parties are currently in coalition governments in Norway, Italy, Austria and Denmark. In several countries, such as Germany and Sweden, euphemistically-termed ‘national populists’ threaten to become the official opposition. Uncovering the radical right is no longer a task for specialists, and pointing out new instances of right-wing extremism these days is, quite frankly, beleaguering.
This is the longer-term backdrop to what my colleague at the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right, Cynthia Miller-Idriss, calls the ‘extreme gone mainstream’. In Brazil, the radical right populist Jair Bolsonaro nearly won the Presidential election outright, with 46% of first round votes. Donald Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric about migrants, his political opponents and the media may well have radicalised someone enough to send mail bombs to at least 12 targets across the US. In the UK, anti-Muslim activist Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (aka ‘Tommy Robinson) stepped out of court and straight into a House of Lords luncheon with UKIP leader Gerard Batten at the invitation of UKIP peer Lord Pearson.
Increasingly, it seems, the radical right has a seat at every table worth a damn.
The last two incidents this week provide the immediate context for David Aaronovitch’s mischievous column in yesterday’s Times, accusing me and others of trying to “stop” a legitimate debate about multiculturalism in Britain. Their original title was: ‘Is Rising Ethnic Diversity a Threat to the West?’ Lose the question mark and advance ‘is’ forward three spaces and you have the lowest common denominator for every radical-right ideologue today: “Rising Ethnic Diversity is a Threat to the West”.
In objecting to this inflammatory title, 160 academics penned an open letter arguing that “this debate was framed within the terms of white supremacist discourse”. There was no request made for the participants to withdraw; no talk of ‘censoring’ this debate; and certainly no call to ban the event. Instead, the signatories merely asked the debaters to reflect carefully upon their responsibility as elites, and to think about whether they were fanning the flames of intolerance.
Let’s say, for a moment, the debate is carried, and ethnic diversity is indeed deemed a ‘threat to the west’. What then? Forced repatriation of non-whites? Outlawing Islam in Europe? Or some form of what alt-right ideologue Richard Spencer has called ‘peaceful ethnic cleansing’? The mind boggles.
This isn’t a case of an “illiberal left” playing “into the hands of the far right”. Quite the opposite, really. In any case, their hands are full enough. Some realities on the ground don’t need to be debated, especially when their consequences smack of the very radical right themes the panel astonishingly claims to be countering through fearless debate. That these issues are more sensitively analysed and discussed is made plain in some of the very texts Mr Aaronivitch’s piece cites – without further normalising radical talking points.
Unconvinced by these objections, the dismissive tone of Mr Aaronovitch’s comment piece shows that he is unwilling to listen. At the same time, he expects to convince others at the debate that multiculturalism in Britain is no existential threat. I’m sure that migrants, BAME people, and all those concerned with the mainstreaming of the radical right will hope his audience is more open to persuasion than he is.