Far-right politics is on the move in Europe. Municipal elections in France at the end of March saw the Front National (FN) make stunning gains, returning to support last enjoyed in 2002. Taking 9 per cent of the vote and gaining mayors in 12 cities (including Béziers, Fréjus, Belfort and Hénin-Beaumont) gave some substance to the claim by the FN leader, Marine Le Pen, that it was now “a third great political force in our country”. Not unreasonably, Le Pen hopes to translate this success into seats in the European election.
In the UK two public debates on Europe between the deputy prime minister and Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, and Nigel Farage, leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), ended in a resounding success for Farage according to opinion polls: an ICM exit poll on the final debate found 69 per cent for Farage and 31 per cent for Clegg. By conveniently staying away from the rest of the party’s programme, a narrowly-defined debate was always going to be a gift to UKIP, allowing Farage to project the party as a non-extremist and thus acceptable alternative to the status quo. He could even discourse on the dangers posed by the rise of radical right-wing politics in Europe while failing to mention that UKIP was part of that resurgence as a member of the Europe of Freedom and Democracy (EFD) group in the European Parliament—other members include the Danish People’s Party, the Slovak National Party, the Greek Popular Orthodox Rally and the Dutch Reformed Political Party.
Although this was a public-relations disaster for mainstream UK politics, not everyone was taken in by the presentation. The European editor of the Guardian, Ian Traynor, pointed out that UKIP’s message, “rightwing nationalism coupled with leftwing protectionism and welfarism for the native ‘white’ working class”, was replicated by the FN, Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party in the Netherlands and their counterparts in Austria, Sweden, Finland and Denmark. All were poised to make gains, he wrote, “through a campaign that will be anti-European, but at base, like Farage, represents a revolt against the impact of globalisation”.
Avoiding taint of extremism
In pursuit of legitimacy the FN and UKIP are following a similar course, trying to detach themselves from the taint of extremism—which they know to be electorally disadvantageous—while holding on to their core values. This is a difficult balancing act. Since she became leader in 2011 Le Pen has worked hard to transform the FN into a mainstream party, softening its xenophobic image and ditching one or two of its more extreme policies.
Her predecessor and FN founder, Jean Marie Le Pen, attracted opprobrium for serial comments about the Holocaust and the occupation of France, for which he was once fined. Marine distanced herself from her father’s remarks and in the 2012 presidential election worked hard to align herself with as many Jews as possible.
Le Pen is mightier than she was. Flickr / Remi Noyon. Some rights reserved.But the problem is not confined to the FN old guard: her deputy, Bruno Gollnisch, said the number who had died in the concentration camps was “open to discussion”, while, as to the existence of gas chambers, it was “up to historians to speak their minds”. Interviewed by the BBC in March, Gollnisch expressed admiration for the leader of the neo-fascist British National Party (BNP), Nick Griffin, and suggested that Farage spoke “a lot of sense”.
UKIP has been similarly dogged by controversy. In March the Observer reported that in 2008 UKIP had considered a proposal from the BNP to form an electoral pact for the European election the following year. Claiming that it had been unanimously rejected, Farage told reporters: “I’m simply amazed that the BNP thought we would ever consider such a thing.” In fact, the proposal had been given serious consideration and canvassed among 17 members of the party’s executive, with two supporting it.
Possible defections from the now failing BNP have caused further problems. In April 2013 the Guardian reported that some UKIP members contesting last year’s local elections could have been members of the BNP or even have criminal records. Six candidates were investigated over links with the BNP and other far-right groups or for alleged racist or homophobic comments and several were subsequently suspended for racist views. Farage claimed the party did not have the capacity to vet every candidate. In July 2013 a UKIP candidate was suspended for giving a Nazi salute. Earlier this year David Sylvester, a former UKIP councillor in Henley-on-Thames, blamed the floods in England on the support of the prime minister, David Cameron, for same-sex marriage. The Islamophobic views of subsequently expelled candidates like Andre Lampitt and William Henwood, as well as Henwood’s suggestion that the comedian Lenny Henry should emigrate to a “black country” have not made the party’s pursuit of respectability any easier.
In a recent painstaking study, From Voting to Violence? Far Right Extremism in Britain, Matthew Godwin and Jocelyn Evans assessed attitudes towards violence and armed conflict among BNP members, using members of UKIP as a control group. While they concluded that UKIP was less extreme than the BNP, they nevertheless found considerable overlap in the policy and outlook of the two parties. In the 2010 general election, both had demanded an end to “uncontrolled” immigration, tighter border controls, expulsion of illegal immigrants (and the removal of benefits from any who remained), an end to support for multiculturalism and “political correctness” and a ban on the burqa.
Noting that UKIP had invited Wilders to show an anti-Islam film at the House of Lords, the authors concluded that it often pushed the same message as the extreme right. Half of UKIP members sampled ranked immigration or Muslims in the UK as the most important political issue facing the country. Half rejected the idea that the UK had benefited from diversity. Two fifths supported the forced repatriation of immigrants, irrespective of whether they had broken the law.
Three fifths of members would be bothered a lot by the presence of an Islamic institution in their community (twice the national average). Over half believed that immigrants were the main source of crime in the UK. A fifth believed that black people were less intelligent than whites. Over four fifths disagreed that Islam did not pose a danger to the west. A substantial minority endorsed the view that violence between different racial, ethnic and religious groups was inevitable. Even among UKIP elites concern has been voiced over “Muslim breeding”. And many in the party endorse Wilders’ description of Islam as “a retarded ideology”.
UKIP has capitalised on the disconnect between those voters who appear to struggle with the complexities of the modern world and a political system they feel has long ceased to represent them. But, rather than organising against austerity, UKIP offers only scapegoats for the apocalypse heralded by statements like this on its web site:
These are anxious and troubled times. As crisis follows crisis, our politicians do nothing in the face of dangers rearing up around us. Taxes and Government debt rise. Energy and transport costs soar. Unemployment is too high. The NHS and state education strain under a population increase of 4 million since 2001. Another wave of uncontrolled immigration comes from the EU (this time from Bulgaria and Romania). Yet the political class tells us that the EU is good for the UK.
What Mark Neocleous calls “the anxiety of freedom”, the cornerstone of subjectivity in liberal democracy, is intensifying under the pressures of globalisation and neo-liberal restructuring. For UKIP the strain of living in the modern world is unbearable and the only option is to disengage from the uncertainty, instability and insecurity of the present to make a new beginning at some unspecified point in the past. The difficult challenges that should concern us—the depredations of finance corporations, the decline of trust in public institutions, the unravelling of the welfare state—are simply displaced on to threats which suggest seductively easy solutions: withdrawing from the EU, halting immigration, banning the burqa.
These may sound naïve and even childish but for a party driven by such visceral hatred of the outsider and difference in general they make perfect sense. For UKIP, like others across Europe, Islam performs as the less publicly unpalatable placeholder of a wider xenophobia. When Farage talks about poor and uneducated Bulgarians and Romanians, we know he means Roma but cannot say so. When the journalist Michael Crick recently asked why there were no black faces on the cover of the UKIP conference brochure, Farage simply refused to answer. Crick was physically attacked when he asked the same question of Farage’s fellow MEP Godfrey Bloom. Bloom was subsequently expelled from the party and now sits with the European Alliance for Freedom (EAF) group, whose other members include far-right parties like the Freedom Party of Austria, the Vlaams Belang from Belgium, the FN and the Swedish Democrats.
UKIP’s pitch is to those who, in the words of Theodor Adorno, “are particularly susceptible to anti-democratic propaganda and the appeal, not to rational self-interest, but to emotional needs—often to the most primitive and irrational wishes and fears”. It will do well in the European election. As it attracts more supporters and the climate of opinion changes as a consequence, it will draw further on those inclined to submit blindly to power and authority because they live in constant fear of not being like all the others. We should bear in mind Adorno’s warning: “What is ‘pathological’ today may with changing social conditions become the dominant trend of tomorrow.”
Commenting on the likely influx of anti-European MEPs into the European Parliament, a Guardian editorial (29 April) said of the right-wing parties they represented: “One or two are repellently neo-fascist[;] others have repudiated, more or less convincingly, their far-right origins ...’ If this judgment applies to the FN and UKIP, the revisionist process to which Adorno refers is already under way.