The English Defence League (EDL) recently split, with the “Infidels”, a more explicitly racist and pro-fascist grouping, breaking off.
The EDL leadership has also formed a relationship with the British Freedom Party (BFP), a splinter group from the British National Party (BNP). And BFP is attempting to position itself as the sister party to European right-wing populist groups such as the Dutch and Austrian Freedom Parties. How do these developments fit into the wider European picture?
Far-right populism and anti-immigration sentiment has a foothold right across mainland Europe. The recently published Transatlantic Trends 2011 survey reveals that across five major European countries (France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK — the US is also included in the survey) more than 40% of respondents viewed immigration to be “more of a problem than an opportunity”.
In the UK 68% of respondents took this view, with 71% expressing greater fears about “illegal” than “legal” immigration. 57% of UK respondents feel that there are “too many” immigrants, compared with figures between 25%-50% for the rest of Europe. When it comes to “sharing the burden” of immigration across the EU, only 18% of UK respondents (compared to 52% in France and 60% in Italy) agreed that the “burden” should be shared. Of UK respondents 58% felt that immigrants “take jobs”, 52% that they bring down wages and 63% saw them as a burden on social services.
In the UK, 44% felt that stronger border controls should be used to halt illegal immigration (the highest figure of any country) as compared to 18% in favour of increased international aid. 70% of UK respondents are in favour of the immediate deportation of “illegal immigrants”.
On the theme that occupies the attention of groups such as the EDL, BFP and sister organisations in Europe: whilst 50% of US respondents took a positive view of the “integration” of Muslim immigrants, only 44% in the UK felt the same way. Figures for the rest of Europe are just as bleak, with only 41% of Italians, 29% of Spanish, 49% of French, and 37% of Germans taking a positive view.
In the “Integration and Belonging” section of their summary report, the authors of Transatlantic Trends note that “Europeans still considered Muslim immigrants to pose higher integration challenges than other immigrants, with only 40% of Europeans rating Muslim immigrants as integrating ‘well’ or ‘very well’”.
This compares to 50% of Americans who believed Muslim immigrants are integrating “well” or “very well”. In some countries, the UK and France, for example, there was little to no distinction between the perceived integration success of “immigrants” and “Muslim immigrants”.
These figures are important outside of other obvious factors affecting the European political scene — the general economic and more specific Eurozone crisis.
As Matthew Goodwin argues in the April 2011 issue of Political Insight (the magazine of the Political Studies Association), the rise of the European populist far-right pre-dated the emergence of the world wide economic crisis. He writes that:
“Radical right parties have become an established political force in several European states. Contrary to early predictions that they would quickly disappear in time, or that their fortunes were intimately tied to economic cycles, these parties have recruited loyal electorates and proven stubbornly persistent... they emerged well before the recent financial crisis and the events on 11 September 2001.
“Since at least the 1980s these parties have rallied support among some of the most affluent regions of Europe, and during periods of relative economic stability. Several have also outlived their charismatic leaders, who were often hailed in popular media as the main reason for their success.”
Goodwin also analyses the social base of far-right populist support. He notes that the most successful of the European far or radical-right parties succeed in winning votes from three key socio-economic groups. These were: the “economically insecure” middle classes, and the skilled, and unskilled working class. One characteristic of the rapidly dwindling BNP is that it failed to unite these groups, whilst the far-right populist Danish People’s Party polled 12% in national elections by winning working class support away from the Danish Social Democrats.
The Transatlantic Trends survey demonstrates that there is a significant layer of opinion within the UK that could be harnessed by an effective and organised far-right at the ballot box. If the EDL can bury or at least side-line their violent, confrontational image then the developments in Europe could be replicated here.
Key to this will be something previously noted in Solidarity: the social base of the EDL — that is, those who are mobilised on the streets and those who identify with its message — is composed mainly of young, unskilled workers. If the EDL can combine successfully with an organisation such as the BFP, they may have a chance of developing the sort of support base enjoyed by the European populist far-right.
The way in which the EDL is structured and the BFP’s roots in the fascist BNP imply an inbuilt instability at the heart of any political union. Whether or not the people behind the EDL and BFP succeed in forming a new organisation, the social conditions for it exist. Any such formation — based on the EDL/BFP or not — would be a considerable setback for the working class movement and the left.
The major factor that could catalyse the reorientation or foundation of a new far-right populist initiative is the political climate determined by the general economic and Eurozone crisis.
As Goodwin shows, the foundations of far-right populism across Europe pre-dated the events of 9/11 and the economic crash of 2008, but the interplay of broadly “cultural” and sharply changing economic conditions is obviously vital.
Apart from the failures of fascist organisations such as the BNP to successfully orientate themselves to win support across the middle and working classes — something that Marine Le Pen has started to achieve in France through a re-oriented Front National (FN) — the situation in Britain is complicated by the role of the Conservative Party in politics.
Since the late 1970s to early 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher brought issues of race, immigration and nationalism firmly into the political mainstream, the Conservative Party has been able to adapt itself to and absorb support that would otherwise go to far-right and fascist organisations.
In Contemporary British Fascism Nigel Copsey points out that “[u]nder the guise of the asylum-seeker issue, the ghost of Enoch Powell had returned to haunt mainstream political life. During the 1970s Powellism had opened up legitimate political space for the National Front, but when Margaret Thatcher had made a bid for the racist constituency in the late 1970s this space had been reoccupied by the Tories. Thereafter, the ‘race’ issue was removed from the arena… This was the case down to the spring of 2000 until the Conservative Party leader William Hague re-politicised the ‘race’ issue by turning asylum into a central plank of the Tories’ May local election platform.”
One example of where the Conservatives may be testing the political water was over the issue of the Falkland Islands. Earlier this year there was an edging escalation of rhetoric from both the British and Argentine governments, with reciprocal accusations of “colonialist” attitudes.
The fact that an American oil company has signed a billion dollar contract to explore oil fields in Falkland Island territorial waters no doubt escalated the mood, but the dispatching of both a British Royal and a large warship to the area fed the fires. It is generally accepted that the Falkland conflict of the early 1980s did the Thatcher government more good than harm — some would say it saved her from political ruin. Stirring the fires of nationalism now and testing the response would make some political sense for Cameron, especially as the storms gathering over the European economy edge closer towards the UK.
On the other hand the only “demonstrable” response came from the EDL, who burned an Argentine flag at their rally in Leicester on 4 February.
So at the same time as making efforts to accommodate and absorb far-right opinion, a Conservative government can act to feed and bolster organisations seeking to make their own independent political gains.
If the Tories under Cameron replicate some sort of “triangulation” in the hope of mobilising nationalist, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim feeling for electoral gain, would this automatically quash prospects for independent or at least independent minded far-right political action? Possibly, but reality is more complicated than moves on a chess-board.
Take the American Tea Party as an example. The Tea Party has an independent political existence, calling demonstrations, rallies, conferences, etc., under its own banner.
The Tea Party is not a homogeneous, uniform organisation: it is riddled with factions, competing personalities and priorities. There are far-right fringe elements within the organisation and many figures who are simply ultra-conservative Republicans.
When it comes to the electoral process, Tea Party activists focus on using the structures of the Republican Party rather than independent political action. As Mike Davis points out “[t]he far right takeover of the Republican Party in the United States provides… [the European far right] … with an inspiring template” (New Left Review, November/December 2011).
It is therefore conceivable that something akin to the Tea Party could emerge as an adjunct to a traditional party political organisation such as the Conservatives.
The state of the European left — from social democratic parties to the revolutionary left — is almost uniformly abysmal. In such conditions, it is the far-right and specifically far-right populist parties that look set to gain the most from any fragmentation or disintegration of the Eurozone.
Groups such as the EDL/BFP in Britain, Marine Le Pen’s reformed FN in France, and Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party in the Netherlands promote a nationalist identity politics and have convenient scapegoats to hand (i.e., Muslims). They have structures, an existing base of support, and a massive reserve of potential support that could be tipped in their direction by tumultuous political events.
The blades of nationalism are already being sharpened across Europe, from Athens through Rome to Paris, as the fall-out from the economic crisis comes to a head.
In a historical context, fascism is the final barbaric option open to a ruling national, capitalist class left floundering by sharp economic, political and social crises and threatened by a combative, militant working class. Faced with the prospect of losing their hold on society, the vestiges and gains of liberal bourgeois democracy are closed off. To protect private capital, all freedoms are curtailed — even those freedoms enjoyed by sections of the capitalist class themselves — and, fundamentally, the labour movement is crushed.
It is this “version” of fascism that was carried through by Mussolini in Italy, Hitler in Germany, and Franco in Spain during the 1920s and 30s.
Had the Bolshevik revolution failed, then something akin to fascism would have emerged to decisively crush the Russian working class.
It is this form of “fascism” to which groups such as the National Front and, later, the leadership of the BNP looked for inspiration. Their aim was to create an organisation capable of combining political action with street activism — that is, thuggery — in order to create a fascist state. Nationalism, a specific concern with race and a vision of “race war”, were and are central planks of their propaganda, agitation and organisation.
The political outlook and intentions of fascist groups are “counter-revolutionary” in the sense that they understand their final victory to be based on the crushing of any and all prospects for working class rule.
The same is not true for the new far-right populists of Europe. Their current aim is to wield political influence within the mainstream to deal with specific cultural and national questions. They are reactionary to the core, often economically conservative and hostile to trade unionism, but not fascist in the way we have described… not yet, at least.
The far-right populists and the movements they are building or attempting to build represent the base from which a new fascist movement could emerge. Developments in Hungary, Greece and elsewhere in Europe will be a test for how rapidly such a transformation can take place.