Europe Tilts Rightward

Who's Afraid of the Far Right?

Le Pen
Le Pen Sportif: Jean-Marie Le Pen looks ridiculous, Sept. 30, 1985 (Photo: AFP).  

It is hard to say which is more pathetic: the notion that the British National Party (BNP) winning three council seats in Burnley, Lancashire, marks a breakthrough for fascism, or the claim that the failure of the far-right BNP to win seats elsewhere represents an important victory for democracy.

“Nazis are crushed,” screamed the headline on the first edition of the Daily Express on May 3, 2002. It wasn’t one of those historical reprints of a newspaper from 1945, but an excited front-page report that English voters—under the guidance of the Express—had stopped “the return of evil fascism” to local councils in Sunderland and Oldham. (The paper did not say exactly when evil fascism had previously ruled these northern English towns.)

Within hours, however, a different mood had emerged elsewhere in the media, as it became clear that the BNP had won two council seats in Burnley and was on its way to getting a third. “Alarm bells at BNP wins,” reported BBC News; “BNP breakthrough stokes racism fears,” said The Guardian’s Web site.

There has been much frightened talk of fascism marching back across Europe, and many have sought to make comparisons with the 1930s. “Hitler—1933; Le Pen—jamais [never]” declared French May Day protesters.

In Britain, news that the BNP was standing 68 candidates in this week’s local elections prompted panicky discussion of a possible knock-on from the “Le Pen effect” in France.This debate reveals far more about the weakness and insecurity of the political center than any strength of the far right.

During the 1920s and ’30s, fascism rose to power in a Europe convulsed by world war and civil war, revolution, and counterrevolution, general strikes, and mass street battles between right and left.

Hitler’s Nazis in Germany and Mussolini’s fascists in Italy emerged as mass movements in society before success at the polls. The contrast could hardly be greater with today’s lifeless political scene, where there are no mass political movements of any color, and the likes of Le Pen can “stun” pollsters by winning 16 percent of the votes in a historically low turnout.

Indeed, as Josie Appleton has argued on spiked, the way that Le Pen won through to the second round of the presidential election (on May 5, 2002) does not qualify as a breakthrough at all. The National Front leader won more or less the same number of votes as in the previous two presidential elections; the difference this time was that the mainstream parties’ vote crumbled.

As for the BNP, its share of the vote in the seats it contested in England (standing at around 18 percent, according to results through the morning of May 3, 2002) looks impressive for a party that does not really exist as a political organization; it is effectively a one-man band sustained by media hysteria.

But in real terms, getting three council seats by winning a few hundred votes and finishing second or third in Burnley wards is hardly historic. What is most significant is not these far-right parties themselves, but the way they seem able to traumatize the political establishment.

When the ruling and major opposition parties of Europe look at the votes won by Le Pen or the BNP, they see a stark reflection of their own isolation and lack of authority. Who are these people, they ask in consternation, that they could even think of voting for such “Nazis?”

Politicians and many in the media have tried to use the far-right bogey to rally support. Focusing on “the threat of fascism” has allowed those whose public standing has plummeted to adopt a tone of moral superiority, posturing as the champions of “decency.” Even such a sleaze-ridden character as French President Chirac has been able to strike high-minded postures as the symbol of French democracy against Le Pen.

In Britain, the Labor, Tory, and Liberal Democrat parties all issued calls for disenchanted voters to turn out this week and help stop the BNP.

The result was that the turnout was up in some areas where the BNP stood; in Burnley, turnout was a high 63 percent. But to the further amazement of the politicians, a number of these voters—27 percent in the Oldham wards—actually did the opposite of what they were told, and turned out to vote for the BNP.

Most of those who voted BNP will have done so, not because they are hard-core racists any more than Labor voters in the same wards, but as a way of giving two fingers to the political class.

As Brendan O’Neill has argued on spiked, insofar as race was a factor in the local elections this was more a result of the politicization of race through mainstream multicultural policies than of the antics of the BNP.

The reaction to these results has revealed the ambivalence that our ruling elite feels toward democracy today. Worried about the way that recent poor turnouts reflect their own loss of legitimacy, politicians have pleaded with voters to take part in the democratic process.

Initially, there was much excitement that the local turnout had gone up slightly (to around 35 percent) since the 2000 local elections. But when people vote in ways that displease the elite, our leaders are not so keen on the democratic process.

In France and Britain, the political class has come together to call on voters to defend democracy against the far right. Yet they have done so by extinguishing real democracy, setting aside all political debate between the parties on key issues, and uniting against Le Pen or the BNP.

Democracy is thus reduced to a demand that we cast our vote against Evil, like children told to boo whenever the pantomime villain comes on stage.

And if they can encourage us to do so by postal vote in the safety of our homes, so that democratic participation becomes as passive as paying the gas bill, then that will be all the better for them.