‘Reprehensible, prejudiced and divisive‘ were the words Hillary Clinton used to describe Donald Trump’s speech earlier this week. Others such as the former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley went further denounced him as a ‘fascist demagogue‘. Trump’s speech had the hallmarks, not of a potential Presidential candidate, but of a far-right nationalist party leader of a bygone era. Social media has helpfully pointed this out with comparative profiling between Adolf Hitler and Trump, just incase we hadn’t realised that what Trump was saying wasn’t OK. The problem is is that his comments don’t just reflect those made by fascist leaders in 1920s and 30s Europe, they are shared and promoted by many groups in Europe today.
The far-right is once again on the rise in Europe, born out of another great economic depression and buoyed by the same fear of the outsider that fuelled fascism nearly 100 years ago. This trend is not only confined to economically precarious states either, with France’s moderate parties being squeezed by a revitalised ‘Front national’.
Although the reaction to attacks in Paris may have helped propel the ‘Front national’ into a dominant position after the first round of the French regional elections, their growth in popularity has not occurred overnight. Since Marine Le Pen has succeeded her father, Jean-Marie, FN have enjoyed a period of electoral success. In the 2012 Presidential election, Le Pen came third after the first round, achieving 17.9% of the vote, the highest in the Party’s history. Since then they have gained hundreds of Councillors, a dozen mayoralties and, perhaps most significantly of all, won last years European Parliament election with 4,712,461 votes, a 24.86% share, with 24 out of 74 seats on offer. There is scepticism over whether these electoral successes can be translated into victory in 2017 due to the nature of the first/second round system but Nicolas Sarkozy is only marginally ahead of Le Pen in the polls with François Hollande struggling in third. The alarm and panic, including pleas for tactical voting, is telling.
Across Europe there is a similar trend. In Greece, ‘Golden Dawn’ hold 18 Hellenic Parliament seats, with 3 in the European Parliament. ‘The Freedom Party of Austria’, the ‘Congress of the New Right’ in Poland, the ‘Party for Freedom’ in the Netherlands and ‘Jobbik’ in Hungary are just some of the far-right nationalist groups who have gained a foothold in the European Parliament and their national parliaments.
Some of these groups, like the Golden Dawn, make little effort to hide their neo-Nazi credentials (their flag is a not-so-subtle giveaway). Others like the FN have undertaken a rebranding process and it is arguably these groups which we should be most afraid of. As puts it John Lichfield puts it ‘We should be scared of Ms Le Pen because she has repackaged some of the most destructive and sweetly persuasive ideas of both the hard right and the hard left – xenophobia, protectionism, authoritarianism – into a single, seemingly modern programme for government.’.
And what of Britain? UKIP is probably the closest thing we have to a mainstream right wing political party in this country but the Oldham West and Royton by-election indicates that their influence may be fading. Sure enough, they performed strongly in the local and European Elections in 2014, but failed to convert a core vote into seats in the General Election this summer. Douglas Carswell, a Conservative defector, remains their only Member of Parliament. Post 1945, The British National Party is the only far-right group with any claim to any sort of electoral success, gaining local Council and European Parliament seats in 2009 before rapidly losing support.
Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists (BUF) is considered the closest this country has come to electing a far-right Party. It gained significant support from Lord Rothermere’s influential newspapers with the ‘Daily Mail’ and the ‘Daily Mirror’ providing headline such as ‘Hurrah for the Blackshirts’ and ‘Give the Blackshirts a Helping Hand’. Combined with Mosley’s skills as a demagogue, membership quickly swelled to 40,000 and, given events in Germany, Italy and Spain, Mosley and his fascist ‘blackshirts’, fleetingly, looked like a serious electoral proposition.
In the end, the BUF’s popularity eroded as rapidly as it had grown. Increasingly violent BUF rallies, culminating in the Battle of Cable Street, as well as a growing unease towards Nazi Germany, persuaded Rothermere to withdraw his support. Mosley was interned in 1940 and the BUF was proscribed. They never stood in a General Election.
The far-right have never gained a significant foothold in British politics; some believe it is because of our inherent British-ness’, ironically the thing that nationalist groups pander to, that would resists people like Mosley and their ideology.
However, this is not the time to be complacent. Just because the far-right have not gained electoral significance, does not mean that their views and beliefs are dismissed in all corners. The ‘go home’ van pilot scheme gives an indication that underlying prejudices in mainstream politics still exists. More recently, police figures have shown that, following the attacks in Paris, the targeting of London Muslims has tripled. Indeed, hate crime increased by 18 per cent in 2014/2015, with 52,528 recorded instances. Of these, 82% were race related.
As much as we would wish it otherwise, Donald Trump and his hate is not exclusive to a group within the Republican Party. Xenophobia and racism is no longer confined to the outskirts of society having been legitimised by being elected into political institutions across Europe. And just because there is little sign of the far-right imminently forming a government in this country, it doesn’t mean that we should underestimate the divisive impact it’s having in our society today.
We often use history to say ‘it will never happen again’, but it already is. With the challenges facing Europe over the coming years, the conditions are there for far-right extremism to continue to grow unless we offer a workable, believable, progressive alternative. We must not be complacent to think that just because we’ve seen it before, it doesn’t mean that it cannot happen again.