John Humphrys: Should We Fear the Rise of the Radical Right in Europe?

June 14, 2024, 11:56 AM GMT+0

Well… what an election that turned out to be. It was pretty frightening for many observers that right wing candidates did so well. Some say the very lifeblood of democracy may be at threat. I refer, of course, not to our own political jamboree but the outcome of European Parliamentary elections across the continent. Populist parties of the radical right swept all before them. Or almost all.

So dismayed was President Macron by what happened in France that he announced he was dissolving the French parliament in the expectation that his own liberal party would cling onto power. Some say he is taking a massive gamble and faces not only the possibility of a parliament of the far right emerging but even eventually losing control of the Elysee to the radical right.

But, you may ask, what has this got to do with our own general election? On the face of it very little. After all, we no longer send representatives to the European Parliament for the very good reason that we are no longer members of the EU. And anyway, the idea of the far right taking power in this country is precisely the opposite of what everyone expects to happen in less than two weeks. That ‘everyone’, as we now know, includes some of the most senior figures in the Conservative Party from the defence secretary Grant Shapps down. They are effectively telling their own potential supporters that they should vote for them not because they expect them to form the next government, but to deny a Labour government a massive majority.

Whatever the size of its majority, a Labour government would have to do business with many countries that have taken a sharp turn to the right. That worries those for whom the fear of fascism is still real so many years after the downfall of Hitler. One of them is Daniel Finkelstein, the biographer of David Cameron and columnist for the Times.

His late grandfather, Dr Alfred Weiner, was one of those brave men who tried to warn the executive committee of Germany’s leading Jewish communal body in 1928 that support for Hitler’s National Socialist Party was growing in certain areas and should be taken seriously. The committee refused to accept that. Here is what Finkelstein writes almost a century later: ‘Is it unreasonable of me to study the results of last week’s European parliamentary elections and feel my skin prickle slightly? Feel dismay and foreboding? Do I deserve the sharp rebuff my grandfather once received?’

Finkelstein accepts that there are any number of reasons why he might be advised to keep calm. The most important, he writes, ‘is that the populist parties that enjoyed success last week have taken trouble to deny any fascist sympathies. They are better described as parties of the radical right. It is also true that in many parts of Europe the centre held.’

And yet, he says, he does not find these attempts at reassurance entirely persuasive: ‘It is true that not everywhere in Germany, let alone everywhere in Europe, turned to the radical right last week. But this was the case in 1928 as well. Reactionaries now, as then, have established more than a foothold. They have become an established political force. How can this not be worrying?’

As he says, the radical right has already formed governments in Poland and Hungary, risen to power in Italy and topped the polls in the Netherlands. Now it is challenging to do the same in France. So Finkelstein believes that those who say the election results last week were ‘mixed’ are being complacent. It is also complacent, he says, to regard the radical right as nothing much to worry about: ‘I always worry about movements that claim to be the voice of the people and to embody its spirit. They claim this spirit is being suppressed by a manipulative elite. They develop conspiracy theories about its power. And they offer themselves up as the only true interpreters of the national will, the one force that will cleanse the nation.

‘To do this they must remove from power, or even from the country, all those whose values they deem at variance with those of the true nation: immigrants, liberals, minority ethnic groups, politicians, lawyers, people who live in big cities, people who drink lattes, people who teach in universities, people who have university degrees.

‘My mother and father were both victims of this thinking. The Nazis rounded up all the Jews, some of whom were shopkeepers. The Soviets rounded up all the shopkeepers, some of whom were Jews. Mum and Dad were both arrested, members of the elite at only ten years old. I don’t think it is unreasonable to start worrying about the radical right (or the radical left) before it reaches the rounding-up stage.’

So the question that perhaps we should all be sharing his worries. Should we be worrying about the rise of the radical right in the context of our own politics? And if we should, what approach should our political leaders be taking?

Clearly it would be foolish to make any direct comparisons between what is happening here and what is happening in continental countries such as Hungary. But the respected Hungarian academic Gabor Scheiring, a fellow of Harvard and a member of the Hungarian Parliament for four years, warns against complacency.

He writes: ‘Authoritarian populists tilt the democratic playing field to favour themselves and their personal and political interests. Subverting democracy from the inside without violent repression allows leaders like Orbán and Trump to pretend they are democratic. This authoritarianism from within creates chokepoints, where the opposition isn’t crushed, but it has a hard time breathing.’

How, he asks, can strongmen get away with these antidemocratic politics? His answer: ‘If there is one lesson from Hungary, it is this: Democracy is not sustainable in a divided society where many are left behind economically.’

Scheiring believes that ‘authoritarian populists’ bring together two types of supporters. Some are right-wing, hardcore authoritarians ‘motivated by bigotry and hatred rooted in their fear of globalisation’s cultural threats.’ But he says the most successful populist leaders target primarily working class voters who are hurt by the economic threats of globalisation.

He argues that in the last century Democrats in the U.S. and left-of-centre parties in Europe provided a political home for working class people who had been struggling to cope financially. But when the economy fails to deliver there is a disillusionment with the system that ‘morphs into an apathy toward liberal democracy.’ If the liberal centre appears to be uncaring, he says, authoritarian populists can mobilise voters against them.

He believes there are broadly two approaches we might take. The first is to identify the grievances that animate voters for radical-right parties and attempt to address them. The hope is that these voters can be accommodated within the mainstream. The alternative is to confront these grievances and define the mainstream against them.

Stephen Glover of the right-wing Daily Mail does not ‘rejoice that the hard-Right is on the march in Europe’ and sees it as a ‘cancer that has been growing and spreading for years, so that in one month’s time there could be a hard-Right government in France.’ But he says he is glad that it is still only on the fringes in Britain.

He writes: ‘Nigel Farage can’t be equated with Marine Le Pen in France, or even the slightly more moderate Giorgia Meloni in Italy. We aren’t about to catch Europe’s disease. The worst we have to fear is the stolid, rather boring, democratic socialist, Sir Keir Starmer.’ And that, he says, is because our political institutions have deep roots. We are also not ‘cursed with proportional representation’ which, he believes, inevitably gives a bigger voice to radical parties of Left and Right: ‘An unlikely alliance of Farage, the Lib Dems and the Green Party wants to get rid of first-past-the-post, the very system that offers protection against extremists.’

But he believes there is something deeper that should give us some comfort in the face of the hard Right. It is ‘a tolerance and sense of fairness, remarked upon by Orwell, that distinguishes the British from other races. Many people are furious about uncontrolled immigration, and understandably so, but they haven’t turned to the hard-Right. Let’s pray they never do. Our rainy little island that supposedly owes everything to Europe turns out to be more stable, more grounded in its democratic ways, than most of the countries the other side of the Channel.’

That is broadly the view expressed by Danny Finkelstein but he ends his column with this sobering thought: ‘What happened to my mum and dad won’t happen to me. It won’t happen to my children. But could it? Yes.’

So how did you react to the result of the European elections and the march of the hard Right? With joy or despair or, perhaps, something in between? Or perhaps it simply passed you by. And by the time you cast your vote for our new government very soon how much thought will you have given to where our nation should stand on the left/right axis?

Let us know.

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