Fascism became a little bit discredited after the whole holocaust thing. Britain’s fascist movement had never got off to a great start, but after the second world war, Oswald Moseley’s attempt to come back (with blacks rather than Jews as a new, improved scapegoat), was never likely to succeed.
But the far-right has had a long time to evolve since the 1940s. It has regularly reappeared in new configurations. Most people tend to associate fascism with street thuggery, but these gangs are only the most visible part of the far-right (and the section most likely to cause panic among the middle classes). Hitler came to power with the support of the conservative middle classes, and corporate finance. If fascism is ever to be respectable again, its core constituency won’t consist of angry young white working class men, but the conservative middle classes.
Real British fascism is corporate power cloaked in ultra-conservative values designed to lure the most middle of middle Englanders. It attracts those who don’t think too much about politics, but when they do, they think society has changed too much, too quickly. They yearn for the Britain that their parents told them about when they were growing up; a largely mythical Christian Britain; where naughty youngsters were given a clip round the ear by the local bobby; where gays didn’t exist; and of course, where everyone spoke English, and everybody was white.
A real fascist party has two layers of policies: one set designed to recruit votes from the bigoted, social conservative, and another designed to raise finance from wealthy individuals and companies. The British National Party (BNP) looked, for a while, like it may be the first “respectable” fascist party in the UK. In 1993, it caused shock by winning the first ever far-right council seat, in East London. For over a decade, it looked like a genuine threat, but it has faded in recent years, and few people think of it as a mainstream party.
The English Defence League (EDL) attempted to fill the far-right vacuum, but it manifested as a working class street movement, so alienated middle class conservatives, and could never be taken seriously by corporate backers. Now, the vacuum has instead been filled by the UK Independence Party (UKIP) – and this time, for the first time since Mosley, far-right politics seem to have found a place in the mainstream.
Many low-information voters (to borrow an American term for morons) get a thrill from UKIP’s populist positions: leaving the European Union (because it costs money, doesn’t it?), cutting immigration (because we’re “full”, right?) and attacking benefits (lazy scroungers…) are all designed to appeal to the Daily Mail’s core, nasty, constituency of people who worry that somehow, somewhere, someone is having a better life than they are.
The problem for any fascist organisation trying to present itself as mainstream is that it becomes increasingly hard to keep candidates “on message”. UKIP has attracted fascists to its membership, and this is reflected in a number of extreme outbursts from its candidates. Their anti-immigrant line has somehow morphed to include attacks on British Muslims – to the extent that the EDL are backing UKIP in elections, and are clearly pitching to become their thuggish wing, just as the SA “Brownshirts” became the street enforcers for the Nazi party.
I recently played a game of “fascist bingo” on Twitter when I was encouraged to see if candidates ticked all the standard far-right boxes. Anti-immigration (standard fare to attract racists-who-aren’t-racist)? Check! Muslim-baiting? Check! Gays? The party is opposed to gay marriage (it’s hard to see what that has to do with opposing the European Union) and on cue, UKIP candidate John Sullivan was recently caught applauding Russian attacks on gay rights, and calling for more physical exercise in schools as a cure for gayness. Check!
To win a fascist bingo game though, we need evidence of hatred for Jews and the disabled. On cue, here comes UKIP candidate Anne-Marie Crampton with an anti-Semitic outburst that any Nazi would be proud of, raking up the anti-Semitic hoax “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, and blaming Zionists for the second world war and the Holocaust (rather than those poor, misunderstood, European Christians who tend to get blamed for it). Check! And the disabled? Google came to my aid and found me Geoffrey Clark, who called for compulsory abortions of disabled foetuses. HOUSE!
UKIP’s leader Nigel Farage has succeeded in presenting far-right politics as palatable, to a greater extent than anyone since the second world war. He has attracted support from the racist right of the Tory party – those people who see David Cameron as a dangerous leftie. UKIP reaped a protest vote in last week’s local elections, largely from people who had little idea what they actually stood for. What is lacking from British politics is an active opposition to fascist ideologies; Labour’s capitulation by “accepting the immigration problem” leaves a landscape devoid of an anti-fascist force, and plays into the hands of the far-right.
With the BNP and EDL approaching the status of “laughing-stock”, UKIP are the ones to watch; their strong showing in the elections may be a flash in the pan, but they have cleverly divided the Conservative Party, and if the Tories panic, they may shift rightwards. In the long-term, that way lies irrelevancy, as demonstrated by the US Republicans, who embraced a racist electoral strategy in a nation where racism was in slow decline.
Put in perspective, the local election results demonstrated that a quarter of voters in the most conservative parts of the country will respond to a bigoted, populist message. The whitest parts of the nation are the most afraid of immigration. That’s not so surprising, though it is disappointing. The UKIP result gives little reason to panic, but it’s a reminder that “British tolerance” is not a given. Tolerance had to be fought for and won, but no battle ever stays won; victories need to be defended. Now which political party will take a stand against the rise of fascist values?