(This is an article I wrote today for a magazine, so please don't downvote it for being cut'n'pasted. Just thought it might be of interest. It's written from a UK perspective.)
What have Elvis Presley, Diana, Princess Of Wales, and Pim Fortuyn got in common? Well, it isn’t a hamburger obsession if that was your first thought; nor is it that they all married princes, or that they were all bald and anti-immigration. Time’s up: the correct answer is that each of them saw (or, rather, didn’t see) their popularity soar after their sudden and tragic death. Two of these cases are essentially inconsequential: the third is rather terrifying. Fortuyn’s death was a tragedy not just on a personal level but also for all of his country: because, as much as his murder was appalling, Fortuyn was a deeply unattractive and bigoted man.
The psychotic actions of one man have created a martyr and given the Dutch far right wing an idol to worship. Such an event will inevitably be, in one cynical sense, a huge boost for the deceased politician’s eponymous party, List Pim Fortuyn (LPF): a romantic murdered hero can render a cause infinitely more attractive to the average voter than it might otherwise be. At the time of writing, it’s looking very likely that LPF will be asked to form part of a coalition government in the European nation most famed for liberality of spirit, Holland.
This isn’t a one-off. There’s a school of thought which suggests that it’s irresponsible to give any attention to such events: after all, the BNP in the UK won only two seats, but made the front pages the next day despite only attracting the support of an extremely small number of people. But look around Europe. Look at Austria’s dominant Freedom party, whose erstwhile leader Jorg Haider attended an SS veterans’ reunion where he praised their ‘character’. Look at Norway, where the ‘Progress Party’ won 26 of 165 seats in the last elections. Look at Denmark, where the ultranationalist DPP enjoy more support than the Liberal Democrats do here. Look at France, where an election in which Le Pen won more than one in six votes despite a unified campaign against him from the mainstream political parties was treated as a triumph for the victor Chirac. Look, above all, at Holland. This is real, and it isn’t just going to go away.
Perhaps it isn’t a surprising trend. After all, most European countries have been in the hands of centre-left governments for years now, and the Third Way has never been particularly popular amongst those who have natural leanings to the right. There will always be a backlash if any one political group controls government for much longer than a couple of years: look at the 1997 election in the UK. The grass is always greener on the other side.
That isn’t the whole answer, though. If what had happened was simply a shift back to moderate right-wing parties, one could explain it thus: but the fact is that this is something much more notable and much more radical. Le Pen was a serious competitor against Jacques Chirac, a member of the right himself, a fact which surely belies the theory that this is simply a self-correcting swing which will soon even itself out. Things are made more complicated by the blurring of the political boundaries between left and right. This is particularly true of Fortuyn, who was something of a political enigma: not many people share both his liberal stance on most social issues (Fortuyn was gay himself, something which must have stuck in the throat of many of those who one might have expected to be his supporters) with a desire to remove constitutional barriers to discrimination and an end to all immigration. This is not the traditional right-wing mode at all: it is something much more complicated.
It has its roots, perhaps, in the large numbers of people who feel disenfranchised by mainstream politics. To take a British example – I’m not exactly an expert on Dutch demographics - both the Old Labour union member who is angry at immigrants taking British jobs and the British Nationalist Tory who doesn’t want to see our fine nation watered down by Jonny Foreigner may feel that they don’t have anyone to vote for any more. Ironically, of course, this is partly a by-product of what seems to me a singularly good thing: there are fewer and fewer political issues nowadays. Most people agree about most things, and there is less difference between the mainstream parties on most points than ever. But this kind of consensus will inevitably outrage the extreme wings at either end of the acceptable political spectrum, and push them towards those who hold even more extreme views than their own. As the centre merges, the edges polarise: as most people become more tolerant, a minority become more vociferously angry than ever before.
September 11th has played a part in all this, too. In the past anti-Islamic feeling was socially unacceptable, but the whole ‘Axis of Evil’ thing has given extremists a mainstream peg to hang their collective hat on. That’s not to blame Dubya; rather, to suggest that times of war (even remote wars with no chance of spilling over into your backyard) inevitably give racists a chance to pretend that their point has been proven because of the inevitable tendency towards nationalism or ‘westernism’ in such a context. The distinction between Islamic nations which harbour terrorists and Islam itself is rather too subtle for the extreme right.
So, how to combat this? Many blame the failure of mainstream parties to address issues like immigration; but immigration has been the political hot potato of the last three years. The implication behind this point of view is that the mainstream should move closer to the extremists to neuter their appeal. The argument that parties like the BNP in the UK use themselves is that they are not extreme right, but that the rest of politics is moving to the left. If our governments were to listen to ‘the voice of the people’ there would be no need for the BNP and their like to exist.
To accept such an assertion and head back towards the rivers of blood is the utmost folly. European politicians have two options available to them now. The first is to pander to such opinion, and, in the act of rendering the far right impotent, to render themselves morally bankrupt and achieve the goals of the likes of Le Pen by more direct means. The second is harder work, but infinitely preferable. They can vigorously prosecute a case against the far right, exposing the massive logical and compassionate holes in much of their empty rhetoric, and they can trust that, in the end, the still relatively small number of people who have fallen for the easy answers peddled by the extremists will return to the fold. In short, they can try and win the argument, and they can have faith that, ultimately, because they are right, they will prevail.