(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.

Immigration and the Resurgence of the Far Right

With the recent upsurge in support for the far right across Europe, the issue of race and immigration is more on the political agenda than it has been for a while. There has been a debate about whether the best way to beat the fascists is to engage with them or ignore them, and many have argued that although extremists should not be given credibility, it is right to address the issues. The idea is that in order to stop such reviled parties as France's Front National and the UK's British National Party monopolising the votes of those for whom immigration is an important issue, the issue needs to be discussed rationally.

Unfortunately, the mainstream politicians (I will talk about the British ones) aren't the good guys at all, and instead of giving the facts, which is that in Britain immigration has had a positive economic effect, they are using the language of the far-right. The consequence is that instead of getting the disillusioned voters who cast their votes for the neo-fascists back into mainstream politics, they are simply making the climate a friendlier one for the BNP. At the same time violent attacks against asylum seekers and ethnic minorities are being encouraged; statistics show an increase in such attacks every time a politician makes a speech about race or asylum1.

The preoccupation with asylum seekers has demonised refugees and delegitimised immigration as something good for the country (as is the American ethic). The Conservatives have for a while been harping on about 'bogus asylum seekers', in spite of a brief respite when they signed a pledge not to 'play the race card' for the duration of the general election campaign. It is widely believed that the Conservatives lost the election under William Hague because of a preoccupation with Europe and the single currency, and with the issue of asylum, while they failed to seriously challenge Labour on education and health. However the Labour Party's tone on race and immigration has been no better. Consistently they have tried to compete with the Tories over how harsh they can be, first dispersing asylum seekers to poverty stricken council estates where they would certainly be resented by the local population2, and when that didn't work, suggesting they be put in camps. David Blunkett was heavily criticised after saying schools were being "swamped" by the children of asylum seekers3. The chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality didn't approve of the words, which came just a few days after the first round election success in France of Jean-Marie Le Pen.

Political leaders need to provide leadership. There are certain words which are pretty emotive. The word 'swamped' is hugely emotive. I don't think the use of emotive language actually helps us develop a society where all of us have a sense of belonging.
Blunkett showed a distinct lack of regret, saying "I'm afraid I do not apologise". Peter Hain, the Europe minister and one of the founders of the Anti-Nazi League back in his radical days, complained of certain European countries being a "soft touch".

Meanwhile the government has largely tried to hide its other face, the one that wants economic migrants to help deal with the shortage of nurses in the health service, and the lack of skills in the IT sector. The Guardian cites statistics from the government's Cabinet Office:

The UK's foreign-born population pay 10% more to the state than they get back in benefits and services - equivalent to £2.6bn a year net. They push up the rate of economic growth by a finite but hard-to-calculate amount and, among other things, ensure we get treated when we are ill. Nearly a third of UK doctors and 13% of nurses are non-UK born; half the extra NHS staff employed over the past decade qualified abroad.4

This is why Home Office minister Barbara Roche is keen to encourage economic migration - "We are in competition for the brightest and best talents. The market for skilled labour is a global market and not necessarily a buyers' market" she said5. But to paraphrase a comment made by comedian Jeremy Hardy – why does the government treat immigrants like goods and then get surprised when they arrive by sea in boxes?

The way to beat the far right is not to try and steal their ground, it is necessary to win the argument. If they are genuinely progressive, the social democratic politicians who have until now had a strong hold over Europe need to challenge racism, not create a climate where the neo-fascist parties who secretly espouse a love of Hitler6 are able to thrive.

1 - http://www.obv.org.uk/reports/2000/vict.html - 'Victims - because their faces don't fit politicians' rhetoric' - The Independent 14/05/2000

http://www.guardian.co.uk/Archive/Article/0,4273,4173861,00.html – 'Labour failing to meet pledges on race' - The Guardian 22/04/2001

2 - http://society.guardian.co.uk/asylumseekers/story/0,7991,533308,00.html – 'A tragedy waiting to happen, say critics of dispersal system' - The Guardian 7/8/2001

3 - http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/uk_politics/newsid_1949000/1949863.stm - 'Blunkett stands by "swamping" remark' - BBC News Online 24/04/2002

http://society.guardian.co.uk/asylumseekers/story/0,7991,690338,00.html - 'Blunkett stands by use of "swamping"' – The Guardian 25/04/2002

4 - http://society.guardian.co.uk/asylumseekers/story/0,7991,430329,00.html – 'Statistics show immigration beneficial to economy' - The Guardian 29/01/2001

5 - http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/uk_politics/newsid_920000/920182.stm - 'Call for immigration rethink' - BBC News Online 12/09/2000

6 - http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/allnews/page.cfm?objectid=11813849&method=full - 'Daily Mirror Infiltrates the Racist BNP' - Daily Mirror 24/04/2002

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.