This part 1 of a 5 part series.
How do you feel…?
- When Nigel Farage talks about ‘picking up a rifle’ if Brexit is not delivered, do you cheer along with his audience?
- When the Queen is on the telly, do you feel a surge of emotion, of patriotic pride?
- When you see stories about drug users, do you fear we have lost our moral compass? Do you call them ‘druggies’ and ‘junkies’?
- Do you feel pride when you see the flag of the cross of St George in any context other than football, sports events or the village fete?
- Do you agree that it is “Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori – it is sweet and honourable to die for one’s country?”
- Do you get emotional about national stories such as ‘Trafalgar’, ‘Waterloo’, ‘Standing Alone’, the ‘White Cliffs of Dover’?
- Do you think the British Empire was a good thing and that the colonies were better off under British Rule?
- Winston Churchill was the greatest living Briton who almost single handily defeated the Nazis?
- Do you perhaps secretly agree that “There ain’t no black in the Union Jack”.
- Do you agree that Britain is a ‘Christian country’?
Brexit, Riots and the drift towards authoritarianism.
Following the defeat in the Commons of May’s deal in January 2019, and throughout calls for a ‘people’s vote’ – a second referendum – on EU membership, there have been warnings of riots in the streets. These warnings have come from Theresa May herself:
“There has not yet been enough recognition of the way that a second referendum could damage social cohesion by undermining faith in our democracy”.
‘Damaging social cohesion’ is code for ‘riot’.
Sky News, in what might be a deliberate provocation, quoted a woman in Burnley saying if Brexit does not happen:
“Oh, there’ll be mass riots. There’ll be hysteria. There could even be a civil war. The country has used its voice and if the Government ignores what the people have said then there is going to be a civil war. There is going to be.”
The head of Amazon UK in July 2018, Douglass Gurr, warned that a no deal Brexit could prompt ‘civil unrest’, while in September 2018 Police Chiefs stated that they were preparing plans to quell disorder after a no-deal Brexit.
No Brexit = riots.
No Deal = civil unrest.
The first is an issue about the thwarted ambition of a minority of hard-right nationalists, the second might arise out of actual events. I think there is a difference between them, and that difference is nationalism or ‘proto-fascism’, the latter being ideologies and cultural movements that influence and form the basis for fascism itself.
Most British people will rightly recoil with horror at fascism and its association with Nazism. They may also think that this is extremism, and will be tempted to dismiss it as ‘Un-British’. Fascism itself might be ‘Un-British’ but proto-fascist strains of culture exist and in the hearts of some patriotic conservatives, who may vote Labour as well as Tory, could lead toward authoritarianism if not full flown fascism.
Oswald Mosley – A very British Fascist.
Fracturing Societies giving rise to Proto-Fascism?
Rowland Atkinson and Don Mitchell in ‘Fracturing Societies‘ paint a rather bleak picture:
“The world feels like it is falling apart, and maybe it really is. Maybe the weight of human misery, the collapse of civil societies, ethnonational tensions and divisions, political exits and polarization and the accelerating ecological crisis, maybe all of this make things different this time” .
Wolfgang Streeck (2016) echoing Antonio Gramsci, suggests the context is actually a ‘post-capitalist interregnum’ in which the old system is dying but a new social order cannot yet be born. Streeck calls the current order one of multi-morbidity, climate change being one of many frailties as we head towards social entropy, radical uncertainty and indeterminacy. Streeck argues that the current context is anchored in a variety of interconnected developments:
- Intensification of distributional (capital v labour) conflict due to declining growth.
- Rising social inequality.
- Vanishing macroeconomic manageability.
- Steadily increasing indebtedness (private and sovereign).
- Pumped up money supply (from quantitative easing).
- Possibility of another financial crisis as per 2008.
- The suspension of democracy.
- The slowdown of social progress.
- Rising Oligarchy and Plutocracy.
- Governments’ inability to limit the commodification of labour, money or nature.
- The omnipresence of corruption.
- Intensified competition in a ‘winner takes all’ markets.
- Unlimited opportunities for self-enrichment (for the 1%).
- Erosion of public goods and infrastructure.
- The failure of the US to establish a stable global order.
- Public cynicism towards economics and politics.
- Rising populist nationalism and the spectre of fascism, and isolationism in the US.
- Fracturing political blocs and alliances.
- Erosion of Democratic legitimacy and thus a democratic deficit.
Graham Scambler characterises the fractured society as:
1. Facing Environmental Threats – notably the climate crisis
2. A nomadic proletariat – a fluid, geographically dynamic working class
3. Inequality – of wealth, income and of health
4. Class and Precarity
5. Postnational ‘othering’ – the constant denigration of migrants
6. Gender dissolution
7. Cultural disorientation
8. Disconnected fatalism
Paul Gilroy argued for a streak of ‘postcolonial melancholia’ in the British heart. This is a chronic pain as yet unresolved about the loss of Empire which manifests itself in the constant invocation of Churchill, Spitfires, Standing Firm against the Nazis – a trope more recently invoked by Aaron Banks who tweeted “We didn’t win two world wars to be pushed around by a Kraut”. Gilroy argues:
“The distinctive mix of revisionist history and moral superiority offers pleasures and distractions that defer a reckoning with contemporary multi culture and postpone the inevitable issue of imperial reparation.”
Fintan O’Toole argues that England is a nation at each other’s throats, citing the ugly rise of English nationalism as expressed in the YouGov poll below. Antecedents for the growing rift include:
- Regional disparities in opportunity, wealth and income.
- A generational divide.
- The erosion of the Welfare State and the NHS.
- Tory-led Austerity ripping up the social fabric.
- The Sensationally Rich being sensationally stupid.
- Bullingdon club bully boys running the country.
- The constant stoking of fears about immigration by the national press and many politicians.
O’Toole argues “Brexit is much less about Britain’s relationship with the EU than it is about Britain’s relationship with itself.”
The above is part of the context for a worrying trend easily seen on social media, on the front pages of papers like the Sun, and expressed in political discourse and in pubs across the land. It is not confined to Britain, as other European countries are also experiencing this dangerous trend.
I would suggest that all of these can feed right-wing values that propose to solve these issues through the lens of national myths and a strong leader who can lead us back to the promised land.
Some have not forgotten a fascist history, they invoke it as part of a glorious past to be resurrected as they wallow in ‘post-colonial melancholia’. While they still remain a minority, they need watching. More worrying is that ordinary folk, who perhaps once were quietly conservative, may well be thinking about more authoritarian responses to current events such as Brexit and immigration. Geert Wilders, Nigel Farage and Marine Le Pen may fail to win majority popular support, but it may be the case that they inflame once relatively docile conservatives into becoming proto-fascists.
The Conservative drift towards the ‘Far Right’ of authoritarianism, nationalism and proto-fascism?
What and who are the Far Right? What are the characteristics and cultural ideas that inform those of an authoritarian bent? What belief systems and values can easily lead to the metaphorical wearing of black shirts and actual hate speech aimed at gays, women, refugees and immigrants? Four writers, George Orwell, Theodore Adorno, Umberto Eco and George Lakoff, provide clues that illuminate the process. And in a following piece, I shall return to them. I also highly recommend the work of David Livingstone-Smith on ‘Dehumanisation’.
Before I outline further values and attitudes that help to identify the authoritarianism, nationalism and proto-fascism, a short note on the scale of the issue and on why ordinary conservatives provide good ground for the development of nationalism, authoritarianism and proto-fascism. The all-encompassing term ‘far-right’ might include the characteristics of the three terms, but I’ll leave detailed discussion of defining the concepts to others.
It is my assertion that many a conservative could easily be swayed by more dangerous extrapolations of some of their core values. Their moral foundations of ‘Loyalty, Sanctity, Authority and Liberty’, that the conservative religious/traditionalist and ‘strict father’ metaphor can support the development of support for a Dear Leader, Mein Fuhrer, or an Il Duce.
Witness the support for Boris Johnson who just repeats ‘Get Brexit Done’ as if that is a policy. This support is based on the liking for someone who ‘gets on with it’ and gets the ‘job done’ even if that means ignoring convention, law, precedent or even democratic support. ’Strong man’ politics plays its cards – it fires public servants, calls the judiciary traitors, they say they are willing to break the law in support of ‘the people’ against an establishment elite and of course delight in using sexist, racist language as evidence of ‘straight-talking’.
A recent survey for the Hansard Society suggested that 54 per cent of people agree that ‘Britain needs a strong leader willing to break the rules’ just 23 per cent disagreed!
A Poll in September 2019 asked ‘What should Boris Johnson do if parliament voted to legally require him to go to the EU to ask for an extension?’
28% supported breaking the law.
50% did not support breaking the law.
22% did not know.
Should we be relieved that 50% did not support lawbreaking by the PM, or should we be alarmed at 28% did, plus another 22% ‘did not know’? There was no breakdown of party affiliations to these numbers but we do know that ordinary Tory members overwhelmingly support Johnson. It is probably a safe bet that many of that 28 % would be Tories. However, Labour Leave supporters are probably in that group as well.
What is the Far Right?
As for the broad term ‘far-right’, this can refer to:
- The active reduction of safeguards for minority groups; manifest as opposition to things such as ‘hate speech’ and ‘political correctness’. Anti-gay, anti-feminist and anti-foreigners (migrants/asylum seekers/refugees).
- National identity and citizenship rooted not in civic based rights and obligations, but in ethnicity.
- Mistrust of political pluralism and faith in the one true party or leader.
- The identification of clearly defined enemies to define citizens as (usually) ethnically white native populations whose position is privileged, protected and defended. The Daily Mail’s use of ‘Enemies of the people’ to describe Judges is a thus a far-right trope.
If you wish to see these views in print, I suggest you read the Mail, Sun, Express and to lesser extent the Times and Telegraph. Look at sites such as Breitbart and Fox News in the United States.
Sophie Gaston (2017) writing on ‘far-right’ extremism provides a hint at the scale of support:
“Demos’ research into far-right activities on Facebook identified scores of dedicated pages across four European countries (UK, France, Italy, Hungary), with hundreds of thousands of posts in just one two-month period, contributed by tens of thousands of unique users. Furthermore, Demos’ social media analysis following terror attacks across Europe and during major political campaigns, including the European Referendum in Britain, demonstrated a clear spike in online hate speech on a staggering scale, directly linked to these events – suggesting the internet has created a new ‘safe space’ for expressions of violence and discrimination otherwise unseen in ‘offline’ behaviour”.
Martha Gill writes that any new party that rises to end the Brexit mess will be a far-right, worse than UKIP, one:
“…according to a YouGov/Times poll, the appetite in this country is not for a Lib Dem-friendly, centrist party, but a hard-right party of Brexit – something that appealed to 38% of those asked. Even more striking, perhaps, was the 24% who would like to see a far-right, explicitly anti-immigrant and anti-Islam party”.
In 2018, the head of the Met police’s Counter-Terrorism Unit warned that the UK has not woken up to the problem of fascist groups such as ‘National Action’. Yet, a focus on the obvious and extreme neo-Nazis distracts from a deeper undercurrent of values that can lead us towards it and allows us to distance ourselves from thinking that we, ‘The British’ could ever fall prey to it. It also allows us to think fascism infects a tiny minority.
I here argue that this would be a mistake to think it cannot fester and bred in otherwise seemingly moderate hearts. I offer, in the next segment, just one reason why this may be so.